ROME – Ernest Renan once famously said that forgetting is an essential factor in the creation of a nation, which makes the historian a perennial threat to nationality. He had a point: Memory is a combustible thing, because how the past is framed, interpreted and understood can just as easily drive people apart as bring them together.

Recently, Italy has delivered two classic examples of the point, both of which may suggest a potential new calling.

The first came in the country’s annual polemics over April 25, which is the official national Liberation Day, celebrating the day in 1945 when the Nazi occupiers and their Italian allies in the short-lived Republic of Salò began withdrawing from Turin and Milan, marking the beginning of the end for fascism.

Although theoretically the holiday should be an occasion of national pride and unity, every year the Italian left and right manage to turn it into a hissy fit instead. The left complains that the right has never fully disavowed fascism, the right claims the left is still bewitched by communism, and round and round we go.

This year, that annual crossfire was intensified by two factors.

The first is that Italy is currently governed by a popular Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, whose own political roots are in the country’s post-fascist right-wing movements. As a result, her own attitudes towards the past, especially the anti-fascist partisan resistance, are constantly under a microscope.

Meloni didn’t help herself in her public statements for the holiday, saying that she’s opposed to all “totalitarian regimes,” which is code language here to mean communism too. That’s fine, as Italian columnist Mattia Feltri observed, except that April 25 has a specific reference as a holiday commemorating the Italian victory over fascism, a result to which scores of Italian communists contributed, and who then also helped shape a new democratic constitution and 80 years of parliamentary democracy.

To ignore that historical truth is, inevitably, to politicize the past.

The other distortion this year was supplied by the ongoing war in Gaza. During the celebrations of Liberation Day, it’s customary for Italian Jews and others to commemorate the “Jewish Brigade,” a corps of Jewish volunteers from Palestine who served as part of the British army during the campaign to liberate Italy. Some 83 members were killed in action and more than 200 wounded.

This year, the marchers were confronted by pro-Palestinian protestors in both Milan and Rome, who were shouting anti-Israeli and anti-American slogans. In a few cases the confrontations turned violent, with at least one member of a group recalling the brigade suffering a knife wound in the arm.

Again, as Feltri observed, it’s perfectly fine to sympathize with the Palestinian cause, but not at the cost of forgetting that the liberation of Italy came about largely thanks to the U.S., including the roughly 120,000 young Americans who laid down their lives during combat on the Italian mainland. It also comes at the cost of forgetting that many Italian Jews also contributed heroically to the liberation, and to the construction of post-war Italy.

In other words, both the right and left outdid themselves this year in weaponizing memory.

The other new front in Italy’s wars over the past has come in the form of a six-part Netflix series called Briganti, or “Brigands,” a term for a sprawling galaxy of armed bands that sprouted up in southern Italy during the 19th century Risorgimento, or push for national unification, led by the country’s northern powers.

Many of these brigand groups were criminals looking to cash in on chaos, with some historians actually seeing them as forerunners of the mafia. Others, however, were more akin to a guerilla resistance to the imposition of political and economic control from the north, fighting to defend what they saw as the independence and culture of the south – very much including its deeply Catholic ethos, seen as a counterpoint to the liberal and anti-clerical climate of the northern architects of the unified Italian state.

What’s new about the series is that it unapologetically adopts the revisionist view that the Risorgimento was more a war of conquest than of liberation, depicting the armies of the northern Piedmont region which occupied the south as brutal colonizers, and the brigands (at least some of them) as noble freedom fighters.

That’s a view, by the way, which comes with a deep Catholic pedigree. Here’s how an 1864 editorial in Civiltà Cattolica, the Jesuit-edited journal that enjoys a semi-official Vatican status, phrased things.

“What you call with the injurious name of ‘brigandism’ is nothing but the true reaction of the oppressed against the oppressor, of the victim against the executioner, of the robbed party against the thief … in a word, of right against iniquity. The idea behind this reaction is the political, moral and religious one of justice, of property, and of liberty.”

The series has scored well in the ratings, and predictably has opened up a can of worms between detractors who think it smears the heroes of Risorgimento, and aggrieved southerners who have long felt their sufferings have been whitewashed out of official national historiography.

In truth, both sides in the debate often ignore inconvenient truths.

While it’s indisputable that the Italian south has remained chronically underdeveloped with regard to the north, it’s also the case that the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and the Papal States, the two entities which stood in the way of unification in the mid-19th century, were hardly paragons of political virtue or social justice. At the same time, while many leaders of Italy’s unification drive were undoubtedly patriots driven by laudable motives, it’s also undeniable that real excesses and brutality marked the campaign, justice for which arguably has never been done.

Question: In these contests over how to interpret the past, is there an institution with the capacity to act as a referee, with the moral and intellectual credibility to call fouls when they occur?

In many ways, the Catholic Church probably is uniquely positioned to act as such an historical arbiter – to insist that memory is not infinitely malleable, and that the past is a legacy to be respected rather than to be remade in the service of political convenience. The late St. John Paul II used to invoke the need for a “purification of memory,” and in the run-up to the Holy Year of 2000 and the pope’s great Day of Pardon, the church underwent just such an examination of conscience.

The concepts and tools developed amid that exercise could be of tremendous use to the wider world, should Catholics engaged in public life have the imagination to place them on offer in timely and non-partisan ways.

To put the point differently, perhaps the Catholic Church has the opportunity to cultivate a vocation of preserving memory, a task for which it’s arguably uniquely suited given its millennia-long reverence for tradition – suited, that is, if Catholics themselves can resist the lure of plundering the past for present gain.