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.

Papa Ratzinger, as Italians call the pope (the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger), has also embraced hyper-traditional church practices, including revival of the Tridentine (Latin) Mass and the custom of officiating with his back to the congregation. The Latin Mass includes a Good Friday injunction to convert the Jews that is already causing great friction with Jewish authorities. Benedict has also taken a decidedly fundamentalist line on science, the Enlightenment and rational thought. While his predecessor, John Paul II, went so far as to apologize for the church’s persecution of Galileo and decreed that there was no conflict between faith and evolution, Benedict seems to be moving backward. From Galileo’s reasoning, the pope has said, we can trace a “direct line” to the atomic bomb. Evolution, he says, cannot be explained exclusively in scientific terms. Such anti-science pronouncements led sixty-seven professors, many physicists, to protest when Benedict was recently invited to give the inaugural lecture of the academic year at Rome University. When the pope then backed out, the right fanned a great hue and cry about censorship, and the pontiff seemed to emerge the moral victor. At a big Sunday rally in defense of the pope in St. Peter’s Square, Mastella, who had just brought down the government, was a prominent face in the crowd. “In the end, the real blow to the Prodi government came from the Vatican,” suggested a commentator in La Repubblica.

In Spain, Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has been able to introduce gay marriage and adoptions by same-sex couples, as well as measures to ease stem cell research and fertility treatment and to make religion classes in schools voluntary. When the Spanish church fought him, with its own huge Christian Family Day rally and with orders for Catholics not to vote for the Socialists in the March 9 elections, Zapatero’s ambassador to the Holy See expressed his displeasure with its interference in Spanish affairs. If Zapatero wins those elections, it will be a boost for secular Italians.

The Italian center-left has so far not been so courageous. The bishops labored to bring the Catholics in Prodi’s coalition to heel, issuing stern directives to Catholic MPs about how to vote. This past October two main center-left parties, Democratici di Sinistra (descendants of the Communists) and Margherita (progressive Catholics), along with other reformers, merged in a new Partito Democratico. In primary elections voted in by 3.5 million Italians, Walter Veltroni, a onetime Communist and now the popular mayor of Rome, was elected party secretary. Cohesively progressive on most social and economic issues, the Partito Democratico has so far, like the Prodi government, been very cautious and divided on the family and right-to-life issues–questions like gay and civil unions and abortion rights–dear to the bishops.

True, Italy–the only country with a foreign sovereign state, the Vatican, inside its capital city–has a special relationship with the church. The Christian Democratic Party ruled Italy from 1945 until 1993, when it dissolved in the great corruption scandals known as Tangentopoli (“Bribe City”). And Catholics, inside and outside the Vatican, still dream of resuscitating a dominant Catholic party in Italy out of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, the splinter Christian Democrat parties and the progressive Catholics in the Partito Democratico. Neither progressive nor conservative, but a blob occupying the middle, this hoped-for cosa bianca–“white thing,” as the Catholic party is called–would push the left back to the margins of government, where the huge Italian Communist party sat throughout the long postwar period. It is just this marginalization that the Partito Democratico hopes to avoid. The party aims to “meld the values from which the left was born and lives–liberty, democracy, justice, equality, solidarity, labor–with the alphabet of the twenty-first century: citizenship, rights, secular government, innovation, integration, merit, multiculturalism, equal opportunity, sovranationalism,” as Piero Fassino, former leader of the Democratici di Sinistra, said. But if the party is to succeed, it may be at the expense of Italy’s radicals–Rifondazione Comunista, two other small hard-left factions and the tiny Green Party–none of which joined the Partito Democratico.

Meanwhile, say some critics of the church, the Vatican wouldn’t mind the return of Berlusconi & Company (including his racist, xenophobic and ex-Fascist fellow travelers in the Lega Nord and Alleanza Nazionale). When they governed from 2001 to 2006, they did not rock the boat with bills on gay unions and were generous when it came to Vatican privileges (such as the exemption, worth an estimated 4-5 billion euros, from paying property tax on the extensive church holdings on Italian soil, and the millions in contributions to Catholic hospitals that come from the state health budget). Not long ago Benedict chose the occasion of a meeting with Mayor Veltroni (in his role as leader of the Partito Democratico) to sharply criticize the city of Rome for “urban decay” and high rents. It was a gratuitous attack on the center-left, especially since an estimated 22 percent of Rome’s real estate belongs to the church–which could take the lead by lowering its own rents. And never mind that Berlusconi, with his love affair with US militarism and his caricature of neoliberal ideology, could soon be profoundly out of sync with a new American zeitgeist.

On February 5 Berlusconi said no to the president of the Republic’s plea for a brief interim government to write a new election law, and so Italy is now scheduled to go to the polls April 13-14. The Partito Democratico, determined to avoid another embattled coalition, announced it will run on its own, prompting Berlusconi to hastily convene a new party, Il Popolo della Libertà, in what looks like an attempt to cannibalize up to eighteen different parties among his allies. Will the Partito Democratico find its voice and rally Italians around civil rights for all, income redistribution and separation of church and state (a principle that even the old Christian Democrats honored to some extent)? Or will Berlusconi–with his utter disdain for democratic rules and his outrageous conflicts of interest–return to power?

If he does, the church will have much to answer for.