Some Sense and Nonsense: A Note on Italy

No Episcopal letter was written and debated by the Italian bishops, and the reason is quite simple: Unlike the American bishops, the Italian bishops are in the front line. In a country like Italy, which is probably one of the most politicized on earth, a document such as the one approved by the American bishops on May 3rd of this year, would have become a highly explosive object, and the ensuing conflagration would have had an impact on all political parties, but mostly would have destroyed the bishops. The Italian bishops, of course, are not incapable of political initiatives. Their problem, in fact, is that they fought a good many battles in the past few years and lost the most important ones, particularly the referenda on divorce and abortion.

Italy is a country of proud individualists and one can appreciate the practical impossibility of maintaining the kind of discipline that Joseph Cardinal Bernardin was able to maintain with the U.S. Episcopal Conference as it debated its way into the ponderous pastoral letter. No fewer than 500 amendments were presented in the concluding session in Chicago, and of those 129 were debated by an array of speakers. The Italian bishops quite obviously do not conceive of their conference as a debating society and moreover, they are not so preoccupied with exercising new influence on national opinion. Italians, everyone knows, are much less prone to the kind of intellectual confusion that can result from the descent of the American bishops into the political arena. The influence of the Church in Italy is certainly massive, but in subtler ways. Most important, the Italian Church feels no need to achieve a consensus on the morality of nuclear weapons, for a variety of reasons, but first and foremost because of their knowledge of certain limits in the universal Church teachings. The Italian bishops’ decision to refrain from applying moral principles to factual questions is obviously facilitated by one simple fact: Italy has no nuclear weapons, no strategy of deterrence, and no obligation to debate whether or not to declare a “no first use” pledge. This does not preclude the Italian bishops from discussing the moral acceptability of any use of nuclear weapons, because such weapons are deployed in Italy under U.S. control. In fact, Italy is becoming a launching platform for cruise missiles, a system that is basically retaliatory in nature. But the rational arguments and the emotional appeals that emanate from the body of opposition to the deployment at Comiso, a southernmost base in Sicily, have little or nothing to do with mounting a proper nuclear defense. Paradoxically, Italians are much more concerned than American bishops will ever be with the realities — both the failure and promise — of negotiations. They understand that the problem must be faced in realistic terms because of the simple fact that the genie has come out of the bottle. Nuclear weapons exist and cannot be transformed into plowshares. Humankind has learned not so much to love the bomb as to live with a situation of balance of terror. Condemnation of the balance of terror does not solve the problem. Yet, every responsible group, including the bishops, can do something to impel those nations that possess nuclear weapons, and those who have the means to acquire them, toward a more stable nuclear balance.

In a real sense, the Italians, and the Europeans in general, are more sensitive to the relevance of the disarmament negotiations, and consequently more sophisticated in their attitudes toward their possible outcome. In particular, the bishops of Western European countries know that those who march for peace are not moralists or simple peaceniks, although some of the marchers may warrant such a classification. By the same token, not everyone who marches can be classified as a political activist.

The peace movement in Europe, unlike the freeze movement in the United States, is a very complex phenomenon. First, one must be aware of the Communist component, which is real and active in Western European countries like Italy and France, where the Communist parties play a large role. There is also ample evidence that the Soviet Union supports demonstrations by peace groups in Western Europe and particularly opposition to the deployment of Pershing 2 and cruise missiles. Under these circumstances, it would be rather unwise for the Italian bishops to become involved in any official way with the campaign for peace and disarmament — a campaign which of late has become an awfully crowded bus in Western Europe.

The Italian bishops have chosen to speak out with personal statements, something that American bishops have done in the past, before being summoned to a convention by the NCCB Committee on War and Peace. The difference is that because of their great proximity to the Vatican, the statements or “messages” of the Italian bishops are more personal and topical. One such message explains the situation. Here is how Monsignor Costanzo Micci, Bishop of Fano and other small towns in central Italy, addresses the faithful of his diocese: “My dear brothers, there is a great deal of discussion these days about peace, but mostly there is talk against atomic weapons, to stop the deployment of `Euromissiles.’ As in the rest of Europe, we have witnessed a national demonstration in Rome as well. Some newspapers have called attention to the participation of Christians and of religious movements. In order to focus the import of these facts, we should say that there was no official participation of Catholicism, because we do not want to let our peace concept and our commitment to peace become an instrument or lend support to any ideology or side.”

The reluctance of the Italian bishops, as well as participants in the other Western European episcopal conferences, to become embroiled in political alliances is quite obvious in the latest pronouncement of the Synod, whose message of only 85 lines in the Latin text was approved with 188 “placet” out of a total attendance of 207 bishops. The bishops pledge to act individually, not as a body, to be “tireless in pursuing peace and disarmament, and in reducing tensions, particularly between East and West.” The approach of the latest synod could not be more significant insofar as it combines its evangelical appeal to a civil condemnation of injustice in the world. Among the ills that the document condemns is “the accumulation of weapons, especially the atomic ones, the scandalous trafficking of war armaments of all kinds.” It appears that the bishops convened in Rome have learned through the exchange of experiences of the various episcopal conferences that the better one knows the dangers the better one can fight them. There is enough confusion in the world to hope that the episcopal conferences recognized the potential damage that it can do not only to the conscience of the faithful but to the clergy itself.


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