The relations between Church and State have a different flavour in Italy, for a variety of reasons. One is historical. The Pope has just been to see the President of the Italian Republic, a state visit that involved a trip of roughly a mile and a half via blue Ford Focus, but a state visit nevertheless: in calling on the President, he travelled through a city that was once the domain of his predecessors, and entered a palace that had once been the chief papal residence. Until 1870, the Popes lived in the Quirinale, and most conclaves took place there. The palace has a long wing, which was built specially to accommodate voting Cardinals. From 1870 until 1946, the Quirinale was the residence of the kings of Italy; since then it has been the official seat of the Italian Presidents. So, it has seen a lot of history, and much change.
Italy, Italians love to say, is un paese stabilmente instabile, that is, an stably unstable country. Always on the brink of collapse, yet never quite falling apart, it changes all the time, but some things, the really important things, never change. Mr Napolitano, Italy’s 88-year-old President, is a symbol of continuity, and indeed of change as well. A former Communist, he is now seen as a moderating and stable influence – an odd fate for a former revolutionary.
State visits, particularly in places where people love to give speeches, often have a significance that is hard to detect through the verbiage. This paper has an account here of what the Pope said. and there is also a fuller and lavishly illustrated account of the trip here, in Italian.
The leftist and anticlerical La Repubblica reports that the Pope’s speech focused on the economic crisis and the question of unemployment. Though the Church and State have different spheres, he said, they share many concerns, and the answers they find may be convergent. The Pope then went on to speak of the family and the necessity of strengthening family bonds, the implication being, perhaps that in time of economic hardship, the family provides an essential safety net.
The Pope also made a reference to the history and symbolism of the Quirinal without saying what these were. Let me spell it out: here we have an Italian Pope (he made explicit reference to the origins of his family in Italy) essentially expressing the key positions of the Christian Democrat Left, to a former Communist, whose party was of course allied to the Christian Democrats at a crucial period in Italian history. Moreover a Pope was doing this in a secularised papal palace that was forcibly removed from Blessed Pius IX by a canon shot being applied to its gateway back in 1870.
Alcide de Gasperi, Italy’s best post-War Prime Minister, was the one who set out the position of the Christian Democracy that he founded: a party of the centre looking towards the left. There are other ways too, I admit, of characterising the big-state and big-spending DC, which eventually lost power to none other than Silvio Berlusconi, a self-identified Thatcherite. But that is where the Pope is coming from, which is interesting. And it provides food for thought to all who in this country identify all religion with the political right, and see Church and State at loggerheads for evermore.