Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi Sept. 7 described his government’s relations with the Church as “excellent,” but that’s certainly not how they seemed for much of the summer.

His ruling center-right coalition and the Vatican have frequently come to blows over the past six months, fueled by disagreements over some of Berlusconi’s policies and anger about sordid allegations concerning the Italian premier’s private life.

The main issue over which the Church and the Italian government crossed swords was immigration. The government had been applying strict rules on admitting and keeping out illegal immigrants, but when 70 Eritreans lost their lives trying to reach Italy in a boat in August, the Vatican was the first to speak out.

Archbishop Antonio Maria Veglio, president of the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers, expressed sorrow over their deaths and implicitly criticized the government. Tough exchanges between the Berlusconi government and the Vatican continued for a number of weeks over the issue of migrants, but the Holy See was measured in its criticisms.

By contrast, the editor of the Italian bishops’ conference newspaper Avvenire, Dino Boffo, went further, writing in an editorial that the government’s lack of concern for the plight of African immigrants was comparable to public indifference to the Holocaust in Nazi Germany.

But this wasn’t the first time Boffo had taken the ruling government to task; he had also been critical of Berlusconi’s alleged infidelities in his private life.

In April, Berlusconi, 73, attended the 18th birthday party of Noemi Letizia, a lingerie model, to whom he gave a gold and diamond necklace. Berlusconi’s wife, Veronica Lario, lashed out at him through the media and accused him of having improper relations with a minor. She also filed for divorce.

Since then, the media tycoon has been accused of indiscretions with women — allegations Berlusconi has referred to cryptically.

“Italy has a lot of beautiful girls,” he said in response to the accusations, “and I’m no saint.”

But Boffo, 57, reacted by using the pages of Avvenire to call for a new leader, someone “with restraint” who is “able to be the mirror of his country’s soul.”

He wrote: “Have people been able to identify the Church’s reservations? It seems to me that ... people have understood the unease, the mortification, the suffering that such an arrogant abandonment of a sober [i.e. moderate or simple] style has caused us.”

The editor also accused Berlusconi of “embarrassing much of the country.”

Usually, Avvenire and L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, prefer to keep silent on such matters, mainly to avoid becoming embroiled in Italian political games.

L’Osservatore Romano has maintained that distance; however, growing unease and anger in the Italian Church spilled over into the pages of Avvenire.

In addition to Boffo’s attacks, the newspaper at the end of June published two opinion pieces, one of which excoriated the reported example set by Berlusconi.

In late August, matters came to a head when the Italian daily Il Giornale, owned by Berlusconi’s brother Paolo, published a front-page attack on Boffo.

Il Giornale’s editor, Vittorio Feltri, ran a story that claimed that Boffo had been found by an Italian court in 2002 to have harassed a woman after having a homosexual relationship with the woman’s husband.


False, Anonymous Allegations

The attack angered Church leaders: Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, president of the Italian bishops’ conference, called Il Giornale’s article “disgusting,” and Italy’s other bishops rallied to Boffo’s defense, saying the court case was based on false and anonymous allegations.

On Sept. 1, at the height of the dispute, Pope Benedict XVI telephoned Cardinal Bagnasco as a sign of his solidarity with Italy’s Church leaders. According to the bishops’ conference, the Holy Father “asked for news and an evaluation of the current situation.”

Berlusconi claimed to have no involvement in the newspaper’s attack.

However, Il Giornale maintained its campaign, essentially accusing the bishops and Boffo of lying. On Sept. 3 Boffo resigned for the sake of the newspaper, and because he said the “defamatory” attacks by Feltri had “violated my life” and amounted to “a desire to desecrate which I could not have imagined existed.”

The day after his resignation, Avvenire issued a detailed 10-point rebuttal of the allegations in which Boffo admitted being fined in a harassment case, but denied suggestions of a homosexual relationship.

The events caused serious concern at the Vatican. Officials fully backed Avvenire’s editor, and Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the secretary of state, personally called Boffo to express his support. The cardinal had earlier canceled a Sept. 1 dinner engagement with Berlusconi after hearing about the attack by Il Giornale, and a planned meeting between the Pope and Berlusconi was also shelved.

Speaking to journalists Sept. 15, Cardinal Angelo Scola, the patriarch of Venice, who has known Boffo for 30 years, said the former editor was “experiencing a humiliation that comes from an injustice.”

The disputes between the Berlusconi government and the Church are said to have weakened Catholic support for the ruling center-right coalition, despite traditional bedrock support thanks to Berlusconi’s backing of pro-life causes and public funding for private schools.

On Sept. 6, Catholic politicians, led by Rocco Buttiglione, president of the Christian Democratic UDC party, announced they would try to form a new center-right party supported by the Church establishment. The new “centrist political force” is to be discussed this month.

Buttiglione said Catholics were at odds with Berlusconi not just because of allegations surrounding his private life, but because of his policies on immigration, his failure to help the poor and his attempt to silence the press and stop the Church “making moral judgments.”

Speaking in July before the Boffo incident, Buttiglione expressed his belief that those in government should set a moral example.

“Around Berlusconi there is too much money, too many women — or, rather, too much exposed feminine flesh — and that is not good for the country,” he said. “This is the moral side of the question, and it is a significant side.”

Edward Pentin writes

from Rome.