Communists in Italy turn to the opiate of the people

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They are not competing to be Silvio Berlusconi lookalikes. The media magnate is determined to become the first Italian Prime Minister since the war to complete a full term, and seems likely to make it - but with the economy in tatters and his coalition in disarray, he will not make it in great shape.

The opposition has a good chance of knocking him off his perch. Last week the two most powerful Communists in Italy - one reformed, the other unreconstructed - tried to improve their chances further by letting the public know that they are sensitive, spiritual beings, with a close affinity for the Catholic Church.

Piero Fassino leads the Democrats of the Left, formerly the Communist Party of Italy, the second biggest party in the country after Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia. His autobiography makes no mention of his spiritual leanings, but in a TV interview this week he spilled the beans.

"For nine years," he said, "I was raised by Jesuits in Turin, and this served to reinforce my religious faith. Precisely because this is an absolutely personal, private matter, I have never made any public, political demonstration of it." He was, however, making a "public, political demonstration of it" last week.

Mr Fassino's rival for the Communist or former Communist vote has been banging the same drum. Fausto Bertinotti, leader of Rifondazione Comunista, had occasion to do a little religious reminiscing of his own.

An interviewer asked if he would define himself as an atheist. "If you had asked me this question when I was 20,or even when I was 30, I would have replied without hesitation 'yes'," he replied. "But today, while not being a believer, I would avoid such a definite reply ... I have attended religious ceremonies, not without a sense of shared emotion."

Ninety per cent of Italians are nominally Catholic. And although attendance at Mass continues to drop, in the coming election the influence of the church is the great imponderable.

Cardinal Camillo Ruini, Vicar of Rome and head of the Italian Episcopal Conference, has been making a habit of bold interventions on social questions. This summer, when Italy voted in a referendum on reform of the harshly restrictive new law on IVF treatments, he and other Catholic leaders, for sanctity of life reasons, urged Catholics to abstain. The referendum flopped.

"The referendum gave Ruini the belief that he had more sway over public opinion than even he imagined," said Giuseppe Alberigo, a church historian.

Last month Romano Prodi, the devout Catholic who is expected to lead the opposition into the election, made a modest proposal regarding civil partnerships for unmarried couples and gays. The official Vatican daily and Cardinal Ruini came down on him like a ton of bricks for weakening holy matrimony. Mr Prodi was forced to backtrack fast.

Time was, the Catholic Church had its own party, the Christian Democrats, permanently in power. Today the Democristiani are a spent force and the church is seeking allies elsewhere. And finding them in unlikely places.