Dante disliked his contemporary Pope Boniface VIII so much that he put him in the Eighth Circle of Inferno among the “simoniacs,” the abusers of church power–sinners who were buried head-down, feet on fire, next to the pimps and the fraudsters. When Italy’s long-tottering center-left government finally fell in late January with Silvio Berlusconi rubbing his hands in the wings, the Eighth Circle seemed to sum up Italy’s predicament.
The government’s downfall began with Justice Minister Clemente Mastella, leader of a tiny Christian Democratic faction that got just 1.4 percent of the vote in the 2006 elections. Mastella resigned after he learned that he and his wife, a regional politician, were under judicial investigation, then abruptly announced he would oppose the government. Without Mastella’s three seats in the Senate, Prime Minister Romano Prodi’s government was doomed. In his twenty-month tenure, Prodi had learned to live with a one-vote margin in the upper house–but every vote had been a cliffhanger.
This time, the red plush and gilt Senate chamber exploded like a stadium full of drunken, brawling soccer fans. When one of Mastella’s party colleagues announced he would remain loyal to Prodi after all, a senator from the far-right Alleanza Nazionale, wearing shades and popping a champagne cork in anticipation of the government’s defeat, yelled out, “You fairy, you dirty faggot!” The center-right joined the chorus, while a second Mastella senator went ballistic, screaming and spitting at his colleague, until the first man fainted and had to be carried off on a stretcher.
It wasn’t just parliamentary civility that had collapsed; it was any kind of capacity to work together for the common good. Thanks to a “poison pill” electoral law passed shortly before Berlusconi was voted out of power in 2006 (Berlusconi’s justice minister, who wrote the bill, called it una porcata, “sleazy”), the center-left had been badly handicapped. It could govern only by uniting nine fractious parties, and even then, its majority was by a hair. The Prodi government did manage to pass some worthy legislation: budgets that reined in the wild deficit spending of the Berlusconi years and anti-tax evasion rules that in one year restored 15 billion euros to the treasury, money that was just about to be distributed in tax cuts to low- and moderate-income wage-earners when the government fell. But the nine parties quarreled constantly, and they often seemed their own worst enemies.
Meanwhile, week after week, Berlusconi did everything in his power to bring Prodi down, from stoking a massive truckers’ blockade to more delicate tinkering. Not long ago the media tycoon was memorably overheard in a wiretap, trying to buy off a crucial center-left senator by getting his lady friend hired as an actress at RAI state TV. Amazingly, a year and a half after Berlusconi–owner of Mediaset, the private TV empire in direct competition with RAI–was voted out of office, his appointees still controlled the RAI board of directors, and the key Mediaset employees he had placed at the state TV were still in their jobs.
But while anyone could see that Berlusconi was bent on destruction, there were other, more discreet forces moving behind the scenes. The Italian Bishops Conference, led until recently by the powerful Cardinal Camillo Ruini, now Pope Benedict XVI’s deputy as vicar general of Rome, has conducted a fierce campaign against some cherished proposals of the center-left, including civil unions for gay couples as well as unmarried heterosexuals; a bill to allow Italians to stipulate a “living will” and rules about when life support can be shut down; and more relaxed rules on stem cell research and fertility treatments. The bishops supported last year’s Catholic “Family Day” rally, attended by leaders of the three main parties on the center-right (although as it happens, none are “good Catholics,” in that all have been divorced at least once). More recently, a proposal by a right-wing journalist to impose a “moratorium” on abortions (currently performed by the Italian national health service on request during the first ninety days, and afterward under certain conditions) has been endorsed by the Vatican, and a campaign for an international abortion moratorium is expected to be launched when Benedict XVI visits New York and Washington in April.