Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Pope, the Italians, and the rest of us

Published in The Catholic Difference on December 11, 2002



Given the Catholic Church’s historic role in forming what we now know as “Italy,” you might think that relations between the Vatican and the Italian government had always run rather smoothly. If you thought that, however, you’d be very wrong.

To begin with, what we now know as “Italy” took final form in 1870 when the nascent Italian state seized what was left of the Papal States, whose French military protectors had gone home to be bludgeoned by Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War. From 1870 until 1929, the Vatican acted as if the Italian state simply didn’t exist – the “Piedmontese usurpation,” some called it. The 1929 Lateran Treaty created a formal thaw:  the Holy See recognized the Italian state, while Italy recognized the independence of Vatican City and paid an indemnity to the Church for properties lost in 1870. But when Pope Pius XI condemned fascist pretensions in the 1931 encyclical Non Abbiamo Bisogno, Vatican-Italian relations became difficult again. Nor did Mussolini much appreciate Pius XI’s 1937 condemnation of Nazism, or Pius XII’s work to forestall Italy’s entry into World War II.

During the post-war decades, when the Christian Democratic Party dominated Italian politics, the party both sought and resented the involvement of senior Catholic officials in its internal affairs. And while the Christian Democrats controlled the government until the last decades of the twentieth century, Italy’s high culture was controlled by secularists and communists, who hated the Vatican’s entanglement with the Italian government.

For almost a quarter of a century, Pope John Paul II has worked hard to “widen the Tiber” – to put some distance between the Vatican and the Quirinale, the symbolic seat of the Italian government (and a former papal palace). At the same time, the Polish pope has expended far more effort on the re-evangelization of Rome and of Italy than any of his most recent Italian predecessors. That effort has had, in the broadest sense, a “political” purpose, for the Pope is convinced that the Church best shapes politics through helping shape a culture of life capable of nurturing true human freedom. Still, as far as John Paul II is concerned, the machinations inside the Italian government and the fractious Italian political parties are not something into which churchmen should meddle.

These efforts, and the Italian people’s palpable affection for the man they call “Papa Wojtyla,” helped create a scene last month that would have been unimaginable in the not-too-distant past: a papal address to the Italian parliament that was interrupted two dozen times by applause and concluded with the deputies giving the Pope a thirteen minute standing ovation. In that November 14 speech, John Paul gave further evidence that, as Mark Twain might have put it, rumors of his demise have been greatly exaggerated. His lengthy, substantive address took on a series of hot-button issues: Europe’s Christian roots (now being virtually ignored in the drafting of a pan-European constitution); democracy and moral truth; Italy’s catastrophically low birth-rate; parental rights in the education of children; the conditions in Italy’s overcrowded prisons.

Some of the Italian press worried that the Pope, by stressing that a democracy without authentic human values risks severe decay, was retreating from the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on the legitimate autonomy of governments. What, they asked, does moral truth have to do with democracy? It’s a question not infrequently asked in the United States.

John Paul’s answer – which is the Catholic Church’s answer, not Karol Wojtyla’s personal opinion – is that democracy is not a machine that can run by itself. It takes a certain kind of people, living certain virtues, to make the adventure of self-government work. People who can’t govern themselves from within can’t make self-government in public life work indefinitely.

That’s why the character of a culture is the Church’s first “political” concern. If the sum total of a culture’s wisdom about what makes for human flourishing is captured in the lyric, “I did it my way,” that culture is unlikely to produce the kind of people who will be committed to civility, tolerance, and the arts of compromise in democratic politics. That’s what John Paul II was reminding the Italian parliament, and all the rest of us.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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