Thus Italy, where more than 90 per cent of people are nominally Catholic, may join France and Spain, two other large European Catholic countries where the Church no longer has a strong voice in politics. This leaves Ireland and possibly Poland, where attempts by militant Catholics to restore Catholic principles to public life are at odds with attitudes formed under Communism.
For decades, before every election, Italian bishops and parish priests would call on the faithful to preserve 'Catholic unity' - by which they meant vote Christian Democrat. The DC, centrist and Western-oriented, was the strongest party. The Church's influence diminished with time - divorce and abortion were eventually legalised. But it and the DC were together the main bulwark which prevented Italy falling into the hands of the Communists.
Now the Christian Democrats are devastated by general revulsion over corruption and their methods of patronage and power-wielding. Belatedly - critics say - the Church has demanded a clean-up in the party. In vain: Catholic voters are fleeing in droves to the new parties, the Northern League, the left-wing, anti-Mafia group La Rete, and Mario Segni's Democratic Alliance.
An important recognition of the change comes in this week's edition of Famiglia Cristiana, the Catholic weekly with a circulation of 1.2 million The municipal elections of 6 June, which transformed Italy's political landscape 'have provided the most complete evidence of the end of the political (or rather party) unity of Catholics,' it said. 'Is this the end for ever or is it only part of this phase in Italian politics?'
The bishops are clinging for the moment to the principle of 'unity', hoping that the DC can rise again, duly purified, but also watching developments anxiously. Don Francesco Ceriotti, spokesman for the bishops' conference, insisted that to defend Catholic values - he listed divorce, abortion and social justice as the main issues - 'numbers are important', meaning seats in parliament. 'If Catholics are fragmented they cannot defend their values.'
Some bishops disagree with this line. Bishop Giuseppe Casale of Foggia told Panorama magazine that 'in my diocese the same people are in the DC with the same methods. Is that renewal? . . . Catholics should be let free in politics, free to vote for all parties which defend human values.'
The Pope appeared to point to a way out of the quandary by ruminating about 'how to maintain unity in diversity'. He did not give any answers but some bishops and commentators in Famiglia Cristiana and other Catholic publications are moving towards the idea of active Catholics still working for their principles, but in different parties.
As the Pope clearly sensed, it will not be easy. La Rete also includes former Communists, Mr Segni wants to attract many 'lay' voters, while the Northern League is not likely to become a church-oriented party. Questions of 'values' could cause tremendous friction in the future. And as the 21st century approaches, will Catholics, thus fragmented, jump when their Church calls? From this point in Italy's confused transformation, it looks as if effective 'unity' is gone for ever.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content