The police's zero tolerance policy on demonstrations in St Peter's Square is the only one possible
One snippet of news from Italy that seems to have been overshadowed by the cruise liner disaster is the recent incursion of the Occupy movement into St Peter’s Square. The Guardian has a report here which is in broad conformity with the reports in the Italian press. Some Indignados, as they are known, who are mainly Spanish and French, tried to set up a camp in the piazza, but were ejected by the police. One of the protestors climbed the Christmas tree (which will be in place until 2nd February, feast of the Presentation), and had to be forcibly removed from it.
The police who removed the protestors were not the Swiss Guard, nor the Vatican gendarmes, but the Italian police. The piazza is Vatican territory, but it is policed, by long standing arrangement, by the Italian forces of law and order. The action of the police was fully supported by the Vatican itself. As Fr Federico Lombardi is reported to have said: “Considering the actions undertaken and the language used, these Indignados evidently wanted to use the piazza in an improper way, not in keeping with the spirit of the place and it was therefore considered just and opportune to move them out with the co-operation of the police.”
The actions in question are presumably the assualt on the Christmas tree, the fact that one of the protestors was dressed up in a mock-papal costume, and that the Indignados were shouting things like “The Pope is a criminal!” and “The Vatican should pay taxes!”, as well as “The Church is corrupt!”
Fr Lombardi’s point is one that all Catholics should share. The piazza is a sacred space, frequently used for religious worship, and as such no place for political demonstrations. In fact any attempted political demonstration in either the piazza or the Aula Paolo Sesto, the huge audience hall nearby, is routinely quoshed.
Back in 1978, when John Paul II was about to be elected, some supporters of Archbishop Lefevre attempted, or so the story goes, to unfurl a banner that read “Questa volta, un papa cattolico.” (“This time, let it be a Catholic Pope.”) They did not get very far. More recently a well known female British theologian tried to smuggle a placard into a Papal audience with the words to the effect that British Catholics wanted female ordination: she was jumped on by the Swiss Guard, or so I was told. Again, another Catholic feminist whose name escapes me wished to demonstrate on the occasion of some Synod, and she and her supporters were allowed to put a banner across a street some blocks away in the Prati district, but not in the piazza itself. When the late Georg Haider turned up at the end of the last Holy Year, so did some protestors, but they were barred from entering the Via della Conciliazione (the road that leads up to the piazza); an ugly stand off ensued.
It seems to me that the zero tolerance policy of demonstrations in the Vatican is the only one possible. If it were not in force, given that St Peter’s Square is the world’s most famous piazza, then it would never be free from protestors. Incidentally, the Indignados have set up camp outside the Lateran, which is Rome’s Cathedral. Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano is the usual locus of left wing demonstrations in the city. Rome is the focus of many manifestazioni (as they are called): when I lived there many a Saturday was taken up by busloads of people from all over Italy coming to march through the capital, much to the indignation of the locals who found the disruption irritating. Not only did the traffic come to a standstill, but the demonstrators would routinely deface buildings with their slogans, using their spraypaint under the very eyes of the police. (Rome and graffiti, don’t get me started…..) My guess is that most Romans will see the Indignados in a similar light.
What do the Indignados want? According to the Italian press, one of the few to speak Italian said:
“Siamo venuti a manifestare qui per riappropriarci di una piazza che come tutte le altre deve essere del popolo. Il nostro è stato anche un gesto simbolico per sottolineare che ‘l’istituzione-Vaticano’ ha tante ricchezze e non paga le tasse, non paga la crisi”
This translates as: “We have come to demonstrate here to take possession again of a piazza which like all the others ought to belong to the people. Ours is also a symbolic gesture to underline that the Vatican institution has great wealth and does not pay tax, and is not paying for the crisis.”
This is standard Spartism, but it is the last bit that puzzles me. Why should the Vatican pay for the crisis, and what does that mean in practical terms, anyway? It is also highly ironic because if people had listened to the Vatican , there would not have been any debt crisis in the first place.