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Published: Wednesday, 4/20/2005

Italy steams along as Europe's center

THE unsung hero of the whole drama of papal death and succession that has enthralled the world for weeks is Italy.

That country has hosted the millions who came to pay homage to Pope John Paul II as he lay dying and then in state and continued to play that essential role as the world waited for the signal that the Roman Catholic Church had a new pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, who has taken the name Benedict XVI.

Rome and Italy have played their role as a hospitable, sympathetic stage for this drama with dignity and aplomb throughout, even as the many young people who come for the religious events fall under the romantic influence of Rome in the spring.

Italy's relationship with the pope and the Vatican has always been complicated. On the one hand, Italy is a profoundly Catholic country. On the other hand, in recent centuries temporal governments in Italy have been very sensitive to any expression of political sentiment on the part of succeeding popes.

Pope John Paul II was categorically opposed to the Iraq war. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi took Italy right into it in 2003, alongside the United States, without major Italian political opposition. About 3,300 Italian troops remain in Iraq. Now 70 percent of the Italian population is opposed to further participation in the war. That issue ranked with the economy in the sound trouncing Mr. Berlusconi's coalition suffered in elections earlier this month.

Many Italians would have liked to see an Italian pope succeed John Paul II, returning to the pattern that has prevailed through virtually all the history of the church. But Italy itself steams along, in many ways a perfect truly European country, in spite of the apparent turmoil that sometimes characterizes its internal politics. The current political drama roiling Europe is the question of countries ratifying the new European Union constitution. For those who wish to see the constitution ratified, watching the French approach a referendum on that subject scheduled for May 29 is the political equivalent of watching the last few minutes of a close football game.

French President Jacques Chirac is campaigning very actively, virtually putting his presidency on the line for a "yes" vote. There is unholy terror in Europe that French voters may choose the referendum as the occasion to administer a public drubbing to the unpopular French government headed by Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. The problem is that all 25 EU members must ratify the constitution for it to go into effect. French rejection would stall the whole process.

On the other hand, the Italians, no less interested in what the constitution means for them than the French are, rolled it through both houses of the Italian parliament with no strain or pain. Countries can choose to ratify either through parliamentary action or referendum.

Italy has always been at the very center of European developments, sometimes, unfortunately, as a battleground, more often as the political, economic, and cultural center of the continent. The father of modern Italy, Giuseppe Mazzini, founded "Young Italy," which led to the unification and independence of the Italian state. Five of eight of Europe's oldest universities are in Italy. Italy had universal male suffrage before the United Kingdom. It also used poison gas against the Ethiopians in the 1930s.

Italy's contemporary politics are in their habitual muddle, although the moderate right, larger-than-life political and media mogul Berlusconi has been center-stage, off and on, since 1993. The next question is whether his coalition's electoral loss in 11 of 13 regions this month will push him to move up elections from their required date in 2006. Tax cuts haven't helped him; withdrawal of Italian troops from Iraq might.

An invitation to address the Dante Alighieri Society, a scholarly group of Italians and Italian-Americans in Pittsburgh, sent me off to research Italy to prepare for the talk.

Marcus Aurelius judged Christian fanaticism to be a danger to the future of the Roman state in the second century. Rome had become obsessed with its security by the third. By the fifth, civilian authority over the military had slipped substantially and the demands of the military for the resources of the state had become irresistible. By the end of that century, the Roman Empire was gone.

The cardinals have now chosen a German to succeed a Pole as pope - a European, but not an Italian. Yet Italy, as the core of Europe, will prevail.

Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.



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