Church in the World
Pope drawn into row over racismRobert Mickens
- 23 August 2008
Pope Benedict XVI has found himself in the midst of a heated debate over Italy's controversial new security measures - which some say unfairly single out Gypsies and foreigners - after he warned against the rise of "new and worrying signs of racism" in "some countries" around the world.
The Pope never mentioned Italy in remarks he made last Sunday before praying the Angelus at Castel Gandolfo, but some Italian commentators and politicians were quick to link his comments to stinging criticism that the country's most popular Catholic magazine has been levelling for weeks against Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right Government.
Famiglia Cristiana, a mainstream family-oriented publication that sells up to two million copies a week, preceded the Pope's remarks with its latest critique, insinuating that the Berlusconi Government was verging on fascism.
"We hope that the suspicion is never proven true that fascism is re-emerging among us under other forms," said an editorial in the magazine's 24 August edition. The piece was leaked in Italian newspapers on 14 August. It criticised the Government for a growing number of security measures, especially the fingerprinting of Gypsy children and its "harsh" treatment of foreigners (especially Romanians) and beggars. It was just the latest in a series of salvoes against the Government that have appeared in editorials in Famiglia Cristiana over the last few weeks.
The Vatican immediately dissociated itself - not only from the editorials, but also from the magazine itself. The director of the Vatican press office, Fr Federico Lombardi, said the 78-year-old weekly, which is operated by the Society of St Paul and sold in local parishes throughout Italy, did "not have the authority to express either the position of the Holy See or [that] of the Italian Episcopal Conference". The 15 August issue of L'Osservatore Romano published Fr Lombardi's statement under the title, "On the attacks of ‘Famiglia Cristiana' on the Italian Government".
However, officials at the Vatican's office for migrants - including Cardinal Renato Martino and Archbishop Agostino Marchetto - have echoed some of Famiglia Cristiana's criticisms against the Government, albeit in a more nuanced fashion.
Famiglia Cristiana's chief editorialist, Beppe Del Colle, noted in his forthcoming piece that even the Council of Europe had reprimanded Italy for its decision to fingerprint Gypsy children. And he pointed out that the French paper Esprit had judged Italy as being "incredibly harsh" towards Romanians and Gypsies. In his editorial Mr Del Colle also rejected accusations by several members of Silvio Berlusconi's Government that Famiglia Cristiana was staffed by cattocomunisti (Catholic Communists) or crypto-Communists.
"Street-cleaner President in the Kerbside Country" was the title of an unsigned editorial in the magazine's 17 August issue. "On the pavements of the cities soldiers have arrived, wide-eyed kids made to do the work of policemen, which they don't know how to do, and beggars are chased away without even distinguishing those who are genuine from those who are linked to begging rackets," the piece said. It accused Mr Berlusconi, whose Government has a sweeping majority in both houses of parliament, of being more obsessed with cultivating his own image rather than resolving Italy's urgent problems, such as growing poverty.
The editor-in-chief of Famiglia Cristiana, Fr Antonio Sciortino, said the magazine has never claimed to express the "line" of the Vatican or the Italian bishops' conference. "But it has always tried to conform to the adage in certis oboedientia, in dubiis libertas [on what is certain, obedience; on what is doubtful, freedom], confirmed by Vatican II," he wrote in another editorial for the magazine's 24 August issue.
Catholic groups that routinely offer social services to the poor and immigrants, such as Sant'Egidio and Caritas, have also warned that security measures should not be discriminatory. And individual bishops in some places around the country have urged greater compassion for and solidarity with those in need. But they have remained careful not to directly criticise the Italian Government.