ROME – With the death of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on Monday at the age of 86, not only has Italy lost a titan of its political and social life, but the Catholic Church has also lost a towering ally, foil and lightning rod.
Thirty years before the rise of Donald Trump in the United States, with whom he was sometimes compared, the flamboyant Berlusconi, himself a tycoon-turned-politician, posed a dilemma for the Catholic conscience that has only become more acute over time – to wit, whether policy positions or personal integrity are more important in the evaluation of a leader.
In other words, when a politician defends Catholic values in public but sometimes appears to flout them in private, is that a tradeoff worth making?
Born in a suburb of Milan in 1936, the young Berlusconi attended the Salesian-run Istituto Sant’Ambrogio from 1947 to 1955, and for the rest of his life would speak with pride about his Salesian formation. Just a month ago, when Berlusconi returned home after a long hospitalization, an association of Salesian alumni in Italy sent him a congratulatory note with a famous phrase of St. John Bosco: “Youth is a condition of the spirit.”
Later on, Berlusconi would become close to another Catholic group with a strong presence in Milan, the Communion and Liberation movement founded by Father Luigi Giussani and long considered a sort of conservative alternative to the liberal leadership of the archdiocese under the late Jesuit Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini.
In turn, Communion and Liberation often saw Berlusconi as a friend. When it was once suggested that Italy needed a more “sober” leader, Archbishop Luigi Negri of Ferrara-Comacchio, a former aide to Giussani, quipped, “History is full of extremely sober totalitarianism.”
Throughout his life, Berlusconi would always describe himself as a “convinced Catholic” and saw himself as heir to Italy’s old Christian Democratic party, with the historical mission to save the country from Communism and the radical left. He was nicknamed Il Cavaliere, “the Knight,” and in many ways he was a crusader, waging holy wars and positioning himself as a paladin of Italy’s traditional Catholic identity.
From a policy point of view, Berlusconi was generally a reliable supporter of Catholic institutions and moral positions. He backed public funding for Catholic schools and universities, and he also upheld restrictive legislation on hot-button social issues such as same-sex marriage, euthanasia and in-vitro fertilization.
During the late Pope John Paul II years, there was a close relationship between the Berlusconi administration and the Italian bishops’ conference under the powerful Cardinal Camillo Ruini, who was also John Paul’s Vicar for Rome. On Monday Ruini paid tribute to Berlusconi, saying he had the “great merit” of “having prevented the ex-communist party from taking power in 1994,” and calling himself one of Berlusconi’s friends.
Similarly, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, another stalwart of the John Paul II years, said yesterday that Berlusconi was someone “who helped Italy a great deal.”
Yet there was always a degree of distaste for Berlusconi in establishment Catholic circles, in part for his populist and borderline demagogic oratory, which some found far too coarse for a would-be heir to De Gasperi and the other founders of the Italian republic. His electoral coalition included both the heirs to Italian fascism as well as the far-right, anti-immigrant Northern League, both of which were often viewed with some disdain by traditionally centrist Vatican diplomats.
It was Berlusconi’s private life, however, which generated the biggest Catholic headaches.
This was a public figure, after all, who was twice-divorced and had three children out of wedlock while separated from his first wife. He was also accused of flouting Catholic morality in multiple other ways, including his infamous “bunga bunga” sex parties and his dubious relationship with a Moroccan stripper dubbed “Ruby the Heartstealer,” who was underage at the time. (Berlusconi was convicted in 2013 of promoting juvenile prostitution, but was later acquitted on appeal.)
His tenuous claim to good Catholic standing came to a head periodically. In 2010, for instance, Berlusconi took communion publicly at the funeral of Italian film and TV personality Raimondo Vianello, generating intense controversy in Catholic circles since, at the time, he was separated from his second wife, who’d filed for divorce saying she could no longer tolerate his “infatuation” with younger women.
The rupture between Berlusconi and some elements of the church burst into public view in 2009, when the newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, then edited by veteran Catholic journalist Dino Boffo, carried a series of editorials suggesting that the Prime Minister was setting a poor moral example for the country.
In response, a Berlusconi-owned newspaper published what it claimed were portions of a police document indicating that Boffo was a “known homosexual” who had been investigated in 2001-2002 for allegedly harassing a woman in Terni because he wanted to carry on an affair with her husband. The document, which included the particular that Boffo had been fined $800 for the alleged offense, was anonymously mailed to every bishop in Italy.
In the end it turned out the document was a fake, but Boffo was still compelled to resign amid the scandal. The incident generated a new bit of political verbiage in Italy, il Metodo Boffo, to describe using the press to spread false accusations against political opponents, with the aim being to create enough noise that they’re forced to withdraw even though the underlying charges are false.
The contretemps also marked something of a chill in the rapport between Berlusconi and the Vatican. In its immediate aftermath, a planned dinner between Berlusconi and Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Secretary of State under Pope Benedict XVI, was scrapped, and in the future Vatican potentates often kept their distance.
To this day, Catholic opinion in Italy, even in the most conservative circles, remains divided about Berlusconi, with some seeing him as a supporter who will be badly missed, and others as a cautionary tale about being careful in choosing one’s friends.
Perhaps that mixed verdict helps explain the cautious language Pope Francis used Monday in his condolence message, restricting himself to calling Berlusconi “a protagonist of Italian political life, who covered public responsibilities with an energetic temper.”
However ambivalent his relationship with the Church may have been, Berlusconi nevertheless will be dispatched to the next life as the “convinced Catholic” he always called himself, with a funeral Mass on Wednesday in Milan’s cathedral presided over by Archbishop Mario Delpini.
One thing virtually everyone can agree on, however, is that whatever one made of Silvio Berlusconi, every facet of Italian life, including Church/state relations, will be just slightly less interesting in his absence.