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Pope, talking pluralism, lights path to polls.

OXFORD, England -- The local elections in Italy June 6 were the first opportunity for Italians to break free from the "partiocracy" that has prevailed since the war.

Milan, Turin, Catania and other cities were due to elect their mayors directly, instead of leaving it to negotiations between parties in smoke-filled rooms.

What is more, for the first time ever, Pope John Paul II appeared to give the green light for Italians to vote for whatever party or person they thought best for the job. His remarks came in an off-the-cuff addition at the end of his official speech to the 270 bishops of the Italian Episcopal Conference in mid-May. However, these spontaneous comments had been carefully prepared.

Adopting a confidential tone, he said he had been meditating on the Acts of the Apostles to prepare his homily for the concluding session of the Synod of Rome.

He was struck, he declared, by "the contrast between pluralism and unity. ... They form two paths, two ways, that must always be respected. How can one arrive at unity from a certain pluralism? One must not dissolve unity in pluralism, but on the other hand, how do we avoid dissolving pluralism in unity?"

These are good questions for a pontificate that, some believe, has been excessively centralizing. But that was not what John Paul had in mind. He was responding to the Italian situation.

In the Italian context all this language is loaded -- and coded. Since the war it has been customary on the eve of elections for bishops to plead for "the unity of Italian Catholics." One famous pastoral letter of 1948 declared: "The devout Catholic has two duties: first, to vote; second, to vote well."

No one was left in any doubt about what "voting well" meant. It meant voting for the Christian Democrats and not voting for the Communists. Even after the end of the Cold War and the transformation of the Italian Communist Party into the Party of the Democratic Left, some bishops continue to peddle the old line.

In particular Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the vicar of Rome, who runs the diocese on behalf of the pope and is also president of the Italian Episcopal Conference, insists on proclaiming the urgency of "the unity of Italian Catholics."

When, in 1992, the Christian Democratic vote fell to 32 percent, Ruini consoled himself with the thought that it would have been far worse if he had not made his appeal.

Ruini's interpretation of the pope's impromptu remarks came at a press conference the next day. He gravely explained that the "pluralism" the pope had in view was essentially "geographical." John Paul had been in Sicily, where he had denounced the Mafia. He said he was now "more Sicilianized than Italianized."

Once again, Ruini resorts to apologetic arguments that do not wash. For Italy has undergone a sea change, a mini-Velvet Revolution. Ruini does not appear to have grasped that the entire political class of the postwar politicians is discredited by "Bribesville."

Rome cab drivers fling handfuls of small change through their windows and cry Ladrone! Buffone! ("Thief! Fool!"), as they pass the offices of politicians caught with their hands in the till.

John Paul has read the signs better than Ruini. And he has undermined the position of his vicar. He did it with shrewdness, delicacy and firmness. The problem of unity and pluralism, said the old Lublin philosophy professor, is "crucial for Italian society." We need to "respect a new pluralism."

Within the Italian bishops' conference, the opposition to Ruini was led by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the 66-year-old Jesuit whom the Italian press has already appointed the next pope. His allies were Cardinal Silvio Piovanelli, archbishop of Florence, and a Rome auxiliary bishop, Rosminian Clemente Riva.

But John Paul quoted none of these. He preferred to reach back to a former president of Italy (1978-85), the muchloved Sandro Pertini, socialist and unbeliever.

"President Pertini told me," said John Paul to the Italian bishops, "that in moments of crisis the Italian people look to the church for guidance. When everything is going well, they pay little attention to it."

"I can understand that," John Paul added, "from my own experience in Poland. But in critical moments people turn to the church with confidence and in search of advice and help." Pertini also told him: "The church could do much more for Italy."

But what does "much more" mean? How can the pope help Italy? Here he referred to the late Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, primate of Poland, whom he dubbed "the lighthouse of my episcopal youth." Wyszynski said that the best way to help Poland in moments of crisis was by prayer, by "great and intense prayer."

"I hope you will accept these remarks," John Paul concluded, "which I have not written out, as a sign of goodwill and of my desire not to be absent, as bishop of Rome, from the questions which worry the country of which Rome is the capital city." This was his apologia for "interfering," as a foreigner, in the internal affairs of Italy.

There was immediate controversy about the meaning of the pope's words. In the Rome conservative daily, Il Tempo, Rocco Buttiglione, a philosopher who notoriously lunches with the Holy Father often, "though not every day," claimed there was no contradiction between the pope and Ruini.

John Paul was really inviting Italians to vote for "honest, capable politicians, imbued with a sense of the common good and the social doctrine of the church." Buttiglione expects to find such paragons among the Christian Democrats.

As for those who have left the Christian Democrats and joined either the Northern League or the anti-Mafia La Rete (Network), Buttiglione recommends dialogue in the hope that they will "all converge in a vast popular party which the country needs." That sounds like wishful thinking.

For Luigi La Spina in the Turin daily, La Stampa, the papal words marked the most important turning point in Italian society since the war. For the first time, the church finds itself without an official party. "The pope has fully accepted," he said, "the challenge of the Italian situation."

Confirmation of a sort came from an article in L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican daily. Giorgio Rumi, a distinguished Milanese historian, quoted Giovanni Battista Montini when he was archbishop of Milan. "You ask me about the means," said the future Paul VI, "I leave that to others: I will remain the one who is concerned about ends."

That, said Rumi, is precisely the attitude of John Paul. It is not his task to tell Italians what means they should adopt to make their politicians more accountable to public opinion. That they must work out for themselves. But the pope can propose the overarching goal.

The last word remained with the Italian people. Everywhere they voted for the new groupings, and humiliated the old parties.

In the Milan mayoral contest, the Northern League candidate, Marco Formentini, got 39.1 percent while Nando dalla Chiesa, representing La Rete, pulled 31.9 percent. The Socialists, who once dominated Milanese politieal life, were down to a humbling 2.2 percent, 11 percent less than in last year's general election. The Christian Democrats polled 8.5 percent -- about half of what they got last year.

Ironically, the Communists in Central Italy were the only established party to more than hold its own, albeit under another name.

So, liberated by the pope's words from the obsession with "the unity of Italian Catholics," Italians seized their chance and broke the old system. One of the papal titles is "primate of Italy." Rarely has it seemed so apt.
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Title Annotation:Italian elections
Author:Hebblethwaite, Peter
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Jun 18, 1993
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