There is serious talk of forming a new centre-right Catholic party in the wake of the clash between the Church and the philandering Italian premier, Silvio Berlusconi, according to this interesting report by the Times in London.
At the centre of the attempt to create a new Christian Democrat bloc is Europe's leading Catholic politician, Rocco Buttiglione, who heads the -- currently tiny -- Christian Democratic Union (UDC). Buttiglione, who was Pope John Paul II's favourite politician, says an October conference in Sicily will discuss a "new centrist political force" aimed at reviving the alliance which dominated Italian politics for 50 years after World War II.
The Christian Democrats imploded in the early 1990s amidst a series of corruption scandals. Berlusconi stole the torch, portraying himself as the successor of Luigi Sturzo, the priest who founded Italy's first Christian Democrat party, the Partito Popolare, in the 1920s.
But he never looked very convincing as a Christian Democrat. The authoritarian populist has always had more in common with Benito Mussolini -- the dictator who crushed the Partito Popolare -- than with Fr Sturzo.
Catholics seem to be waking up to this. The trigger for Buttiglione's new alliance is the fast declining support among Catholics for Berlusconi, who until recently has been successful in portraying himself as the Catholic candidate. But clashes with the Church over the mogul's lurid not-so-private life, his draconian immigration laws and the smearing of a Catholic editor by the Berlusconi press -- see previous post -- have led to the chilliest relations between Church and State in years.
Let's not overstate this. Italian politicians regularly rearrange the furniture, creating new parties and new alliances. Approval for Berlusconi among the 40 per cent of Italians who are churchgoing Catholics remains relatively strong at 50 per cent. And the UDC managed only 6 per cent at the last election.
But something new is stirring, and the significance of this embryonic realignment of Church and politics in Italy is greater than its immediate and local consequence, for it suggests that Catholic public opinion cannot be long seduced by a narrative of the right. Like conservatives everywhere -- beginning with Bush - -Berlusconi believed he could snag the Catholic vote by identifying with the Church on abortion and stem-cell research, or "family values".
But the Church also believes in life outside the womb -- in treating migrants as human beings, for example -- and in freedom of speech and press. The Catholic vote isn't as cheaply bought as some right-wing politicians seem to think.
What makes a future Buttiglione-led revived UDC even more interesting is that the senator has publicly said he no longer supports criminalising abortion (see my previous post). He remains passionately pro-life, and is busy creating an international coalition to help make abortion rarer. But he accepts the impossibility of preventing abortion by the power of the state.
So here's the point. If no right-wing politician in the West is willing to criminalise abortion -- Bush didn't, Berlusconi hasn't -- then the pro-life "trump card" played so well by Karl Rove under Bush can no longer be deployed. That means, surely, a greater chance of the Catholic vote steering towards the political stance which most identifies with Catholic social teaching in its integrity -- by which I mean reducing abortion but not by criminalising it, as well as, obviously, an attempt to curb the excesses of the market, particularly as they impact on the vulnerable; and, overall, aiming at a politics of the common good modified by the option for the poor.
Maybe Rome's out ahead on this? Maybe that's why it seems more open to Obama than many of the US bishops, and more opposed to Berlusconi than many Catholics in Italy. (Maybe.)