The rise of Donald Trump among Republican presidential candidates has led many to compare him with my fellow Italian Silvio Berlusconi (see Frank Bruni and others). There are indeed similarities between the two. But a big difference is that Berlusconi had no real opponents within the center-right in Italy in the first decisive elections after the end of the Cold War, in March 1994, which he won after a blitzkrieg campaign that lasted only about ten weeks (but which he had prepared in secret for a few months). The Christian-Democratic party had since the momentous election of 1948 come to dominate the political system that pivoted around a Catholic political elite until the early 1990s, and Berlusconi came to dominate the Italian political system (as prime minister and then as leader of the opposition) for the following twenty years.
But more relevant than the similarities and differences between Trump and Berlusconi is the importance of the Church’s attitude regarding the rise of these populist, demagogic financiers in democratic elections.
In Italy, Berlusconi introduced himself as the only possible choice for Italian Catholics--at least the Berlusconi of the early days in the 1990s, before stories of underage call girls came to the surface. The only other option in the elections, he maintained, was the leftist front made of freedom-hating Communists. The fact that they were the heirs of the Italian Communist Party, which was never aligned with Stalinism as it was for other European Communist parties (like in France), was lost or had no importance for the Italian electorate, including Italian Catholics, who gave Berlusconi the majority in 1994, 2001, and 2008.
At some point during the first years of the pontificate of Benedict XVI (between 2005 and 2007), the leadership of the Italian bishops’ conference believed that Berlusconi and the diverse mix of his conservative and nationalist allies could interpret the desire of the Church to enforce in legislation the principle of the “non-negotiable values”: they believed that Berlusconi could be Emperor Constantine, or rather, the equivalent of Mussolini, “the man of providence” (as Pius XI called il duce) for 21st-century Italy. The driving issue was not abortion (the political consensus in Italy about the legalization of abortion is still pretty solid), but other “biopolitical” issues, especially assisted donor reproduction, civil heterosexual partnerships, and religious liberty. This had lasting consequences. As a matter of fact, Italy is one of the few democracies in the developed world that has no law acknowledging rights to any kind of same-sex relationship and no law protecting the religious freedom of all citizens, no matter their religion.
There is no question that over the last quarter-century nothing was more damaging for the reputation of the Catholic Church in Italy than the complacency towards Berlusconi from the outset, plus the active support for Berlusconi coming from some Italian bishops and curial monsignors. This explains also some of the “Francis effect” in Italy – the popularity of Pope Francis among many Italians and his unpopularity among others. The pope is now keeping his distance from all Italian politicians, and this is one of the new features of the pontificate. On the other hand, Italian politicians (including Catholics like the young prime minister Matteo Renzi and many of the members of his cabinet) now are not even trying to “adopt” a pope that is very difficult to frame politically within the coordinates of a party platform. It was much easier for conservatives to use Benedict XVI: they saw in him an ally, while progressives cast him as the embodiment of the traditionalist agenda. Francis opened a new era. But the damage done to the reputation and credibility of the Church in Italy are still there.
Also, because of the contempt shown over twenty years by the Italian bishops conference for progressive Catholic politicians opposed to Berlusconi, the tradition of Catholics’ activism in politics has disappeared. The young politicians who are Catholics are not interested in articulating or talking about their political activity as a testimony of their Christian faith.
Unlike Italy, the United States has no one “national” church that has to make the decision to endorse or criticize publicly the candidacy of a wealthy demagogue. Thus the message coming from Trump is more difficult (to say the least) to spin and adopt for Catholics in the U.S. than it was for Italian Catholics with Berlusconi. But there seems to be a de facto political alignment between the GOP and many Catholic bishops in the United States on defining issues for Catholics in the public square, despite the nuances of the USCCB’s Faithful Citizenship of 2007 and its updates. The lessons from the history of the relationship between Berlusconi and the Italian bishops is something the Catholic Church in the United States might have to consider, at some point, to understand what is at stake when Catholics (not only the bishops) talk about candidates like Trump and Berlusconi. It is not only about saving democracy. It is also about saving the credibility of Catholics.