Any Pope in a Storm: Benny Bashes Berlusconi's Neo-Fascism

An ex-Hitler Youth certainly knows a thing or two about fascism -- so when Pope Benedict XVI weighed in with a warning about the resurgent state-backed racism and repression in the birthplace of the pernicious right-wing doctrine last Sunday, it provoked a firestorm in Italian politics.

As we have noted here earlier, that ever-indictable oligarch, Silvio Berlusconi, is back in power once again, and once again he is leading a coalition of corporate cronies, rabid nationalists and factions that proudly proclaim their descent from Benito Mussolini's original fascist party. This time around -- in the brave new post-9/11 world, where Western "democracies" no longer have to disguise their authoritarian tendencies but instead boldly embrace lawless "unitary executive" powers and police-state tactics -- the balding, preening ass of Rome is stepping out in his true colors: basic blackshirt.

As Seamus Milne noted last month in the Guardian:

At the heart of Europe, police have begun fingerprinting children on the basis of their race - with barely a murmur of protest from European governments. Last week, Silvio Berlusconi's new rightwing Italian administration announced plans to carry out a national registration of all the country's estimated 150,000 Gypsies - Roma and Sinti people - whether Italian-born or migrants. Interior minister and leading light of the xenophobic Northern League, Roberto Maroni, insisted that taking fingerprints of all Roma, including children, was needed to "prevent begging" and, if necessary, remove the children from their parents.

The ethnic fingerprinting drive is part of a broader crackdown on Italy's three-and-a-half million migrants, most of them legal, carried out in an atmosphere of increasingly hysterical rhetoric about crime and security. But the reviled Roma, some of whose families have been in Italy since the middle ages, are taking the brunt of it. The aim is to close 700 Roma squatter camps and force their inhabitants out of the cities or the country....

Official roundups and forced closures of Roma camps have been punctuated with vigilante attacks. In May, rumours of an abduction of a baby girl by a Gypsy woman in Naples triggered an orgy of racist violence against Roma camps by thugs wielding iron bars, who torched caravans and drove Gypsies from their slum homes in dozens of assaults, orchestrated by the local mafia, the Camorra. [More on the Camorra's increasing symbiosis with the state here.] The response of Berlusconi's government to the firebombing and ethnic cleansing? "That is what happens when Gypsies steal babies," shrugged Maroni; while fellow minister and Northern League leader Umberto Bossi declared: "The people do what the political class isn't able to do."

Berlusconi and his neo-fascists routinely make great shows of their deep Catholic piety.  (Thank God religion is not cynically exploited in American politics!) But now the Pope -- who as young Joseph Ratzinger joined the Hitler Youth then served briefly in the armed forces of Nazi Germany, apparently in a non-combatant role -- has thrown his weight behind a campaign by Italy's top Catholic weekly, Famiglia Cristiana. The Guardian has the story:

In an editorial on Friday, condemning recent government moves against immigrants and Roma, the magazine said it was to be hoped fascism was not "resurfacing in our country under another guise". The jibe outraged Berlusconi's supporters, many of whom are themselves pious Catholics.

The leader of his parliamentary group in the upper house, Maurizio Gasparri, announced he would personally sue the priest who is Famiglia Cristiana's editor while the junior minister with responsibility for family affairs, Carlo Giovanardi, said the magazine was "possessed by ideological malice".

At first Vatican spokemen tried to soothe the troubled waters with a statement that the magazine did not speak for the Pope. But two days later, Herr Ratzinger delivered an address that clearly backed the magazine's message:

Silvio Berlusconi's government was today engaged in a vigorous damage limitation exercise after Pope Benedict appeared to lend his immense moral authority to speculation that Italy was in danger of returning to fascism under the tycoon's hardline, rightwing leadership.

In his customary midday Sunday address, the pontiff expressed concern at "recent examples of racism" and reminded Catholics it was their duty to steer others in society away from "racism, intolerance and [the] exclusion [of others]"....The pope's comments were interpreted by Berlusconi's critics as a signal that the Vatican was not climbing down or distancing itself from Famiglia Cristiana's interpretation.

Benedict cited in his address the story from Matthew's gospel of Jesus's encounter with a pagan woman and how he rose above his initial misgivings to perform a miracle for her daughter.

The pope said: "One of humanity's great conquests is indeed the overcoming of racism. Unfortunately, however, there are new and worrying examples of this in various countries, often linked to social and economic problems that nonetheless can never justify contempt or racial discrimination."

The paper notes a further irony. The Vatican -- led by perhaps the most conservative pope in the last century, a man who once headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (once better known as the Inquisition) -- has mounted a much stronger resistance to Berlusconi's blackshirtism than the political opposition:

So far, church leaders have been far more outspoken in their criticism of the government's policies than Italy's main, centre-left opposition party. Earlier this month, they succeeded in blocking an attempt by the mayor of Rome to pass a measure - seemingly aimed at Gypsies - that banned people from rummaging in garbage containers. In June, Famiglia Cristiana said a government plan to take the fingerprints of Roma children was "indecent".

God knows, one hates to agree with Herr Ratzinger about anything. As The Times noted shortly before his election in 2005:  "His condemnations are legion — of women priests, married priests, dissident theologians and homosexuals, whom he has declared to be suffering from an 'objective disorder.'" Of course, Ratzinger is not actually any more hardline and draconian than his predecessor, the media celebrity John Paul II -- after all, it was JP2 who installed Ratzinger as the enforcer of the faith in 1981 and backed his strictures right down the line.

But the Pope's intervention on behalf of the scapegoats of crony capitalism -- not only in Italy, but around the world, where corrupt and greedy elites increasingly try to hide the ruin they have made of their own nations by pointing the finger at Evil Others -- is most welcome.