Il cavaliere’s cliff-hanger

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I’ve been pondering why it’s important, as we GetReligionistas do from time to time, to venture beyond our shores to either see how American media cover stories in foreign countries, or the diffferent ways in which foreign journalists cover religion through the lens of their own cultures. We love to make merry with the British press and their sometimes outrageous tendency to make a lot out of a very little and for sometimes dancing on the cliff of truth — but do we understand why? It’s not only that the British market is competitive — the way the Brits cover religion says something about English culture.

Last night I heard a story from NPR’s “The World” that reminded me of the many ways in which religion can function in societies. Reporter John Otis did a story on the father who was carrying a bamboo cross through Colombia to remind citizens of his son’s and others, ongoing captivity under the FARC rebels. When he gets to the capital, he says he will symbolically be cruficied. Otis assumes his listeners, and of course most Colombians, would understand the power of such a statement — religion as sacred theater. Yet we can’t always assume that we “get” the religious context of another culture. Often we must rely on reporters to give us that context — and trust that they are doing it with integrity and a wide-angle lens.

Which brings me back to the saga of il Cavaliere, Silvio Berlusconi and his tortured relationship with the Italian Catholic church, the Vatican, and Catholic teaching. The Italians just do things a little differently — to put it mildly. No church newspaper, or editor, has the kind of power of Avvenire, the media voice of the Italian bishops. Imagine, say the Jesuit mag “America” going up against the Wall Street Journal (ok, maybe you can imagine that). Turns out that the battle of the editors was a stretch even for the Italians, but it’s more likely in a country in which an implicit church endorsement for a party still carries a lot of weight.

Imagine a center-right candidate, or even a left-center candidate, leading the scandal-ridden public life of a Berlusconi here without being kicked out on his backside — former President Bill Clinton and South Carolina governor Mark Sanford seem like minor league wannabes in comparison. And, as I said a few days ago, imagine one of our Presidents or elected officials undergoing a public service of penance — in your dreams!

As the Berlusconi versus the Catholic Church story took another step into scifi territory, it apparently was time for the New York Times’ Italian correspondent, Rachel Donadio, to weigh in.

For months, the staid newspaper of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, Avvenire, steered largely clear of the major topic of conversation here: the spicy personal life of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

But when readers complained that maybe a Roman Catholic newspaper had a moral duty to denounce divorce, consorting with teenage girls, naked poolside parties and being caught on tape telling a prostitute to wait for him in “Putin’s bed” while he showers, the newspaper’s editor began to weigh in.

“People have understood the unease, the mortification, the suffering that this arrogant neglect of sobriety has caused the Catholic Church,” the editor, Dino Boffo, wrote last month.

On Thursday, Mr. Boffo was out of a job.

Boffo resigned after Il Giornale, the newspaper owned by Berlusconi’s brother, accused the editor of hypocrisy for having settled a harrassment case with a woman in 2002. The paper claims that Boffo was the woman’s husbands lover.

So, as Donadio implies, was this retaliation by Berlusconi to teach potential opponents a lesson? Well, not so fast. Berlusconi has “dissociated” himself from the campaign against Boffo. No one really knows what’s going on — in a country apparently rife with gossip, ecclesiastical and otherwise, we don’t have enough leaks to make sense of this story. What’s the real back story on Boffo? Did Berlusconi have advance knowledge of the Il Giornale campaign? How sincere was his desire to reconcile with the church? How will the Italian bishops respond, if at all, to the controversy? Before Boffo’s resignation, they lined up to defend the Avvenire editor.

It’s true that oftentimes, the mainstream press covers ecclesiastical disputes as though they were wrestling matches or political campaigns. But, as Donadio points out, in confronting an institution that is part of the gene pool of most Italians, the center-right Berlusconi is taking a course almost unprecedented in the history of modern Italian governments (see also Philip Pullella’s astute FaithWorld post on the topic.)

I wish that there had been some quotes from clerics on the theological and cultural implications of Berlusconi’s defiant stance towards the church — and of what it might mean. Right now the battle is being played out through surrogates. Is there no clergyman willing to go on the record with comments about Berlusconi’s predicament?

But you gotta like the last few paragraphs, which seem appropriate in view of the huge social and financial problems confronting Italy:

Beppe Grillo, a comedian and left-wing provocateur, compares the situation to that of Wile E. Coyote, the lovable if ever-scheming cartoon character who runs off a cliff and never falls until he looks down.

“They’re suspended in the air and aren’t looking down,” he said, referring to Mr. Berlusconi and the nation’s center-right leadership. “And there’s nothing underneath.”

Perhaps there is something underneath.

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  • Dale

    You gotta love Italians. Even when they get down and dirty, they do it with gusto. I can’t imagine the editors of major newspapers in the U.S. pronouncing about a major politician that:

    “He has an ego, not a plan,” said Giuliano Ferrara, a sometime adviser to Mr. Berlusconi and the editor of Il Foglio, a conservative daily newspaper partly owned by Mr. Berlusconi’s wife. “No one thinks that Berlusconi will go to heaven, but he’s decided to join his enemies in hell.”

    Granted, his boss is Berlusconi’s much-wronged wife, but, ouch!

    I thought that the best set of outlandish quotes in Donadio’s article were these:

    “Gossip isn’t enough to crucify someone,” Vittorio Feltri, the editor of Il Giornale, wrote last Friday, defending Mr. Berlusconi from gossip about his sex life while attacking Mr. Boffo with allegations that he is gay and that he had made harassing phone calls to the girlfriend of a man with whom the paper said Mr. Boffo was romantically involved.

    “Or rather it was enough, it has been enough, only in the cases of two people: Jesus Christ for some of his miracles, and more recently Silvio Berlusconi for some of his dances with women who in truth were very available,” Mr. Feltri wrote.

    Mr. Boffo wrote simply that Mr. Feltri’s attack, which he likened to stepping on dog droppings, had debased journalism. “Congratulations,” he added.

    Talk about over-the-top. A satirist couldn’t come up with anything better.

  • Julia

    This entanglement with Italian politics has got to be a hang-over from the days when the Papal States covered the middle section of Italy. Hopefully, the move toward non-Italian Popes and bringing in Curia heads from around the world will ameliorate this over time. Hooray for jet travel and instant communictions that is making this possible.

  • Dave

    In some countries the culture’s traditional ties to the Church have maintained. In others they have slowly eroded away. In Italy that process may happen with an audible snap, and Il Cavaliere may precipitate it. (This is not a mere political comment; it applies to a culture, including journalism.)

  • Martha

    Don’t forget, this is just the latest episode in the tumultous career of Berlusconi. It is novel in that it’s a sex scandal (or series of scandals), but it certainly isn’t the case that up till now he’s never been in the limelight.

    Also, bear in mind that he is the head of a large Italian media empire, to say nothing of his other interests:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silvio_Berlusconi

    “Berlusconi is the proprietor of three analogue television channels, various digital television channels, as well as some of the larger-circulation national news magazines. Together these account for nearly half the Italian market.”
    The Wikipedia article has a fine summation of the controversy about him; from his earliest days, there have been rumours and allegations of financial finagling (to say the least). I don’t know about American coverage, but on this side of the Atlantic, for at least the last five years (if not longer) it has been a source of amazement that he’s managed to avoid jail time.

    Whatever the case about the Papal States and such, you certainly cannot avoid having the Catholic Church commenting on the public scandal of a Catholic committing adultery, fornication and divorce, to say nothing of the other allegations.


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