November 19, 2005

Berlusconi meets Pope amid debate on Church role

By Robin Pomeroy

ROME (Reuters) - Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi held a
private audience with Pope Benedict on Saturday, amid concern
voiced by some politicians that the Vatican has too much sway
on Italian politics.

Berlusconi's first official visit to see the Pope came as
newspapers reported that the Church supported Health Minister
Francesco Storace's plan to allow pro-life campaigners to
advise women at Italy's obligatory abortion counseling centers.

The Pope and his Secretary of State Angelo Sodano discussed
international affairs with Berlusconi as well as relations
between Italy and the Vatican which, according to a note from
the prime ministers office, were "in a spirit of active

Some politicians say the collaboration is a little more
active than they would like, as the country gears up for a
general election next April.

In June, a referendum on easing Italy's restrictions on
assisted pregnancy failed when too few people turned out to
vote -- a victory for the Church, which had called on people to
abstain in a campaign explicitly supported by the Pope.

On Saturday, newspapers quoted Camillo Ruini, the head of
the Italian bishops' conference, as saying he supported the
government's pro-life adviser plans.

Unita, the daily newspaper of Italy's biggest opposition
party Democrats of the Left, said Ruini was increasingly taking
a line that was an "undue interference in questions of the
Italian state, aided by the incredible subordination and
delight of the Berlusconi government."

The Pope insisted on Saturday that the Church had a right
to intervene publicly in difficult moral issues. In a speech to
health workers he said: "If there is inadequate education, a
lack of adequate training of consciences, false values and
distorted information can easily take hold in public opinion."

Berlusconi's center-right government, which includes most
of the remnants of the once mighty Christian Democratic party,
sees itself as a force for family values and proposed in the
2006 budget a property tax break for churches.

The Church already enjoys tax income from a scheme where
taxpayers can opt to give it funding for good works.

The opposition tends to be more critical of the Church's
involvement in politics than the right, although it is careful
not to alienate the Catholic vote, and opposition leader Romano
Prodi models himself as a devout Catholic.

But Church intervention can also irk parts of the
government. Cardinal Ruini this week made a thinly veiled
criticism of a new law devolving powers to regional government,
upsetting junior coalition partner the Northern League.

"Call it meddling or not, it would have been better for the
bishops to shut up," League lawmaker Giancarlo Pagliarini told
La Stampa daily.