“Italians aren’t becoming fascists, they already are,” said one Roman citizen.

He was only half joking, but like a minority of Italians, uneasy about recent security policies relating to beggars, Gypsies and immigrants.

The government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, which is made up of a number of former fascists, has come under fire for its allegedly heavy-handed treatment of these minorities, leading to criticism from some Vatican officials, human rights organizations and the European Union.

The government’s policies have included plans to fingerprint all of Italy’s 150,000 Gypsies (including all children), to make begging illegal in some regions (including outside some churches), and to clamp down on illegal immigration.

Since August, the government has even ordered soldiers to patrol the streets of major cities to give a heightened sense of security.

Yet, most Italians fully support the government. Berlusconi’s Christian-Democratic government was elected in April on a platform of tighter security, and his personal ratings have soared.

Tired of petty crime among some Gypsies and reports of increasing violent crime perpetrated by foreigners, Italians see the government not only coming to their rescue, but also sorting out problems that the Roma and immigrants themselves face.

“Does living among rats, as Gypsy children do in their camps, respect their rights?” asked Interior Minister Roberto Maroni. “As Italian citizens, we should be ashamed of this situation, which should not be allowed to continue.”

But Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant Peoples, has led Church opposition to the crackdown.

“We cannot make poverty a crime,” he told the Italian daily newspaper La Stampa in June. “We should be giving financial aid to Gypsy parents instead, to encourage them to get educated and to become cultural mediators.”

Vatican officials have also been privately expressing concerns that plans to clamp down on illegal immigrants are promoting xenophobia. Many Italians believe Pope Benedict XVI has made his feelings felt on this issue, albeit indirectly. In his Aug. 17 Angelus address, he called for an end to racism and encouraged hospitality as an “instrument of communion” for every race and culture. The Holy Father observed that many countries, as a result of social and economic problems, are experiencing protests linked to racial discrimination, and he asked the faithful to pray for the building of a “world built on authentic justice and true peace.”

His comments followed heated reaction to an August editorial in the widely respected Catholic magazine Famiglia Cristiana. Citing a report on racism in Italy in the French magazine Esprit, it concluded: “Let’s hope the suspicion is unfounded that fascism is resurfacing in our country under another guise.”

One senior political figure said he would sue the Italian magazine’s editor, while another denounced the publication as the “publicity arm of the Catholic left.”

The irony is that the right is traditionally the closest political ally to the Church, particularly when it comes to family and pro-life issues. Now, however, it is the political left that is leading the cheers for the Church.

While some officials, such as Cardinal Renato Martino of the pontifical councils for justice and peace and migrants, are vocally wary of the government’s policies (he has spoken out strongly against the banning of begging), the general response has been low-key.

Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, head of the Italian bishops’ conference, has held secret talks with Maroni, but he has said little on the matter. Leftist politicians would like the Church to speak out more, as it does on pro-life issues.

The Church considers the details of how to effect a just immigration policy involve a prudential decision. Abortion and same-sex “marriage,” by comparison, are on a different level, involving more black-and-white criteria.

The Sant’Egidio lay community also agrees something must be done with regard to the Gypsies. Since the 1970s it has cared for Italy’s Roma, many of whom come from the former Yugoslavia. However, it opposes the government’s methods.

“In principle, the [government] idea was not bad because closing the makeshift camps where people have no water, no sewerage facilities, no health-care facilities, is something we’ve been calling for all along since we started working with Gypsies,” said Claudio Betti, Sant’Egidio’s chief spokesman. “The problem is that they went a little bit further, and frankly too far, by accepting what can be seen as a way of discriminating against Gypsies because they are different from the rest.”

Betti added that the policy brought back memories of discrimination in Nazi Germany, which is “not something any Christian can accept.”

Sant’Egidio advocates a census rather than fingerprinting, and managed to pressure the government into softening its position slightly.

“When you start defining people according to their religion or racial belonging, then you are on a path where the end isn’t known,” Betti warned. “We do not want to walk that path again. It has happened before in Europe, and we definitely do not want to walk down that path again.”

Moreover, the real problem, he believes, is not the Gypsies or illegal immigrants, but that society is losing a sense of mercy and compassion.

“We live in a society where more and more the poor are judged and not helped, and so the weak are judged and not helped,” he said. “This is the real emergency we have to worry about, and addressing this is the task of all Christians and especially of us Catholics.”

Edward Pentin writes

from Rome.