The pre-election summer of 2016 has clarified that Donald Trump more closely resembles Russia’s Vladimir Putin or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan than he does Silvio Berlusconi, at least based on his stated intentions. But the GOP nominee and the former prime minister of Italy do have a lot in common—among other things, womanizing and the objectifying of women; contempt for minorities disguised as polemics against “political correctness”; the murky circumstances in which their early fortunes were made; and conflicts of interest between their financial empires and the strategic adversaries of the countries they aspire to lead (in both cases, Putin’s Russia).
Something they don’t have at all in common are political skills: Berlusconi’s vast superiority on this front helped him inherit, for better or worse, a majority of the votes of the Catholic-run Christian-Democratic Party (Democrazia Cristiana) that had ruled Italy for almost fifty years (nor were such skills anywhere to be seen among those who should have beaten Berlusconi after his ascent to power in 1994). Yet more than twenty years after his debut in politics, it’s worth looking at the impact Berlusconi had on Italian Catholicism in terms of that which Donald Trump might yet have on Catholicism in the United States.
Berlusconi ascended to power after collapse of the Christian-Democratic Party, which had been devastated by a series of scandals, proclaiming himself successor to the Christian-Democratic politicians who after World War II drafted a new constitution and built the first Italian republic. He specifically invoked Alcide De Gasperi, the Catholic politician who ruled Italy between 1945 and 1953 (and who had complicated relations with the Vatican as prime minister). This drove a wedge through what remained of the Christian-Democratic Party, and through Italian Catholicism. Against Berlusconi and his allies there formed a coalition of former communists, left-wing Catholics (Vatican II Catholics, nuns active in social work, Catholic lay associations), and constitutional patriots who saw the danger of letting him become protector (and reformer) of the Italian Constitution of 1948. In favor of Berlusconi there was a no-less-diverse coalition—of Italian cardinals and bishops in the Curia (some of whom remain in the Vatican), a majority of Catholics who had voted for the decades for the Christian-Democratic Party, and former atheist-Communist and Socialist politicians and intellectuals who suddenly turned anti-Communist and -Socialist once seeing in Berlusconi a “cultural warrior” for a neo-conservative Italy.
The most important base of support in the Catholic Church for Berlusconi was the Italian bishops’ conference, and especially its secretary general and president from 1986 to 2007, Cardinal Camillo Ruini—the Richelieu of the Italian Church during the pontificate of John Paul II. (There is a word that describes that period and politics: “Ruinism,” which even made it into Treccani, the Italian equivalent of the Websters Dictionary.) Ruini saw in Berlusconi not the would-be victor over Communism (which was no longer a threat), but rather the builder of a political wall against the biopolitics of the post-Communist and post-modernist Italian left—that is, as a block against same-sex marriage and euthanasia and protector of a tax system favoring the Church. (Interestingly, Berlusconi never said anything about reversing the abortion law of 1978; the pro-life movement in Italy was and has remained politically irrelevant.) But what Berlusconi’s seizure of the right produced was basically a void on that side of the spectrum: some twenty years later, the conservative electorate is without a real party and without a leader; it’s also without a culture, identity, and agenda.
Whether the same could happen to the American Republican Party post-Trump is questionable. First, there has never been a Catholic party in America, not that Trump could possibly inherit that kind of electorate anyway. Second, Berlusconi polarized Italian Catholics politically, not culturally; the culture war never worked in Italy (which is one of the reasons Italians love Pope Francis). Third, in a country like Italy, where immigration patterns and the relationship between race and class in post-World War II politics are different than in the United States, Berlusconi let his allies (especially the Northern League) play the anti-immigrant and Islamophobia cards so he didn’t have to.
As to the politics of Italian Catholics: Berlusconi worked like a chemical reagent, separating elements that had already shown some differences but that in the pre-bipolar age of Italian politics did not exhibit those differences as stark alternatives. He forced Italian Catholics to come out and declare (publicly or on the ballot) their support for his party, his politics, his anthropology, etc., or their opposition to him and all that came with him. But so far we have not seen such a sharp divide—of Catholics for Trump on one side, and Catholics against him on the other. To my knowledge, there was the March appeal by George Weigel, Robert George, and another three dozen academics; the letter signed by 5,600 nuns of the LCWR asking for civil discourse in the presidential campaign, and the pro-life statements from the leader of the Knights of Columbus, Carl Anderson). But otherwise there has been nothing from many of the groups—lay or clergy—associated with the American Catholic Church. The American Catholic intelligentsia has generally come out against Trump, but it is hard to measure what kind of traction Trump has in the vast Catholic world outside the magazines and the commentariat.
It is noteworthy that the U.S. bishops have not addressed the message of Donald Trump in this presidential race. Perhaps they were waiting for the end of the primaries, hoping for an alternative to Trump; or maybe they looked to the convention with the same hope. Maybe now they’re waiting for a summer or October surprise, hoping that Trump could withdraw and be replaced on the ballot by someone else. But even if that does happen (a big if), the bishops have missed the opportunity presented by this unusual race to show their ability to read what’s happening in their country or in their flock.
The delay by the Italian bishops in denouncing Berlusconi (it didn’t happen until 2011, after Berlusconi was effectively finished) caused considerable and lasting damage to the credibility of the Catholic Church in Italy. The Berlusconi effect made visible the decline, if not the end, of the elites of political Catholicism among the Christian-Democratic party. It also gave new voice to old Catholic leaders who had left the arena in the 1970s. Italian Catholics remember well how Fr. Giuseppe Dossetti (1913-1996, vice president of the Christian-Democratic Party until 1951, one of the fathers of the Italian Constitution and, a decade later, one of the most influential periti of the Second Vatican Council) left his monastic retirement in 1994 to hold public events against Berlusconi. It’s possible to think of Dorothy Day or Thomas Merton as an American equivalent of Dossetti. I wonder what either would say about Trump or if it would make any difference—not necessarily for the election, but for the basic awareness of American Catholics when it comes to Trump. Is the Trump phenomenon telling us something about the health of the prophetic soul within American Catholicism? Is there a Trump Catholicism that we’re not paying attention to?
As someone who came to the United States only in 2008, it’s interesting to observe how some American Catholics identify with Trump’s message of political outsiderness: Do they now believe their Catholicism is not made for what they think mainstream America has become (capitalist, technocratic, irreligious, elite)? It would be interesting to explore whether the Trump phenomenon is in any way nourishing interest in the Benedict option in its various forms in America today, as if the Benedict option were the only viable option for Catholics disgusted with Trump and with the present state of affairs in general.
Italian Catholics learned to see Berlusconi as an Italian problem created by Italians (Catholics included); this is one of the parallels between Berlusconi and Mussolini. Many Italians who never voted for Berlusconi did not see him as an aberration. They (we) knew that Silvio Berlusconi was part of “the autobiography of the Italian nation,” as Piero Gobetti (1901-1926, one of the many political martyrs made by Mussolini) called Fascism. Gobetti saw Mussolini and his regime as the natural outgrowth of Italy’s traditional social and political ills. That is why I cannot say whether I see Trump as an aberration, or as the logical extreme of an early 21st-century American trend.
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