Francis Has a Message for the Italian Church

Now well into the post-Synod period, we may yet learn if there will be a “Francis effect” on the U.S. bishops gathering in Baltimore for their annual general assembly (November 16-19). But something is definitely happening in the Italian church, which historically has focused on the special relationship between the pope and the Italian bishops.

Last week, Florence was temporarily the ecclesial capital of Italy, as 2,500 delegates from dioceses and associations convened for a gathering organized by the Italian bishops’ conference and held every ten years. It could prove to be the most important act of reception of Francis’s pontificate by the church in Italy.

This was the fifth ecclesial conference since 1976, and its theme was one chosen when Benedict was still pope: “In Jesus Christ the New Humanism.” But it looked more a “national synod” than the previous pre-cooked events, especially those of 1995 in Palermo and of 2006 in Verona. This is noteworthy because in post-Vatican II Italian Catholicism, the format of ecclesial conferences—tightly controlled by the bishops’ conference and the Vatican—is meant precisely to preclude resemblance to anything like a national synod (and thus to avoid something like German Catholicism’s “Würzburger Synode” of 1971 to 1975, an ecclesial event that dealt with the post-conciliar conversion of Joseph Ratzinger and his position within German theology).

Pope Francis gave a great speech to open the gathering, and in this sense we could say that the 2015 conference looked like the conference of 1985 in Loreto. Then, John Paul II gave clear instructions to the Italian Catholic church and to the bishops: change course from the dialogical ethos of the 1970s (a decade when 70 percent of Italians were dividing their votes evenly between the Christian-Democratic Party and the Communist Party) toward a more assertive Catholic church politically; emphasize the role of the elites and church movements (especially Communion and Liberation) and reject the more conciliar organizations of Italian Catholic laity (such as Catholic Action and Italian Catholic Boys and Girls Scouts); and re-Catholicize Italian culture and politics. Some called it John Paul II’s “Polish model” for the Italian church, and did it ever work. The early 1990s saw the end of the political dominance of Christian-Democratic Party in Italy and opened the door to media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, who dominated the political scene for the next twenty years.

But it is my impression that the ecclesial conference of Florence is actually closer to the first conference, of 1976, which took place at the end of a tumultuous decade of reception of Vatican II in Italy. Francis made clear in his remarks how he sees the future of the church: no to the dreams of conservatism and fundamentalism; no to the “surrogates of power and money”; a clear statement on the issue of the pro multis in the Missal (“The Lord shed his blood not for some, or for a few or for many but for all”); a call for a more dialogical and socially engaged Italian church.

But unlike John Paul II, Francis with his speech did not create a new paradigm.

He essentially called for a new synodal church in Italy, something not in the vision of John Paul II for Italian Catholicism. No more reliance on the privileges coming from the cozy relations with Italian politicians; no more special mandates to Catholic movements and associations. A church of the people needs to be synodal. The bishops Francis has in mind (and those he is appointing) suggest just that model. Contrary to John Paul II, Francis is reshaping the episcopate appointing pastors, without reshaping the Roman Curia as the controller of the bishops.

The ecclesial conference signaled the resurgence of the vision of Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, archbishop of Milan from 1980 to 2002. Martini, who died in August 2012, was the most important bishop in post-Vatican II Italy, and in certain aspects the polar opposite of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The Italian bishops under John Paul II and Benedict XVI rejected Martini’s spiritual and biblical ecclesiology and embraced the political ecclesiology of Cardinal Camillo Ruini, vicar of John Paul II for the diocese of Rome from 1991 to 2008 and president of the Italian bishops from 1986 to 2007 (first as secretary-general and later president of the bishops’ conference). “Ruinismo” as a term has even entered the political and theological vocabulary of Italy. But with the Florence conference, the Italian church essentially bid goodbye to ruinismo and, thanks to Francis, is clearly looking for a different model. Delegate Serena Noceti, one of most prominent women theologians in Italy and vice president of Associazione Teologica Italiana, spoke about a clearly visible new spirit.

Italy represents a very important test for Francis’s church of synodality. Since his election, he has been encouraging the Italian church to become less dependent on the Vatican for the development of new approaches to issues like poverty, social atomization, immigration and refugees, unemployment, and economic stagnation. The chaotic situation in the city of Rome (both politically, after the recent ousting of the mayor by his own party, and in terms of services and infrastructure) is the face of Italy. The young neo-Blairist premier, Matteo Renzi, may be able to paper things over only to a point.

Italian Catholic theologians, most of the parish priests, and the laity have embraced Francis. Whether the Italian bishops do is another question. In these two-and-a-half years, Francis has made interesting episcopal appointments (recently, in Padua, Palermo, and Bologna). But most of them are still a direct expression of the John Paul II-Benedict XVI paradigm. The final speech by the president of the Italian bishops’ conference, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco (appointed by Benedict XVI in 2007 and confirmed by Francis) could just as easily have been given five, ten, or fifteen years ago. It mixed the usual list of priorities for the Italian bishops (family, and the presence of Catholics in Italian politics, schools, and universities) with Francis’s themes—the call to synodality, the option for the poor. Adjusting to Francis remains hard, not only for U.S. bishops. 

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is Catholicism and Citizenship: Political Cultures of the Church in the Twenty-First Century (Liturgical Press, 2017). He is a contributing writer for Commonweal. Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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