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ROME – In the abstract, one might think Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, nicknamed “Super Mario” in homage to the classic video game, today should be almost politically invulnerable.
Draghi, 74, has been the strongest European leader on Ukraine, and, in the absence of Germany’s Angela Merkel, is now arguably the most respected leader in the European Union. He’s pushed through an ambitious COVID-19 recovery plan, and given Italy the stability it so often lacks.
A Jesuit-educated centrist and practicing Catholic, Draghi also enjoys the strong, if informal, support of the leadership of Italy’s Catholic Church.
Despite all that, Italian politics has a grand tradition of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, and his government is now on the brink of collapse. As one commentator put it Friday, it appears that once again the “suicidal instincts” of Italian politics are stirring.
Ironically, the architect of the chaos is a former prime minister who, if anything, is even more Catholic than Draghi – Giuseppe Conte, who led Italy during the early stages of the COVID crisis, and who’s a devotee of Padre Pio with a Capuchin uncle who was once an aide to the famed mystic and healer.
As ever, Catholics have a special interest in the Italian situation, since the Vatican remains a quintessentially Italian enterprise and Italian realities wield an outsized influence on shaping the perceptions and instincts of the church’s leadership class.
Though the situation is typically convoluted, here are the essentials.
Draghi, a former president of the European Central Bank, took power as prime minister in February 2021 with the support of a broad coalition including left and right-leaning parties. One important member is the Five Star movement, a leftist populist party now headed by Conte, though in open rivalry with Draghi’s Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio. Behind the scenes, the Five Stars are also heavily influenced by the movement’s founder, a 73-year-old former comic and actor named Beppe Grillo.
The Five Stars have seen their poll numbers drop, and now seem to feel the need to stake out a more progressive profile independent of the current government. Recently, Grillo said that if the movement doesn’t listen to its base, it will be … well, Crux can’t actually translate the profanity that he used, but trust me, it was strong medicine.
On Thursday, the Italian Senate held a vote of confidence in Draghi over a proposed measure to combat soaring energy prices. Led by Conte, the Five Star movement had demanded greater borrowing to help citizens deal with rising costs, and also objected on environmental grounds to a plan to allow Rome to build a massive garbage incinerator to help deal with the city’s notoriously trash-plagued streets.
In the run-up to the vote, Pope Francis’s top deputy, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, appeared to indirectly urge keeping the governing coalition together.
“I believe that in the current scenario, the more a government is stable the better it will be able to respond to the many challenges we face,” Parolin said in response to a reporter’s question during an event at the Italian embassy to the Holy See on Wednesday.
Parolin called for all parties to “work together without dividing themselves.”
In the end, however, Conte directed the movement’s senators to walk out, effectively boycotting the motion of confidence. Draghi got more than enough votes even without them, but in the aftermath of the defection he said his coalition now no longer exists, and, as such, he can’t continue.
Draghi submitted his resignation late Thursday to Italian President Sergio Mattarella, who promptly refused it and directed Draghi to go back to the legislature next Wednesday to see if his majority, or one like it, can be recomposed.
In terms of what happens next, it’s anyone’s guess.
The Five Stars could vote to support Draghi on Wednesday, despite their differences, effectively putting Humpty Dumpty back together again, though no one knows for how long. Or, Draghi could survive without them, but up to this point he’s seemingly made it clear he has no interest in leading a narrow majority without the political heft to push through its program.
Should Draghi step down, Mattarella could appoint a caretaker prime minister to try to lead the country until the 2023 elections, though that person would have to cobble together a majority in parliament. Failing that, Italy may once again have to hold early elections, which appears to be the desire of at least some of the country’s most influential conservatives.
One bit of context: Since Italy became a republic in 1948, it’s had 69 governments, meaning one every 1.11 years. In a sense, this is just the same show, different day.
While we await the next act, two observations from a Catholic angle.
First, it will be interesting to see if, and how, Pope Francis and his team react.
On the one hand, Draghi has solid Catholic credentials and is esteemed by Francis’s inner circle. For sure, no one on Team Francis wants a return to power by Matteo Salvini, the leader of the fiercely anti-immigrant Lega party and the Italian bête noire of this papacy. Should the center-right prevail in snap elections, presumably Salvini would have a role in the new government.
Yet the Five Stars are precisely the sort of progressive populist movement of which Pope Francis approves. In addition, Conte’s position on Ukraine is, in some ways, closer to Francis’s than Draghi’s. Conte has opposed the flow of weapons into the conflict, calling it a “race to rearm,” and warned that more money on defense will mean less for Europe’s “green transition.” He’s called for a negotiated political settlement in Ukraine, one which also takes into account Russia’s interests.
In other words, should Francis choose to take sides, it’s not entirely clear where he might come down.
Second, the unfolding Italian drama also provides food for thought about the lay role in both politics and the church.
Since the Second Vatican Council, boosting the role of laity, including women, has been a consistent theme of Catholic life, and never more so than in the Francis papacy. Those demands have also been enhanced by the clerical sexual abuse scandals, a defining feature of which has been the dangers of clergy making decisions in isolation.
While there are all sorts of reasons why greater inclusion of laity in decision-making in the church is a consummation devoutly to be wished, the current Italian drama offers an important caution.
Almost everyone involved in the current bout of fratricide is a lay Catholic – admittedly with different degrees of faith and practice, but they identify as Catholic and claim the church’s social teaching as inspiration. Yet they’re also at one another’s throats, threatening to thrust the country into chaos despite a broad European war, a worsening economic situation, the continuing menace of COVID, and the fact that even routine acts of governance, such as trash collection and fixing potholes, somehow seem impossible.
Granted, fiddling while Rome burns has a grand historical pedigree, but still.
In other words, if anyone thinks that merely empowering laity will invest the church with greater unity of purpose or clarity of direction, Italy suggests you might want to think again … especially given the fact that under any scenario of lay empowerment one might imagine, Italian laity will enjoy a mammoth home field advantage.