Italian Catholic lobby takes annual ‘selfie’ in Rimini
ROME — Spending August at the beach is viewed as a constitutional right in Italy, and politicians are no exception. But when the political A-list headed to the Adriatic resort of Rimini last week, they shunned the sun lounger for a conference organized by an influential and tightly knit Catholic movement.
Dubbed “God’s lobby,” Communion and Liberation is an association of some 120,000 conservative Catholics — all the way up to cardinals and cabinet ministers — that has shaped Italian politics since the 1970s, including decades dominated by figures as disparate as Giulio Andreotti and Silvio Berlusconi.
Endorsed by Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the reach of Communion and Liberation’s political and business network has invited comparisons with both the freemasons and Opus Dei, although it has so far avoided the Dan Brown treatment.
The annual Rimini Meeting for Friendship Among Peoples, the indispensable political appointment of the Italian summer season, showcases the movement’s persistent influence on Italian domestic affairs.
The event has always attracted global figures including Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Tony Blair and the Dalai Lama. This year, despite the pandemic, the roll-call of leading politicians included former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi, European Parliament President David Sassoli, the ministers for economy and health Roberto Gualtieri and Roberto Speranza, and Matteo Salvini who leads the far-right League party.
The movement’s business arm, Compagnia delle Opere, numbers 34,000 companies with a combined turnover of €70 billion.
“It’s a catwalk,” said Alberto Melloni, a church historian at the Institute for Religious Studies in Bologna. “Politicians are superstitious. Those that are invited never refuse. And those that aren’t invited look on them with envy.”
Critics on the outside portray it as a sect gathering. Such censure occasionally breaks through to the inner circle, too: In 2015, Mattia Fantinati, a member of parliament for the anti-establishment 5Star Movement, used his guest spot to launch a blistering attack on what he called the “most powerful Italian lobby … which has transformed the spiritual experience into a display of personal interests, only intended to gain money and power.”
For its supporters, the meeting is a bipartisan encounter for reflection on the most pressing issues of the day: This year’s conference included debates on the future of parliament, private versus public healthcare, and the post-COVID recovery.
Andrea Simoncini, one of the organizers, told POLITICO that Rimini “has always been an opportunity for dialogue and appraisal of our current social and economic circumstances. We could not skip it, this year, even with COVID.”
“It’s like a mirror, a ‘selfie’ of our society,” said Simoncini.
The focus is on issues, rather than party politics, and political divisions can be traversed more easily away from parliament, argued Simoncini. “Why do you think Mario Draghi chose the meeting to speak for the first time since leaving the ECB? He knows we really are non-partisan.”
Poverty, chastity, Berlusconi
Beginning as a Catholic student movement in the 1950s, CL (as Italians know it) was a counter-cultural presence in the revolutionary environment of the 1960s, its anti-communist identity taking root in the violent ideological struggles of the 1970s. An inner circle, the Memores Domini, take vows of obedience, poverty and chastity. One group of these consecrated women form the household that now cares for the elderly Pope Benedict XVI.
Members’ faith has been channeled into cultural centers, private schools and publishing houses, but politics has remained their principal interest.
CL has been most effective when lobbying the center-right, backing first Andreotti, then Berlusconi’s Forza Italia untroubled by his sex scandals. “Private conduct does not matter to CL,” said Emanuele Polizzi, assistant professor in sociology at the University of Milan Bicocca.
For Berlusconi, CL was the most politically organized part of the church, which was important to him, and for CL being close to Berlusconi meant getting policies passed that benefited their members and organizations, said Polizzi, adding: “It was not a profound love but mutual convenience.”
The movement’s peak came in the 1990s and 2000s, when they could not only count on national leaders to look after their interests, but established direct control of Lombardy, Italy’s richest region, with leading Communion and Liberation figure Roberto Formigoni in place as regional governor for 18 years.
The movement’s guiding principle is an aversion to the presence of the state, on the basis that the private sector is more capable than the inefficient public sector. Thanks to CL, Italian parents receive vouchers to help pay for private schools, while state-funded welfare and healthcare is often outsourced to private companies, including those owned by well-positioned CL members.
Legislation on food banks was typical of CL-influenced policy, explained Polizzi: “A law was passed permitting accredited charitable organizations to collect expired food from restaurants and caterers to serve at soup kitchens. But only one organization had the requisite features for accreditation: CL’s food bank.”
The movement was able to realize the purest form of its vision in Lombardy, especially in health care. But the coronavirus crisis exposed the shortcomings of the region’s health system which, geared toward providing services at a profit, was unprepared for handling infectious diseases. Some lay the blame for Lombardy’s appalling death rate — half of all Italy’s cases — on the CL model.
Jobs for the faithful
With Formigoni since convicted on corruption charges, Berlusconi still clinging to relevance but in decline, and the progressive Pope Francis in the Vatican rather than Communion and Liberation’s papal candidate Cardinal Angelo Scola, the movement has seen political and ecclesiastical power ebb away.
However, its members still occupy many regional positions, and control appointments in hospitals and universities.
CL is not culturally close to the present 5Star-led government, which approved the tough new anti-corruption law that led to Formigoni’s imprisonment.
While CL maintains a prudent relationship with the administration, the Rimini Meeting reflects its real agenda. The intervention by Draghi, often tipped as leader of a potential government of national unity, resembled a manifesto speech, while Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was conspicuous by his absence.
The 5Star’s most prominent party figure Di Maio, meanwhile, spoke by videolink, demonstrating once again his knack for compromise.
With Conte (who is nominally independent from the 5Stars) still riding high in the polls after negotiating billions in post-coronavirus recovery aid from the EU, it’s far from clear whether Draghi’s electability will ever be tested. However, a Draghi-led emergency government also including Berlusconi’s Forza Italia would be an ideal scenario for Communion and Liberation.
But even if the movement’s free-market ethos and center-right instincts fail to chime with the Italian public in an increasingly polarized political landscape that has tended to favor the League’s unabashed populism in recent years, the CL is unlikely to drift very far from the corridors of power.
Just like Berlusconi, who retains influence across the right-wing spectrum in the twilight (or rather moonlight) of his career, Communion and Liberation will continue operating behind the scenes to influence laws and nudge its favorites toward positions of power.
Meanwhile, with the plotting done in Rimini, the Catholic power elite is free to head back to the beach.