World and Nation

Berlusconi Clashing with Catholic Church Over His Lifestyle

For months, the staid newspaper of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, Avvenire, steered largely clear of the major topic of conversation here: the spicy personal life of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

But when readers complained that maybe a Roman Catholic newspaper had a moral duty to denounce divorce, consorting with teenage girls, naked poolside parties, and being caught on tape telling a high-end prostitute to wait for him in “Putin’s bed” while he showers, the newspaper’s editor began to weigh in.

“People have understood the unease, the mortification, the suffering that this arrogant neglect of sobriety has caused the Catholic Church,” the editor, Dino Boffo, wrote last month.

On Thursday, Boffo was out of a job.

Late last week, Il Giornale, the newspaper owned by Berlusconi’s brother, called Boffo “a homosexual known to the Italian secret services” and the culprit in a sexual harassment lawsuit. Il Giornale’s attack expanded on Thursday, with another editorial aimed at the Catholic Church itself, mocking not just the “hypocrisy” of sexually active priests with “weak flesh,” but even the “Mitteleuropean” accent of Pope Benedict XVI, a German.

The lesson: No one can mess with Silvio Berlusconi, not even the church.

The other reality is that Berlusconi’s personal travails and his efforts to clear his name have come to dominate Italian public life to the exclusion of most everything else, including governing the country, even amid a still-serious financial crisis.

“He has an ego, not a plan,” said Giuliano Ferrara, a sometime adviser to Berlusconi and the editor of Il Foglio, a conservative daily newspaper partly owned by Berlusconi’s wife. “No one thinks that Berlusconi will go to heaven, but he’s decided to join his enemies in hell.”

Berlusconi has repeatedly joked about the allegations, which have trickled out during the summer, saying at one point, “I’m no saint.” He still enjoys wide support and governs largely unopposed thanks to a fragmented and ineffective left.

But his popularity, as reflected in polls, is dropping, and Berlusconi appears deeply worried about further damage, especially from moderate Catholic voters. This week he announced million-dollar defamation lawsuits against several publications that have been critical of him, part of what critics and allies alike worry is a dangerous trend toward treating any criticism as disloyal and possibly illegal.

Even his friends say he is wading into dangerous waters with the church in a way that could harm him politically. Despite declining Mass attendance, the Catholic Church remains the essential institution here, and many Italians care which candidates have its normally implicit support. The church’s top ranks generally support candidates on the right, like Berlusconi and his allies.

Judging by the tone between a Berlusconi-owned newspaper and a church-owned newspaper, and whispering among officials on both sides, mutual affection is not high at the moment.

Boffo wrote simply that Feltri’s attack, which he likened to stepping on dog droppings, had debased journalism. “Congratulations,” he added.