ROME – Yesterday US President Joe Biden marked his 100th day in office with an address to a joint session of Congress, amid a flurry of analysis and stock-taking occasioned by the milestone made mythical by FDR.
Meanwhile here in Italy, the country’s new Prime Minister, Mario Draghi, will reach his own 100-day mark in just over two weeks, and already the chattering classes here too are offering assessments and report cards of his performance.
For the record, the comparison isn’t entirely apples-and-oranges. A recent Huffington Post analysis described Draghi, who saved Europe once before as head of its Central Bank during the 2008 economic crisis, as Europe’s new “top player,” supplanting Angela Merkel of Germany, preparing to stand down in September, as the de facto leader of the European coalition. Thus we’re talking about, arguably, the two most decisive figures right now in the Atlantic alliance.
In both cases, the torrent of commentary features abundant contributions from Catholic voices. The dynamics are strikingly similar, in that both in the States and in Italy, partisan politics seem to condition Catholic reaction to a significant degree.
Here’s the main difference: In America, Catholic reaction to Biden inevitably begins and ends with abortion; in Italy, not only is abortion not prominent, for all intents and purposes it’s invisible.
Indeed, not only do most Italian Catholics spend little time arguing over Draghi’s stance on abortion, I’d venture to say most don’t even know if the 73-year-old Prime Minister has one.
Of course, it’s hardly a novel observation that Catholic culture on the two sides of the Atlantic is highly distinct vis-à-vis abortion and the pro-life cause. In American Catholicism, abortion is the political litmus test of Catholic fidelity par excellence. As Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles put it in the statement he released for Biden’s inauguration, abortion for the US bishops is the “preeminent priority” (though stressing that “preeminent” doesn’t mean “only”).
Right now, reports suggest the Committee on Doctrine of the US bishops is preparing a document calling on Biden and other pro-choice Catholic politicians not to present themselves for communion when they attend Mass.
In Western European Catholicism, such a hardline approach never has prevailed. Even among the most conservative European prelates and pundits, other issues serve as stronger markers of traditional Catholic values, especially immigration and the preservation of the Christian roots of the continent. (Poland is an outlier in this regard, an EU member nation locked in ferocious abortion debates, but then Poland is distinct from Western Europe in many senses.)
Though the dynamic may be familiar, Biden and Draghi’s 100-day marks nevertheless capture the rather neat irony that while bishops in America continue to challenge an apparently observant Catholic president over abortion, Church leadership in the pope’s own backyard is basically mum regarding the abortion policies, or lack thereof, of this country’s equally observant Catholic prime minister.
Why is that?
For one thing, there’s basically no presenting instance here in Italy. There was no Mexico City policy for Draghi to either uphold or rescind, no question about whether insurance plans should cover abortions, and no political move with broad support to either expand or restrict abortion rights to which a prime minister would be compelled to respond.
It’s revealing that when Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti of Perugia, president of the Italian bishops’ conference, released his statement for Draghi’s swearing-in in February, the word “abortion” never even appeared.
It’s not that the Italian bishops aren’t pro-life – one week before Draghi took over, they issued a statement to mark the “National Day for Life,” an observance that dates back to 1978 when abortion became legal here, insisting that a proper understanding of freedom doesn’t include abortion and euthanasia.
It’s just that in 1981, Italians voted on two highly contentious referenda on abortion – one seeking to ban it entirely, the other to eliminate any restrictions. Both lost overwhelmingly, and, ever since, abortion has been considered a basically settled question.
Beyond those details, there’s also a basic cultural difference at work. In general, Italians don’t get as worked up about law as Americans, because they don’t assume that laws necessarily describe what everybody has to do all the time. They see laws as guidelines, descriptions of a social ideal, which may or may not apply in a given set of circumstances, and they assume that a degree of flexibility is (or, at least, ought to be) built into the system.
As a result, Americans greet proposals to adopt or to repeal laws with a frenzy; Italians are more inclined to offer a shrug. They tend to focus more on concrete actions, not legislation.
Whatever the explanation, the contrast is striking, and can lead to mutual incomprehension. Some American Catholics assume the European soft touch is the result of accommodation to secularism and a weakened sense of Catholic identity; some European Catholics see American Catholic rigor as the product of a Puritanical and Calvinist culture, one which thinks in black-and-white rather than complex shades of gray.
Further, activists on both sides of the Catholic debate exploit the difference. Progressive Catholics in the States often appeal to Europe to make American prelates seem myopic or simplistic, while culturally conservative Catholics in Europe cite the States to make their own leaders look feckless or cowardly. Both are unfair caricatures, but they persist nonetheless.
I’m not sure what to do about any of this … maybe it’s just a culturally determined fact of life, like the difference between Italian food in America and what we eat here. (Hint: “Spaghetti and meatballs” is not, and never has been, an Italian dish. It originated with Italian-American immigrants to the States, while here it’s considered mostly a dish for kids, like SpaghettiOs, not something you’d ever serve to adults.)
But as I sift through the contrasting reactions to new leadership in two nations where Catholicism has a significant footprint, both of which I consider home, it’s hard not to wish we could at least stage a respectful conversation about it. Perhaps, as the ancients would say, virtue in this case lies somewhere in the middle.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.