Rome - Italy’s powerful Catholic Church issued a blistering attack on the ruling political class on Monday, saying the country needed to “purify the air” caused by sex and corruption scandals that have given it a bad name around the world.
A speech by Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco to fellow bishops stopped just short of asking for the resignation of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is battling scandals over parties with prostitutes and corruption.
While Bagnasco, the head of the Italian Bishops' Conference, did not specifically name the prime minister, he left little doubt he was referring to scandals that have touched Berlusconi and his centre-right government.
“It is mortifying to witness behaviour that not only goes counter to public decorum but is intrinsically sad and hollow,” he said.
He said Italians had been left in a state of “dumbfounded astonishment” because of a ruling political class that was enmeshed in scandal and preoccupied with self-preservation while the rest of the country suffered from a deep economic crisis.
Until now the Vatican and the Italian Catholic Church have been hesitant to be scathing in its criticism of the centre-right, fearing that a leftist government could back measures it opposes, such as gay marriage and embryonic stem cell research.
“The image is one of a country that is estranged, without impulse, as if everyone is waiting for the inevitable,” Bagnasco said.
The political class, Bagnasco said, has a greater responsibility to live a moral life and set a good example because their behaviour has “undeniable effects on culture and education” and influences the young and impressionable.
Bagnasco said many in the political class were propagating a poisonous culture of seeing success as something that could be reached through connections and short cuts rather than hard work. He called for a radical rethink of the way things work.
“It’s not just a question of doing things differently but of thinking differently. There is a need to purify the air so that new generations, as they grow, are not poisoned,” he said.
The Catholic Church no longer enjoys the political clout it had years ago, but it is still one of the most influential forces in Italian society. New scandals for Berlusconi
Berlusconi, who is already facing four separate trials on corruption and charges of paying for sex with a minor, has been engulfed by a new sex scandal just as financial troubles have raised fears that the Italian economy could suffer a Greek-style debt crisis.
Wire tapped conversations published by Italian newspapers have quoted Berlusconi as boasting of “doing eight girls” in one night, organising trysts with prostitutes at his private residences and making vulgar jokes with a businessman suspected of supplying the women.
Berlusconi, who has refused to resign, was also quoted as saying in one wiretap that, with all his sexual activity, he was only prime minister “in my spare time”.
The cardinal spoke of “licentious behaviour and improper relations that damage society”.
“People are looking at the protagonists of public life with consternation and the image of the country abroad has been dangerously weakened,” he said.
In recent weeks Berlusconi has faced damning criticism and more or less open calls to resign from emblems of the Italian establishment including employers group Confindustria, the head of auto giant Fiat, and newspapers including Corriere della Sera, Italy’s most authoritative daily.
Bagnasco read his speech at a previously scheduled conference four days after Pope Benedict said Italy badly needed “ethical renewal”, a phrase the Italian media saw as a green light for Bagnasco to take the gloves off in Monday’s speech.
He also addressed growing anger in Italy over a privileged political class seen as corrupt and unwilling to share in sacrifices as Italians deal with painful austerity measures.
“Those in the political class today must know that they have specific duties of transparency and frugality if only to respect citizens and not humiliate the poor,” he said.
Over the weekend during Pope Benedict’s visit to Germany Vatican spokesperson Father Federico Lombardi, asked about the Italian political situation, said: “I think it’s clear, when one looks at the situation in Italy, that there is a whole series of problems that also have to do with ethics, in personal actions, in economic activities, in social relations.”