ROME – Last night, 80-year-old Sergio Mattarella was reelected overwhelmingly as Italy’s President of the Republic, a result that triggered joy both inside parliament and in Italian streets. Mattarella is a widely beloved figure here, perhaps the most popular man in the country, someone who’s demonstrated both keen institutional judgment and also a remarkable ability to capture the national mood.
Mattarella won with 759 out of a possible 1,059 votes, the second most commanding victory for the presidency since Italy became a republic in 1948 following the Second World War.
With Prime Minister Mario Draghi leading arguably Europe’s most robust economic recovery amid the ongoing coronarvirus pandemic, and Mattarella guaranteeing maturity and stability in the presidency, many observers believe Italy could be poised for a strong run over the next few years – assuming, that is, the country’s dysfunctional politics don’t produce a cataclysm of self-destruction in the meantime.
Ironically, Mattarella himself had done almost everything he possibly could to avoid the outcome. Throughout 2021, as the clock wound down towards the end of his first term, he made it clear he had no interest in a second. As recently as December, he appeared to definitively close the door, making a farewell visit to Pope Francis on Dec. 16 and even offering the opinion that a second term for a president was of dubious constitutional validity.
(Although the constitution does not specifically bar a second term, prior to 2013 no president had ever stood for reelection.)
On Saturday night, Mattarella didn’t address the question of whether he plans to remain in office for the full seven years of his second mandate. Some observers here believe it’s possible he’ll be around only until 2023, when the current governing majority has to face national elections, with the idea being that Draghi might then transition to the presidency himself.
None of this has anything directly to do with the Catholic Church, especially since the Vatican, in keeping with Francis’s broad policy of staying out of partisan politics in the country, was largely silent as the maneuvering over the presidency unfolded. Yet there’s also a moral here that could be of relevance to the church whenever it, too, faces the next transition in its own top job.
While Mattarella’s reelection is being greeted as great news for the country, it’s also widely seen as a damning indictment of the country’s politics. For months, the major parties on both left and right bickered over who might take over, at various stages floating creative possibilities for what might come next – the election of Italy’s first woman as President of the Republic, for example, or the selection of a much younger candidate to shake up what’s traditionally been a fairly gerontocratic system.
In the end they weren’t able to agree on anything, and the forecast seemed to call for months of prolonged acrimony and indecision. In that context, Mattarella’s willingness to stick around for a while effectively saved the country from itself.
Much the same could be said of the 74-year-old Draghi, who was dragooned out of semi-retirement in 2021 after the government of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte essentially imploded due to irreconcilable differences in the governing coalition, initially composed of the right-wing Lega party and the center-left populist Five Star movement, with the Lega later pulling out to be replaced by the center-left Democratic Party. In that situation too, the major parties were hopelessly divided and only a sort of savior figure outside the political establishment was able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
None of this, it should be said, is especially new. Of Italy’s staggering total of 59 prime ministers since 1948, an average of one every 18 months, only eight served a full five-year term while 18 logged less than a year before being ousted. Yet there’s a keen sense today that the country’s ideological divisions run deeper than ever, rendering the expressions of those divisions in the form of political parties less capable of compromise and acting in the national interest than perhaps at any point since Italians were actually shooting at one another towards the end of World War II.
Italy, in other words, enjoys strong leadership today almost in spite of, not because of, the health of its democracy.
If there’s a lesson for the Catholic Church, it might be that while Italy’s dumb luck has been impressive, it’s also terribly fragile and probably not really a basis for long-term plans.
At some point, the church will also face a decision about who should lead it next, and it’s not at all clear there’s any greater reason to believe consensus will prevail in Catholicism than in the Italian parliament. At the moment, Catholic opinion appears sharply divided between ardent supporters of Pope Francis and embittered critics, and the level of rancor expressed in both public and private between those two camps is often alarming.
The church can’t help but be influenced by the broader culture, and today the cultural winds don’t usually nudge it in the direction of moderation, patience and a sense of common cause.
Of course, perhaps Catholicism, too, will get lucky, and maybe a beloved figure outside the system can be found to paper over those troubling realities for a while longer. If there’s one thing gamblers everywhere will tell you, however, it’s that luck never holds forever, and the trick to staying afloat is figuring out what to do when the hot streak ends.
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