'The Polish Pope has never gone this far,' said the left-leaning newspaper La Repubblica in a front-page editorial which criticised his controversial letter to Italian bishops. 'He has told Italians how they have to behave in politics, who to back, who to vote for, which programmes to support . . .' Milan's Il Giorno ran its coverage under the headline 'Catholics of Italy Unite' and illustrated it with Biblical tablets engraved with the Pope's political 10 commandments.
Left-wingers saw the Pope's passionate message as clear support for the Christian Democrats (DC), who are in disarray over corruption scandals. The DC, which dominated Catholic Italy for half a century and stopped Communists from coming to power in elections in 1948 and 1976, is expected to be battered by the former Communist Democratic Party of the Left (PDS) in the next elections. This week, President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro is expected to set the date for early parliamentary elections under a new, first-past-the-post system.
In his letter to bishops, the Pope said Italy still needed a massive dose of Christian values in politics. He rejected the notion that Italian Catholics no longer had to remain united in the post-Cold War world.
L'Unita, the PDS newspaper, said there was 'no more room' in modern Italy for notions that Catholics had to gather under one political umbrella. It called the letter a 'pathetic attempt to use the fear of Communism as a bogey man' against the possibility that the left might come to power in Italy.
In controversial passages devoted to post-war history, the Pope said that while some Catholic leaders were corrupt, they had saved Italy from Communism. Italian Catholics, the Pope said, could not be denied 'the great merit of having saved freedom and democracy'.
The far-left Il Manifesto newspaper accused the Pope of sounding an anti-left charge and of throwing his weight behind Mino Martinazzoli, the embattled DC secretary. Mr Martinazzoli is desperately trying to breathe life into the ashes of the party. DC leaders trying to hold the grouping together and party moderates trying to form cross- party alliances that would embrace voters orphaned by the DC's devastating defeat in local polls last month all welcomed the message.
One side saw it as a call for party unity at all costs. Others said it supported a need to bring Catholic values into politics across party lines. 'This message is of fundamental importance because it shows the love the Pope has for our country. It is not only directed at Catholics,' said Roberto Formigoni, an MP who is close to Mr Martinazzoli.