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ROME – You know you’re having a good week when one international publication designates the nation you lead as “country of the year,” and another runs an editorial calling on you to be made president instead of prime minister to ensure you’re around as long as possible.
Such have been the last few days for Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, or “Super Mario” as he’s called here in homage to the classic video game. Draghi’s success in reviving the moribund Italian economy, which is now growing faster than France and Germany, his strong hand in managing the coronavirus pandemic, and his ability to restore a sense of seriousness and credibility about Italy on the international stage, all contributed to the Economist picking il bel paese as its country of 2021.
Just a few days later, the Financial Times carried an editorial by Bill Emmott, former editor of the Economist, arguing that while the very best thing for Italy would be for Draghi to serve out his full term a Prime Minister until 2023, the inherently unstable nature of Italian politics makes that unlikely.
The next best thing, according to Emmott, would be for Draghi to be made Italy’s President, a quasi-ceremonial role that will become vacant on Jan. 31 when incumbent Sergio Mattarella completes his seven-year term. Mattarella recently made his farewell visit to Pope Francis on Dec. 16.
Yes, Emmott concedes, Draghi would be less able to decide the details of policy as the country’s head of state, as opposed to head of government, but his presidency would ensure a broad continuity with the direction he’s set. (Unlike Italian Prime Ministers, who come and go with the changing of the wind, presidents actually stick around for all seven years of their prescribed constitutional term.)
In the event of a radical departure from Draghi’s blueprint, the Italian president does have the powers to dissolve parliament, designate prime ministers, and approve cabinets, all of which Draghi could wield to get things back on track.
We’ll see whether that logic means much to the Italian politicos who will make the decision about Mattarella’s successor – or, for that matter, to Draghi himself, who’s repeatedly shrugged off any talk about moving into the president’s palace.
In the meantime, what’s especially interesting about this transition is the role Pope Francis is playing – or, to be precise, the role he’s not playing.
Since the era of Pope Pius XI and the resolution of the famous “Roman Question” with the 1929 Lateran Pacts, Italy and the Vatican theoretically have been two separate sovereign states, each of which respects the autonomy of the other. Also ever since, each has taken a lively if discrete interest in the internal vicissitudes of the other, and Popes and Princes of the Church always found ways to make their preferences known.
During the John Paul II and early Benedict XVI years, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the Vicar of Rome and President of the Italian Bishop’s Conference, wielded enormous influence on the Italian political scene.
Ruini was such a political animal that in 2005, he led a national campaign to defeat referenda that would have liberalized Italian fertility laws, including expanded access to embryos for research and allowing IVF treatments with donated eggs or sperm. Under Italian election procedures, it doesn’t matter which side wins if an insufficient number of voters don’t turn out, so Ruini called for a boycott.
As commentators pointed out, that Sunday about 12 million Italians went to Mass but only 6 million showed up to vote, well below the required threshold of 50 percent. Ruini was widely seen as the big winner, confirming a popular belief here that nothing moves in Italian politics without the church getting involved.
Like so many other bits of Vatican conventional wisdom, however, that perception has been turned on its head under Pope Francis.
Ecclesiastically, Francis has proven quite a hands-on Primate of Italy, even if he’s played down the title. Recently he even appointed his own personal team to oversee annulment reform in Italy, having apparently lost patience with the rate at which the Italian church is implementing his 2015 directives.
Yet when it comes to Italian politics, Francis for the most part has played the part of the dog who doesn’t bark, engaging the national political scene only when there’s a direct ecclesiastical connection.
For example, Pope Francis has been a major supporter of government efforts around the world to contain the COVID-19 virus – yesterday, the Vatican Press Office even released an unsolicited communique to journalists reminding us that Francis has defined getting vaccinated as “an act of love.” So, when the Italian bishops appeared ready in April 2020 to challenge restrictions on public worship imposed by former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Francis backed them down, publicly calling for “obedience” to public health measures imposed by the state.
Yet when Conte’s government was in crisis just a few months later in early 2021 and many observers expected Francis and his team to lend behind-the-scenes support, it never materialized. Instead, the Vatican sat out the dynamics that eventually led to Draghi’s selection.
This time too, there are no signs at all that the Vatican wants to be a player in the post-Mattarella sweepstakes, even with the prospect that one of the candidates could be former conservative Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi – he of the sordid “bunga bunga” scandals, and also a brand of neo-con politics Francis generally doesn’t like.
Francis’s laissez-faire stance with regard to civil politics probably helps his image among regular Italians, who accuse him of ingerenza, or “interference,” far less often than his immediate predecessors. It may also be part of a conscious strategy about sequence – before he’ll encourage Italian church to start throwing its political weight around, he first wants to be sure it’s got the proper set of internal priorities.
Whatever the case, it will go down as one of the grand ironies that this eminently political pontiff, in so many ways, nevertheless has been most conspicuous by his absence in the political affairs of his own Italian backyard.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr