Don’t do as the Romans do
THE Vatican, as of tomorrow, will temporarily be popeless. As for the rest of Italy, initial results and projections from this week’s elections point to consequences that could be designated as hopeless.
A conclave of cardinals, meeting in the Sistine Chapel, will sooner or later pick a new pontiff. Just before his exit, the incumbent changed the law whereby the electoral college could not be convened before a fortnight had passed — allowing for a mourning period, given that for the past six centuries the norm has been for a pope to breathe his last before the need for a successor arose.
Benedict XVI chose to break with that tradition, ostensibly on account of increasing physical and intellectual infirmities. Commentators suggested that his unexpected decision was based partly on the experience of witnessing the embarrassing decline of his predecessor.
A likelier explanation came last week in La Repubblica, which reported that the decision to resign was taken on Dec 17 last year, the day the pope received a dossier containing the report of an internal inquiry into the so-called Vatileaks episode, sparked by his butler’s decision to leak pilfered papal documents relating to the sordid goings-on within the Vatican.
That corroborates an earlier report that the former archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, knew before Christmas of the pope’s impending resignation.
La Repubblica claimed that the three cardinals entrusted with the investigation described various factions within the portals of Catholic power, and noted that in one case the members were “united by sexual orientation” and subject to “external influence”. The paper interpreted this as a reference to a band of gay prelates who faced blackmail.
Papal spokesmen initially refused to comment on the allegations, although the Vatican eventually issued a statement deploring “a widespread distribution of often unverified, unverifiable or completely false news stories that cause serious damage to persons and institutions” — which falls short of an explicit denial.
For many years now the Catholic church has been beset by allegations of institutionalised child abuse followed by an institutionalised cover-up, and the so-called flocks of a number of the cardinals heading for Rome — not least from the US and Ireland — have strenuously objected to their participation in the conclave.
The latest blow to its reputation came with the resignation of Keith O’Brien, the archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, following the revelation that three priests and an ex-priest had accused him of “inappropriate behaviour” towards them back in the 1980s, especially after night prayers.
O’Brien, named last year as “bigot of the year” by the gay charity Stonewall in reference to his vociferous opposition to equal rights for homosexuals, had said last week that Catholic priests should be allowed to marry if they so wished, as many of them had “found it very difficult to cope with celibacy”.
That kind of squares with an opinion expressed by the outsider in the secular Italian election, Beppe Grillo, who opined during the campaign that priests should be permitted to have children “so they don’t touch other people’s”.
Partly because of Grillo, the task of choosing Italy’s next prime minister could prove far more onerous than that of picking the next pope. Although Grillo was not himself a candidate owing to a manslaughter conviction related to a road accident, his anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) was projected to emerge as the single largest party following the balloting on Sunday and Monday.
The professional comedian, through a series of public speaking engagements designated the “tsunami tour”, was able to harness the support of the disaffected and the disillusioned by mocking the political circus that has become the bane of Italian political life.
However, the M5S couldn’t seriously hope to outpoll the alliances led by Pier Luigi Bersani’s Democratic Party (PD) and Silvio Berlusconi’s Freedom People (PdL), projected to emerge as the largest groupings, respectively, in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate.
The two chambers of the Italian parliament share equal powers, and whereas the largest conglomeration in the Chamber gets bonus seats to make up a clear majority if it lacks one, that rule doesn’t apply to the Senate. It was assumed that Bersani would be able to form a coalition with the forces represented by outgoing prime minister Mario Monti, but the latter’s extremely poor showing makes that unlikely.
Monti, as The New York Times’ Paul Krugman noted in his column this week, was “the proconsul installed by Germany to enforce fiscal austerity on an already ailing economy” in 2011, and it is hardly surprising that his policies entailed his relegation to a distant fourth place in the polls.
Hailed by fellow bankers as “Super Mario”, Monti failed to make much of an impression on most of his fellow Italians within a European context where neoliberal measures to “rescue” failing economies have also proved remarkably unpopular in countries such as Greece, Spain and Portugal.
Monti had vowed he wouldn’t seek election if he completed his term — which he was unable to do after losing Berlusconi’s support last year. The bane of Italian politics for the past two decades, Berlusconi also went back on a vow to stay out of the fray. The vain, sexist, corrupt and altogether odious, Mussolini-praising politician, beset by scandals he customarily dismisses with an offensive joke, chose to have another go. The real tragedy, of course, is that Italian voters, who had the option of dispensing with his self-serving “services” once and for all, chose not to do so.
They may soon get another chance. Italy hasn’t enjoyed stability since the CIA, in its anti-communist zeal, manipulated the first postwar election result in the 1940s. That appears unlikely to change in the short term.
Italian voters this week could have been forgiven for humming the 1970s hit by Stealers Wheel that went: “Clowns to the left of me/Jokers to the right, here I am,/Stuck in the middle with you.” It could take a while, though, to find out who the “you” is — and perhaps the same goes for the Vatican.