involving an Italian Catholic newspaper editor, says Desmond O’Grady Dino Boffo, editor of Italy’s national Catholic daily Avvenire, fell to friendly fire – but who loaded the gun? Italian media have been asking the question excitedly in the second chapter of a story which has revealed tensions between the Vatican and the Italian bishops’ conference. It is one of those stories in which everyone is discredited and even Pope Benedict has been dragged into it.
The story began last August when the Milan daily Il Giornale, owned by Paolo Berlusconi, brother of prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, published a document from a tribunal which showed that in 2004 Dino Boffo had paid €516 (£449) to close a case against him for telephonic harassment. The document, which was authentic, gave no more details.
Together with it was a second document which, it was claimed, provided the background to the first. It showed Boffo was a homosexual.
Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, head of the Italian bishops’ conference, which owns Avvenire, backed Boffo. But surprisingly Giovanni Maria Vian, editor of the Vatican daily ’Osservatore Romano, gave an interview to the Milan Corriere della Sera in which he criticised him, and said Boffo had exaggerated in comparing the government’s anti-clandestine immigrant measures to the Shoah. He also pointed out that L’Osservatore Romano had not criticised Berlusconi’s government as had vvenire .
Avvenire had not been hostile to the government but, in response to readers who wrote scandalised by Silvo Berlusconi’s taste for sexual high jinks, Boffo had voiced some criticism of the prime minister.
In his front-page denunciation of Boffo, Vittorio Feltri, the editor of Il Giornale, called him a moralist who, because of his judicial record, had no right to criticise Berlusconi. In other words, he was a false moralist.
Silvio Berlusconi claimed he had not known the attack was to be made on Boffo but relations with the Vatican were damaged, at least temporarily. Boffo resigned. That seemed the end of the story. But instead it was only the end of the first chapter.
The saga resumed recently when Feltri, who was under pressure from Boffo’s lawyers, admitted the second document was false. On February 22 in Milan the Order of Journalists will hold a hearing to determine whether he should be expelled from the Order.
In his defence Feltri has said he had the documents from such a high-level Church figure that he felt there was no need to check on them.
That sent the newshounds running again. The main suspects were Vian and his “superior”, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State.
A small but influential daily, Il Foglio, made reiterated, precise accusations against Vian but there was no response. A national television programme, L’Infedele, used to recent Vatican fluffs and fumbles, devoted a lengthy primetime programme asking whether Cardinal Bertone and Vian were responsible for a vendetta against Boffo. It was claimed that Pope Benedict was receiving a doctored press summary which excluded comments on the Boffo case. The Italian press was treating the Vatican like one of the nation’s faction-riven political parties engaged in witless squabbles.
Pope Benedict had his private secretary, Mgr Georg Gänswein, carry out an internal enquiry. Finally, the Vatican press office issued an emphatic statement that the Pope had full confidence in his collaborators and that “what is taking place is a defamation campaign against the Holy See, including the Roman Pontiff himself”. It was only four paragraphs but it underlined the Pope’s confidence in L’Osservatore Romano four times. Il Foglio claimed Vian had written the communiqué.
All the sound and fury signifies something. The authentic and the false documents have been circulating together for some time. They were sent to all the Italian bishops and also to others but nothing was done. Evidently whoever circulated them decided to go public through Feltri.
Since the admission that the second document was false there has been a surge of sympathy for Boffo. But cooler heads have pointed out that it was imprudent of the Italian bishops’ conference to maintain Boffo in a position where he could be blackmailed.
In his 15 years as editor of Avvenire Boffo improved its quality and its sales. It now hovers about 10th among dailies, just topping 100,000 sales. Boffo was the key figure in Catholic media strategy, being the director of a Catholic satellite television channel and of a Catholic radio network. Moreover, he had a role in both the direction of the Catholic University in Milan and in the Toniolo Foundation responsible for it. Key appointments in both these institutions are imminent but Boffo is no longer part of them. The anti-Boffo documents circulated at the Catholic University months before they were published.
The Boffo case is part of a struggle for influence in the Italian Church. But it also reflects the uneasy relations between the Italian Church and the Vatican.
Boffo’s main backer was Cardinal Camillo Ruini who, until 2007, was vicar of Rome and president of the bishops’ conference. Because of a favourable Concordat, the Italian Church has become the third richest after that of the United States and Germany. A lot of money has gone into a so-called “cultural project” Cardinal Ruini fostered to raise the intellectual level of Italian Catholics. L’Avvenire benefited.
Cardinal Ruini was a presence on the Italian political scene, which irritated many non-Catholics and some Catholics also. His attitude seemed to be that since the fragmentation of the Christian Democratic Party, which had governed Italy for years with various partners or none and represented most Catholics in politics, the Catholic viewpoint should be put by the bishops as happens in other countries. Cardinal Bertone did not agree as far as national politics were concerned. When Cardinal Bagnasco, the Archbishop of Genoa, was appointed as successor to Cardinal Ruini, Cardinal Bertone wrote him a open letter spelling out that relations with “political institutions” were to be handled by the Holy See.
The result is that now there is criticism not of the Italian bishops interfering in national politics but of a foreign state (the Vatican) interfering. Bagnasco has been caught in the middle between the Secreteriat of State, which wants to keep a tight rein on the bishops, and what remains of Cardinal Ruini’s reign.
The nagging tension between the Italian bishops and the Vatican surfaced because of the Boffo case, but the Secretariat of State did not promptly tackle the issue. For this reason it had to bring Pope Benedict into play.
It is no help, of course, that some seasoned members of the Secretariat of State did not welcome Pope Benedict’s appointment of Cardinal Bertone who had no diplomatic experience and no English. But as a jolly extrovert he complements Pope Benedict who trusts him from the time they worked together in the Congregation for the Faith. The Secretariat of State veterans took his appointment as an example of the Peter Principle, which ensures a man is promoted beyond his competence. Nor do they endorse his methods, which involve frequent travel and public appearances rather than steady desk work: while his predecessor, Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, gave 40 talks in 11 years, in his three years and four months Bertone has given 365. The uneasiness spills over to concern about the appointments which are considered imminent to several key Vatican positions, the reform of the liturgy in English and the rush to beatify John Paul II.
The most pointed statement on the situation was made, probably inadvertently, by Fr Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, when asked if Pope Benedict knew what was going on. “Of course,” he reportedly replied, “the Holy Father reads the papers.” The trick, however, is to know what is going on before the shenanigans hit the papers.