The new Italian government was sworn in on May 9, headed for the third time by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The center-right coalition has a vast majority both in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, giving it a good chance of serving its full five-year term.
For the first time since 1948, there will be no communists represented in either chamber. For forty years following World War II, the Italian Communist Party was the second largest party in the country and the most influential in Western Europe, as Michael Barone points out in a recent analysis.
The largest party was the Christian Democrats (DC), who led every government and guaranteed a type of “Italian” stability. Most of all, the DC was perceived by the people as the only defence against the communist threat. But after the corruption scandals of the 1980s, the fragmentation of political parties and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the threat of communism faded away along with the Christian Democrats’ primary raison d’être.
In the 1990s, the political situation changed systematically with splits in both parties. Hard-core Communists re-fashioned themselves into smaller fringe parties and will not be represented at all in the new parliament. While not left out of parliament entirely, the old Christian Democrats, now primarily known the Unione Democratica di Centro, are not a part of Berlusconi’s governing coalition.
This means that for the first time in the history of the Italian republic, a government will not have a Christian Democrat minister or an explicitly Catholic spokesman. This does not mean, however, that none of the new ministers are Catholics. For example, the minister for economic development, Claudio Scajola, was a Christian Democrat when he was younger, and Berlusconi himself received a serious Catholic education. And most if not all of the ministers are baptized Catholics and would call themselves as such. However, Sandro Magister a known journalist has underlined that Berlusconi can be considered the most secular politician.
But will the new government reflect a Catholic identity? The upstart newspaper Il Foglio has called it “post-Catholic” but the influential Jesuit-run journal La Civiltà Cattolica is pleased with the defeat of the communists and seems more worried about coalition parties such as the secessionist Northern League. A weaker Catholic identity may affect not only the Church’s reputation and influence but reinforce radical secularism.
While the Christian Democratic tradition is rich in Italy and some other Western European countries, the question now is whether such “officially” Christian parties are necessary. On several matters of Catholic social doctrine, good Catholics can and probably should disagree on its application. Sometimes a secular politician can have more common sense than an “officially” religious one. The formation of individual politicians and voters, rather large political parties, seems more suitable to the spirit of the times.
This does not mean the Catholic Church in Italy will be silent; it never has been. The Church’s public statements are usually on matters such as marriage, abortion, euthanasia, and biomedical research. But beyond these non-negotiable issues, there are many areas where Catholic politicians and other members of the laity can and must promote Catholic identity and Church teaching. All without a Christian party label.