ROME – Jesus famously taught in parables, and some 62 years ago, an Italian businessman and political leader named Enrico Mattei decided to follow his example, telling a story that he intended as a metaphor for Italy’s experience in the immediate post-war period.
“Twenty years ago, I was a good hunter and I went hunting a lot,” he famously recounted. “I had two dogs, a German shepherd and an Irish setter, and, starting at dawn and finishing at night, up and down the gullies, the dogs would be really tired. When we got back to our country house, the first thing we’d do is give the dogs something to eat, usually a bowl of soup that’d be enough for five.”
“One time I saw a little cat come in, which was thin, hungry and weak,” he said. “It was terribly afraid, and it came close very slowly. It looked at the dogs, meowed, and then put a paw on the edge of the bowl.”
“The German shepherd lashed out at the cat, sending it three or four meters in the air, and its spine was broken,” Mattei said.
“This incident struck me greatly,” he said, coming to the point. “Look, we were the little cat for the first few years.”
The parable was intended to get across that Italy in the immediate post-war period was captive to Anglo-American powers, especially the United States, and that those powers didn’t necessarily have Italy’s best interests at heart.
Mattei, who founded the Italian energy giant ENI, was known above all for insisting that Italy should not be subordinate to American economic and political interests, but that it should chart its own course. He died in an unexplained plane crash in 1962, which, to this day, many Italian leftists believe was engineered by the CIA.
Mattei, who was also a faithful Catholic who insisted that a church be constructed anywhere ENI opened a facility, is relevant now because he’s emblematic of the kind of Western leader whose legacy is being revitalized by the policies of the Francis papacy.
In a recent interview, Pope Francis said that he’s a “stone in the shoe” of unnamed critics because of his opposition to empires. Given that the remark came in the context of Latin America, it seemed an indirect reference to the United States, and serves as a reminder that history’s first pope from the developing world is encouraging currents of opinion across the board, including his own backyard in Italy, who don’t necessarily regard America and Americans as natural allies.
In a Aug. 7 essay, veteran Italian Vatican writer Salvatore Izzo cited Mattei among the figures whose legacy is reaching fruition under Pope Francis.
“From the vote in 1948, Catholic democrats abdicated their independence,” Izzo wrote, referring to the first post-war elections in Italy.
“Better said, they renounced the autonomy of our country from the USA,” Izzo wrote. “That’s the case, even in the decades to follow there were moments in which Rome tried to raise its head from Washington’s yoke: First Mattei, then Moro and Craxi years later, paid the price for their efforts to restore dignity and autonomy to the country.”
Aldo Moro and Bettino Craxi were both Prime Ministers of Italy in the 1970s and 1980s, and both were known for seeking a “third way” between the United States and the Soviet Union, especially over issues such as the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and progressive currents in Latin America.
Mattei had been active in the Italian resistance to fascism during World War II, considered part of the Catholic left at the time, and went on to take over Italy’s oil interests after the war. He became a vocal critic of what he termed the domination of the “seven sisters” of the world oil industry, referring mostly to American companies such as Standard Oil of New Jersey (which became Exon), Standard Oil of New York (Mobil) and Standard Oil of California (Chevron), as well as Texaco, Royal Dutch Shell and British Petrolium.
Mattei negotiated an oil deal with the Soviet Union, and, at the time of his death, was involved in efforts to persuade Iran to break its agreements with the “seven sisters” and negotiate separate contracts with Italy and other states.
He was sufficiently close to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, for example, that Khrushchev once gave Mattei a Russian bear, which he transported to a forest in Italy’s Dolomite mountain region.
Mattei’s basic idea was that Italy required energy independence, which, he felt, would allow it to exercise diplomatic and political independence apart from whatever line the United States and the emerging European Union would adopt.
Today, the obvious application of that principle would be the war in Ukraine. The current center-right Italian government of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has supported the Biden administration’s efforts to arm Ukraine, but many Italian leftists believe that policy violates the spirit of the country’s post-war constitution repudiating war “as a means of settling international disputes.”
Pope Francis’s own ambivalence about the United States obviously comes from his Latin American background. He became the Jesuit provincial in Argentina in 1973, the same year that Salvador Allende died in Chile amid a CIA-backed coup.
Nevertheless, Enrico Mattei is emblematic of the sort of figure in the West – especially in Italy, the country of Francis’s own ancestors – whose visions and aspirations, many of them not exactly aligned with American interests, are being dusted off and given new life under this pope.
Follow John L. Allen Jr. on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr