Tettamanzi and the challenge of being Catholic on the left

by John L. Allen Jr.

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Anyone familiar with the inner workings of Roman Catholicism knows that if the Italian church sneezes, the rest of the Catholic world often catches cold.

Even today, despite the “internationalization” of the Roman curia from the era of Paul VI onwards, despite globalization and new communications technologies which have steadily relativized the importance of geography, despite the election of two non-Italian popes in a row – and despite a whole slew of other indicators of pluralism one could adduce – the psychology and culture of Catholicism at its leadership levels nevertheless remains remarkably italianizzato.

Hence the goings-on at this week’s Fourth National Church Convention in Verona, a once-a-decade gathering of everyone who’s anyone in the Italian church, were important – not merely in terms of setting a tone for Italian Catholicism for the next ten years, but also for surfacing issues and trends that will exercise a disproportionate influence in shaping the worldview of Vatican officials and senior church leaders elsewhere.

Perhaps the most talked-about such question was this: After a long and rather comfortable alliance between the Catholic hierarchy and the political center-right, has the church become too closely allied with one side of the political aisle to exercise any real influence on the other?

If so, what happens when the other side comes to power?

In one signal of the importance of the event, Pope Benedict XVI traveled to Verona on Thursday to deliver a 4,000-word programmatic address to the 2,7000 delegates, outlining his own vision for the Italian church (the pope is, after all, also Primate of Italy).

Benedict issued a strong call for the recovery of spiritual values in the West, warning that an exaggerated form of secularization “represents a radical and profound separation not only from Christianity, but more generally from the religious and moral traditions of humanity.”

In a characteristic attempt to be positive, Benedict argued that the church’s “no” to what he called “weak and deviant forms of love and the counterfeiting of freedom” is in reality a “yes” to authentic love.

Yet the aspect of the gathering that dominated Italian newspaper headlines all week was not the pope’s address, but rather seemingly endless exegesis of Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi of Milan’s opening speech on Monday.

Since his appointment as the successor of Cardinal Carole Maria Martini in Milan in 2002, Tettamanzi loomed in many minds as a leading contender for the papacy. When the time came, however, he was not in the running, never garnering more than a handful of votes.

Instead, Tettamanzi has emerged in Italian Catholic affairs over the last five years as a sort of “third way” between the Paul VI-era liberalism of Martini and the fierce cultural conservatism of Cardinal Camillo Ruini, president of the Italian bishops’ conference since 1991. (Inevitably, the actual positions of each of these three men are more subtle than such sloganeering suggests – we’re talking here about the level of popular perception).

Tettamanzi’s name has also been floated in recent days as a possible successor to Ruini as president of the Italian bishops’ conference, known by the acronym of CEI. Ruini has already passed his 75th birthday, so the prospect of a changing of the guard is in the air.

When Tettamanzi took center stage on Monday to argue for a stronger “corresponsibility” of the laity in church affairs, as well as political pluralism and the need for the church to embrace Catholics in different partisan alignments, it sounded to many like he was putting down a marker for a new vision – distinct from Ruini’s strong clerical hand at the rudder, and his clear political preference for the Italian center-right under former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The key moment of Tettamanzi’s address, at least in terms of news coverage, came when he said, “It is better to be Christian without saying it, than to proclaim it without being it.”

Much comment and analysis ensued as to whether Tettamanzi was sending a shot across the bow at the so-called “Theo-cons,” a designation for a number of conservative Italian politicians who routinely invoke “Christian values” but who some church activists accuse of being inconsistent in their application of those values, especially on issues of economic and social justice, cultural tolerance, and foreign policy.

Tettamanzi distanced himself from such a reading.

“I’m rather allergic to labels and slogans, which are here today and gone tomorrow” he said at a Verona press conference two days after his speech. “I’m concerned with substance. I make reference to the Gospel and to good sense. My text was in substance a reference to the Gospel. All of us, and each one of us, has to take the Gospel in hand. We have our ‘constitutional charter’ in the form of the Beatitudes.”

In classic Italian fashion, however, many saw that affirmation as Tettamanzi’s way of having his cake and eating it too – making the point he wanted to make, then stepping back from it when things got hot.

Tettamanzi clearly affirmed that a good Catholic can be part of a variety of political alignments. What matters is not the partisan label, he said, but the “profound unity on values” which Catholics should exhibit – stating directly that it’s possible to pursue such a “convergence” on values also from the left.

The latter is a position that the Italian press has come to dub “Theo-dem,” in reference to Italian politicians in center-left parties who draw inspiration from church teachings.

It's a stance that some Catholic leaders closer to Ruini's instincts would question, arguing that the secular agenda of today's leading left-wing parties in the West, especially on "values" questions, makes adherence to those parties difficult to reconcile with church teaching.

The hubbub in Verona surrounding the tensions between the Theo-cons and Theo-dems illustrates at least two points with implications that run far beyond the borders of the Italian peninsula:

•tDuring much of the 1990s, the Catholic hierarchy’s emphasis on “culture of life” issues, such as abortion, homosexuality, and the traditional family, as well as upon the Christian identity of Europe, drove the church into an increasingly explicit alliance with the political center-right. As new center-left governments have come to power in Spain and now in Italy, and facing the possibility of a resurgence by the Democrats in the United States, many Catholic leaders are trying revisit the question of how a Catholic sensibility can be revived within the political center-left as well;
•tThe real tension at the leadership levels of the Catholic Church since the election of John Paul II in 1978 has not been between liberals and conservatives in the classic post-Vatican sense, (i.e., between reformers and traditionalists), but between moderates and conservatives within the same basic option for a stronger sense of Catholic identity vis-à-vis the modern world. Prior to his election, most people assumed Benedict XVI was clearly in the latter camp, but to date his pontificate has been more difficult to nail down. Benedict’s choice of a successor to Ruini will therefore be revealing. Currently, the most commonly touted candidates are Tettamanzi and Archbishop Bruno Forte of Chieti, two figures who would broadly fall into the “moderate” camp, and Cardinal Carlo Caffarra of Bologna, a strong conservative.

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