ROME – For Americans, tomorrow is Inauguration Day. Political change is in the air here in Italy too, though not quite in the same way – once again an Italian government may be about to fall, for the 67th time since the dawn of the Italian Republic in 1946 and a staggering 17th time since 1994 alone.
(Bringing governments down is basically Italy’s favorite indoor sport. Since ’94, the average length of time an Italian government has endured is 617 days, meaning about a year and eight months. Only two Prime Ministers since 1948 have served their full five-year terms, and both had to quit and then form a new coalition at least once.)
And, once again, without even saying anything out loud or doing anything overt, the Vatican is a player in the unfolding drama.
Triggering the current crisis is former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who has since bolted from the main center-left party here, the Democrats, to form his own Italia Viva (“Italy Alive”) party. Although it’s small, it has enough members in Italy’s two houses of parliament to threaten Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s majority.
Ostensibly, Renzi pulled out over a dispute regarding Covid-19 recovery plans. Conte has balked at fully utilizing funds offered by the EU on the grounds that they’re loans, and Italy’s relatively high debt burden would make repayment obligations unsustainable, while Renzi believes the country needs all the help it can get.
Moreover, Conte’s opponents accuse him of what’s known here as trasformismo, roughly what Americans would call “shifting with the wind.” He came to power in a deal with the far-right populist Lega party, but now governs with the support of the main center-left coalition. At the beginning, Conte appeared friendly to US President Donald Trump, who praised him for doing a “fantastic job” in 2019; yesterday, during a speech to the Italian parliament, Conte described a “long and friendly” phone call he’d just had with Joe Biden and declared, “The Biden agenda is our agenda.”
For critics, that’s chicanery and hypocrisy; for supporters, it’s precisely Conte’s lack of a fixed ideological identity that makes him nimble and able to tackle problems without the usual political prejudices.
Last night, Conte prevailed in a vote of no confidence in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, and in fact collected a handful more votes than anticipated. Today, however, he faces a less certain outcome in the Italian Senate. Even if he is able to scrape by, it’s not clear he’ll have the numbers to govern effectively.
Here’s how the Vatican enters the picture.
Conte long has enjoyed a strong relationship with the Church. He’s an alumnus of the Villa Nazareth, a residence for college students in Rome originally founded in 1946 by Cardinal Domenico Tardini, the Vatican’s Secretary of State under St. John XXIII, as a home for war orphans. It evolved into a breeding ground for the best minds in socially conscious Italian Catholicism, and counts among its veterans, either as students or teachers, figures such as former Prime Minister Romano Prodi; the founder of the left-leaning newspaper La Repubblica, Eugenio Scalfari (today famous for his conversations with Pope Francis); and Italy’s current president, Sergio Matterella.
While Conte was attending the Villa Nazareth, one of his teachers was a young monsignor named Pietro Parolin, who, today, is the Vatican’s Cardinal Secretary of State.
Conte comes from a devoted Catholic family, and one of his uncles, Fedele, was a Capuchin friar and aide to Padre Pio at the famed shrine of San Giovanni Rotondo. Conte hails from the same small town in Puglia in southern Italy as Maria Gargani, known in religious life as Maria Crocifissa del Divino Amore, who’s considered the first “spiritual daughter” of Padre Pio and who was beatified in 2018 (coincidentally, it was in June 2018, the same month Conte first became Prime Minister.)
At key moments, Francis and the Vatican have given Conte important support, most prominently in April when it seemed as if the Italian bishops were ready for a church/state showdown over coronavirus-related restrictions on public worship. The pontiff stopped that move in its tracks by using his livestreamed daily Mass to call for “obedience” to government measures for public health, effectively sparing Conte a fight he didn’t need.
Just days later, Conte and the Italian bishops cut a quiet deal, and public celebration of the Mass hasn’t been called into question since.
Now, it would seem, the Church may also be a key ingredient in Conte’s long-term recipe for survival.
Politically speaking, Conte’s main problem seems to be that he’s a moderate without a natural base of his own, not conservative enough to please the base on the Italian right but insufficiently liberal for the activist left. Many observers believe his ultimate aim is to stitch together a new de facto coalition of the center (whether or not it ever crystallizes into a party), peeling off fellow moderates on both sides, with two defining characteristics: Conte’s coalition would be pro-EU, thus not nationalist or isolationist, and it would be “Catholic,” understood here to mean inspired by Catholic social teaching and respectful of the Church’s moral tradition.
It’s broadly assumed in the Italian media that the project has the Vatican’s blessing, and no one has done anything to disabuse that notion. (However, the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic movement close to the pope, was forced to issue a statement denying that it’s trying to influence politicians to back Conte. Whatever the reality, the mere fact people made the assumption is telling.)
Consider what’s at stake for Pope Francis.
Should Conte succeed, even in part, the pontiff can look forward to a reasonably reliable ally calling the shots across town. If Conte falls, the most likely outcome would be new elections, which could see a return to power of Matteo Salvini, leader of the Lega and a consistent thorn in the side to the Francis papacy. Having endured the Trump years in Washington, the pope could see the same basic agenda running the show in his own backyard, with all the tension and drama that would imply.
Conte is scheduled to address the Italian Senate this morning at 9:30 a.m. Rome time, and the vote is expected later in the day, with results anticipated for around 8:30 p.m.
Though Pope Francis famously insists he doesn’t watch television, it’s possible he may make an exception tonight – because, though not nearly as much as Conte himself, Francis too may feel like he’s got some skin in this game.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.