A lot of the infighting boiled down to a competition to be the church’s point man in dealing with the Italian government. Whereas Bertone was eager to continue supporting then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Bagnasco thought the billionaire’s bunga bunga ways were incompatible with the church and wanted to pull the rug.
Berlusconi’s own eminence grise and honorary gentleman-in-waiting to the pope, Gianni Letta, had to promise church leaders that Berlusconi would not fling his arm over clerics in front of the camera if they agreed to meet with him, according to one Italian official who knows the Vatican well. When, during one meeting, Berlusconi leaned over to whisper something to Bagnasco, the cardinal leaned away, according to the official in attendance. But leaked letters also showed a Berlusconi government minister assuring Vatican Bank officials that the government would not force the church to pay real estate taxes.
“There are nuns who run a hotel downstairs and they don’t pay taxes!” Maurizio Turco, a leader of the Italian Radical Party and past organizer of “No Taliban, No Vatican” protests against the church, said on a recent visit to party headquarters. He believes the two states are unhealthily braided. “You can’t understand if the Vatican is like Italy or if Italy is like the Vatican.”
Not everyone sees such a problem with entanglement.
“Think of all the different dimensions of Italian life that are imbued with the church,” said Cardinal Ennio Antonelli, president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for the Family. “There is the art, the culture, the traditions. Even amid the great trend towards secularization, the pope represents a center of unity in Italy.”
A few minutes after saying goodbye to Benedict on Thursday, Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno carried a black rosary that the pope had given him as a parting gift through St. Peter’s Square.
“He told me we’re close,” said Alemanno, who belongs to Berlusconi’s political party. He argued that the church didn’t intrude on Italian political life but instead, “there are those who want to force the pope and the Vatican to get involved with Italy. It’s more Italian politics that draws them in.”
For a long time, church support was necessary to govern in Italy. But in last week’s election, the church’s preferred candidate, Prime Minister Mario Monti, a faithful Catholic who received warm words in the Vatican’s official newspaper, was trounced. Instead, Berlusconi returned to influence, and a protest party led by a former comic turned rabble-rouser astonished Italy with a quarter of the vote. The result has paralyzed the Italian government and worried the Vatican.
‘It’s going to require Italians’
The potential for an antagonistic government is one of the reasons Vatican officials say Italians have always been necessary.
“As long as the place is rooted in Rome, it’s going to require Italians who can keep good relations with the government,” said one non-Italian official who is otherwise critical of the Italian influence on governance. “You fly into Rome, not the Vatican.”
Many people have by now never known an Italian pope. Two women from Verona who came to one of Benedict’s last appearances had never even really considered the possibility. While Elena Zorzini, 22, said an Italian pope might cause “a stronger link,” she added that regardless of the nationality, “we have him already.” Her friend, Anna Montresor, 30, said she preferred not to go backward. “I don’t want a European,” she said. “I’d rather have a Latin American. They have 200 million Catholics, and the pope should reflect that.”
The next pope may again not be Italian, but the Italian-speaking government he leads likely still will be. Per canon law, Bertone forfeited his post the moment that Benedict ceased to be pope. But some church watchers think that despite the scandals, an Italian, if not Bertone, would probably return to the new pontiff’s side.
In a recent interview, one confidant to many cardinals suggested that Bertone’s replacement could be Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, the prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, or Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, the prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, who, although born in Argentina, has Italian parents and has spent most of his life in Italy. That theory was echoed Saturday on La Stampa’s Vatican Insider Web site, which suggested that cardinals were considering a ticket of a Latin American pope and Italian second in command.
“It’s more important that the pope have clear ideas,” Andrea Tornielli, a prominent Vaticanista with La Stampa said. “If the pope isn’t Italian, the secretary of state should be.”