From ......... Reuters



Date: Mon, Mar 21, 1994 By Philip Pullella

ROME (Reuter) - What's a good Catholic to do in the brave new world of Italian politics?

That is the question many Italians are asking as they shed past constraints and discover that they perhaps are children of a less severe political God than their church leaders had them believe for nearly half a century.

Ernesto Galli Della Loggia, a well-known political analyst, wrote in Milan's Corriere Della Sera newspaper.

In next week's Palm Sunday election, the most important since World War Two, devout Italian Catholics will for the most part go their own way.

Even Pope John Paul II, who last week led unprecedented prayers for Italy ahead of the March 27-28 vote, has refrained from offering Italians specific political advice.

said Franco Ferrarotti, a leading sociologist.

The polls will signal the death of the era of the "Catholic vote," when the now-disgraced Christian Democrats could rely on a huge reservoir of anti-communist sentiment and fear.

Until 1989, the party that dominated postwar politics relied on the votes of people who feared that a communist victory would lead Italy into Moscow's sphere of influence.

When Italian church leaders spoke of "Unity of Catholics" in an election period, the message was: "Vote Christian Democrat."

Organizations such as the Catholic Workers' Association, Catholic Action, and the Federation of Catholic University Students took to the streets and parishes and got out the vote.

The end of the Cold War changed all that. The Berlin Wall and the Christian Democrats are both relics of history.

The party that enjoyed support from the pulpits in the days when fulminating churchmen threatened to excommunicate those who voted communist is trying to rise from its ashes.

Savaged by a two-year-old political corruption scandal, the party reached barely 10 percent in last December's local elections.

The Christian Democrats renamed themselves the Popular Party but lost prominent members who defected to form other parties or join alliances.

Now that its preferred party is no longer the sun of the Italian political solar system, the Church has tried to regroup by insisting that Catholic political choices be "coherent" and based on Christian principles.

Still, some commentators say the Church seems to be telling Catholics to vote for the successors of the Christian Democrats -- particularly the Popular Party -- almost by default.

A letter by Italian bishops on the election last week said parties had to defend the right to life and freedom of private, religious-run schools.

This would put Catholic voters at odds with the leftist "Progressives" alliance led by the ex-communist Democratic Party of the Left (PDS), which supports abortion and is against public support for church-run schools.

The letter said Catholics should show concern for society's weakest segments. This could put them at odds with the economic policies of the center-right alliance led by media magnate Silvio Berlusconi and Northern League leader Umberto Bossi.

"The Church is reacting to the sheer disappearance of the Christian Democratic Party. This means it no longer will have the support it had been accustomed to," Ferrarotti said.

Ferrarotti and others believe the Church, which supported the Christian Democrats -- warts and all-- for decades, waited too long before criticizing it and demanding a purge of corrupt leaders.

The Polish-born pope, the first non-Italian pontiff in 455 years, has taken less of an interest in domestic politics than his Italian predecessors but his concern for Italy's uncertain future perked up as the election campaign drew closer.

In January, he wrote a letter to bishops saying that while some Italian Catholic leaders were corrupt they had saved the country from communism and had made the country one of the world's most developed.

The appeal sharply divided Italians, with some condemning it as political meddling and others praising it as a timely, courageous stand.

Last week the pope changed tack. In nationally televised prayers for Italy, he appeared to go out of his way to avoid any comment that could be interpreted as partial.

He offered no specific advice but, citing Catholic historical luminaries such as St Francis, Michelangelo, Dante, Christopher Columbus and Galileo, astutely asked Italians to draw on their vast Christian heritage in making their choices.

"It would have been inappropriate for the pope, this close to the elections, to again take the same strong position he took in January," Ferrarotti said.

In what commentators saw as a clever move, the pope said the prayers for Italy would go on for nine months and end at a special ceremony in December.

"In a sense, he was saying that his concern for Italy goes beyond the election. It goes on irrespective of electoral results," Ferrarotti said. "That was smart."