It’s election time in Italy, with voting scheduled for April 13 and 14 to select a new parliament and government. With the center of the Roman Catholic Church located within the Italian republic and historic tensions between the Church and State in Italy, it is worth asking how Italian pastors address public issues in this notoriously political country.

On March 18 the Secretary of the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI), Giuseppe Bertori stated that the Church does “not express any involvement or preference for any politician or political party.” Local bishops can and do react differently, however. Vatican journalist Sandro Magister recently highlighted how the Archbishop of Bologna, Cardinal Caffarra, has issued specific guidelines for his priests.

Bologna is a noted left-wing city, where the cultural and political life is dominated by professors of Europe’s oldest university and Italian communists (yes, they still exist!). So the temptation for Bolognese priests is often to find common ground with the dominant part. Perhaps as a result, Cardinal Caffarra has forbid his priests from getting involved in partisan politics, primarily because it would compromise the communion of the Church.

The Cardinal has also prohibited the use of Church property for any political meetings or debate, will not allow parties to campaign on Church grounds, and has forbid the posting of any election posters, most likely making these parts of Bologna the only manifesti-free zone on the peninsula.

None of this means that the pastors cannot “guide” their flock. The last guideline says, in part, “If a parishioner should ask for counseling concerning the upcoming elections, priests must bear in mind that every elector is called to express a choice [….] The priest is called to help the parishioner, guiding him, so that he may distinguish those human rights worthy of being defended.” Finally, Cardinal Caffarra directs his priests to Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s note on the participation of Catholic in political life.

So while the Church in Italy is non-partisan, it clearly has something to say about politics, especially when it comes to issues such the taking of innocent life, marriage and family, Catholic education and biotechnology. It has not, to date, addressed the various economic proposals of the parties, so we can assume that faithful Italian Catholics can differ on these matters in good conscience. The argument over economic reform should therefore take place on the basis of sound economics, which would probably mark an historical occasion in this country.


  • Patrick

    I am curious to know if there is a legal prohibition or limitation on the Church being involved in political matters in Italy. You indicate that as a matter of policy, the Church does not “express any involvement or preference for any politician or political party.” Would such expressions nevertheless be permitted under Italian law? Here in the U.S., in order to remain exempt from taxation, churches cannot be involved in political activity, namely any activity for or against a political candidate. They can, however, engage in issue advocacy, such as advocating for innocent life, marriage and family.

  • Joseph Kosten

    Poala, this is a very interesting piece which I enjoyed. Living in Italy, it is interesting to know, from an Italian’s point of view, how the Catholic Church guides and directs the faithful. It will be interesting to find out how many priests follow these guidelines.

  • Paola Fantini

    To Patrick, the Italian Constitution does not forbid priests from entering into politics. Anyone who is an adult Italian citizen and has never been condemned for a criminal offense can run for any kind of election. In 1900 a priest called Luigi Sturzo was one of the founders of an important political party in Italy, called “Democrazia Cristiana”. The party still exists today but with another name “UDC” and its members are all lay. The Church in Italy does not encourage priests to get involved in politics. It has always been criticized by the left of influencing voters and Parliament. But as you can read above that it is not the case.

  • Kishore Jayabalan

    Paola, isn’t Church property in Italy tax exempt? Is it so because it is a “non-political” or charitable organization? Would any formal political involvement then compromise its tax-exempt status? I recall the Prodi government making some threats about this, and it is similiar to what happens in the US when politicians don’t like what the Church says.

  • Paola Fantini

    Kishore, not all Church property in Italy is tax exempt. However, the Church in Italy does benefit of a particular tax regime being the Vatican a foreign state. According to Italian law a priest can run in a national election that is for parliament or for a regional seat. Instead according to Canon law (Code of Canon law 1983) priests cannot be part of any political party or trade union unless they receive specific permission from the Church to do. Further, the legal of office of the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI) tells me that if a priest, prior permission of the Church, should run for an election he would do so individually and it would not influence the tax regime of the Church in Italy.