THERE is a growing schism in the Italian Catholic Church today. And it is a much more serious breach than that promoted by Archbishop Lefebvre over the celebration of the 16th century Latin Mass.
The breach in the Italian Church concerns fundamental attitudes towards basic Christian doctrine and the Church's stance in the political arena, and arises from last year's General Election in Italy.
Dissension among Italian Catholics became obvious when Pope Paul made veiled threats of excommunication against Catholics who supported or voted for the Italian Communist Party. Members of the Italian hierarchy were not so circumspect, and made outright threats.
Pope Paul had said it was the duty of Catholics to support the Christian Democratic Party in the election — a party which had shown itself to be one of the most corrupt regimes in the history of Italian politics. It was the revelation of the corruption of ministers over the Lockheed bribes affair which prompted the election.
The Pope, in using the spiritual influence of the Church to support the Christian Democrats, horrified the vast mass of thinking Italian Catholics.
As well as the blatant involvement in politics — something the Church has always outwardly maintained it does not do— a Fine point of international law was brought up. The Vatican is an independent State, under international law, of which the Pope is the head. Therefore, it was argued, is the Pope entitled to interfere in the internal politics of what is, technically another country?
In simple terms, the Pope's action was regarded in exactly the same way as if he had ordered British Catholics to vote, say, for the Liberals during a British General Election.
Since the election a large number of priests have made their protests known and have been forceful in criticising what they consider the "corruptness" of the hierarchy in using "spiritual blackmail" to force Catholics to vote Christian Democrat.
The real significance of the election was not that the Christian Democrats just managed to scrape into office again but that the Communists made such widespread gains in spite of the threats of excommunication. It proved that a significant number of Italian Catholics refused to recognise the dictates of the Church on political matters.
The most outspoken attack on the hierarchy's involvement in politics from a Catholic leader came from Archbishop Helder Camara at the Catholic Church's International Eucharistic Conference in August last year.
Archbishop Camara, Brazil's "Apostle of the Poor", threw away his prepared speech to criticise the hierarchy's acceptance of "a new Fascism" which many Western governments were using as a means and excuse to fight Communism.
Archbishop Camara attacked the Catholic hierarchy for failing to recognise the antiCommunist talk of Western politicians as nothing more than "a new Nazism", It was a Fascism which Latin America knew only too well, and he referred to the CIA-inspired comp d'etat in Chile with its attendant secret police, torture chambers and concentration camps.
The schism between the traditional and the radical Catholics is contained in microcosm in the province of Latina, to the south of Rome. Latina is regarded as the start of the south by northerners and the start of the north by southerners — a sort of noman's-land frequently overlooked in the in-fighting between politicians from both areas.
In politics it has been, traditionally, Right-wing. It still fondly remembers Mussolini as the saviour of the province because, under the Fascists, the boggy wastelands, which comprise the biggest area of the province, were drained. Today, the province is fairly well off, with tobacco and grapes as its main crops, and power generated by one of Italy's few nuclear power stations.
A few years ago it would have been unheard of for Cornmunists to gain a foothold in the area. Today the Communists are the second largest party and there are several Communist deputies representing urban areas.
The political scene has vastly changed since the last election, but so has the attitudes of the priests who minister the area. It is they who reflect the schism in the Church.
I had several talks with one particular priest in the
Minturno-Scauri area, Fr. Giovanni De Paola, He claims that since the Communists nearly came to power in defiance of the hierarchy's admonition to all Catholics to vote Christian Democrat, the hierarchy had acted against many known radical priests.
Several dissidents in the southern provinces have been removed from posts where they influenced the populace.
The southern Italian provinces have, for generations, been the poorest, worst exploited, but traditionally the staunchest, supporters of conservative Italian Catholicism. It was in these areas that the Communists made their most spectacular gains in the election.
Fr De Paola blames Pope Paul for precipitating the rift in the Church by his involvement in the political arena — an arena he should never enter. It was sad, reflected Fr Dc Paola, that throughout history the ruling body of the Church always seemed to give its support to established governments no matter how corrupt, inhumane or reactionary.
The Church had never given support to any progressive movement trying to establish a more humane government.
The Italian people had believed, in view of the evidence presented against the Christian Democrats, and after their long years of instability and suffering under the regime, that the Church's only moral stance should be one of neutrality.
The Italian people realised the Church had special links with the Christian Democrats and therefore they did not expect the Church to condemn them openly. What shocked people was the Pope's open support for a corrupt regime.
To non-Italians, explained Fr De Paola, the Church in Italy might seem like a monolith. Inside, however, it had always been an entanglement of factions politely and almost imperceptibly fighting each other for the greater glory of God!
There weas the Pope and his advisers against the Curia, the Curia against the bishops. bishops against the clergy, liberals against conservatives, and so forth. Even among the laymen there was in-fighting from the wealthy Knights of Malta to Catholic Action groups.
It required a diplomat of skill to hold together all these factions. Fr De Paula felt that Pope Paul had been no diplomat and that his actions might very well lead to the most serious split in the Catholic Church since Luther.
He said: "The Church has reached an important stage in its history. It must re-evaluate its attitude towards the Christian Message.
"Is it going to go down as one of the last bastions of reaction, upholding the enslavement of man by man, holding out against all forms of human progress, upholding all regimes of the Right, however evil, however corrupt? Or will it adhere to the true teachings of Christ?"
Fr De Paola saw the Italian Church reaching a very grave position within the next two years. The Pope and hierarchy had thrown their weight behind the Christian Democrats. But a great number of the clergy, while accepting the Pope's jurisdiction in ecclesiastical matters, maintained the Pope had no right to use "spiritual blackmail' in matters of temporal concern. The more radical priests, such as Fr De Paola, say that the Church has a duty to support any movement which is aimed at overthrowing corruption and bringing in a more equalitarian and humane government for all citizens. Throughout Italy since the election there has been a greater polarisation of political opinion and more open and critical opinion of the Pope's political utterances. Until a few years ago the Italians preferred
to obey the maxim voile sciolto e pensiero stretto — open countenance and closed thoughts.
Today, however, the Italians seem heartily sick of corrupt government. Many now accept that the next government will be a Communist one and are confident that it will sweep away corruption and hail a new era of Italian prosperity.
"That is," commented Fr De Paella cynically, "the CIA willing. Italians have learnt Chile's lesson well. The sad thing is that we see the Church could be used as an instrument to destroy the aspirations of the Italian people and that is why the hierarchy and the Pope himself must come to know what is in the hearts of the clergy and the people of Italy."
He asked if 1 had read Niccolo Machiavelli, and insisted on reading the following passage in which he and 'many radical priests see significance; "Nor, on the other hand, has it (the Church) been so feeble as not to be able, when afraid of losing its temporal power, to call in a foreign potentate, as counterpoise in its defence against those powers which threaten to become supreme.
"The Church has kept us under sundry lords and princes. These have caused so much discord and debility that Italy has become the prey not only of powerful barbarians but also of every assailant."
According to Fr De Paola, in the event of a Communist Party victory in the next election, the Christian Democrats, in collusion with the Vatican, would, with the aid of the CIA, create a coup d'etat, as happened in Chile, which would either lead to a bloody civil war or to the establishment of a Chile or Greek (colonels') style Fascist regime.
"As Machiavelli shows, it is, unfortunately, part of the Church's tradition in Italian history."
It has already been suggested that the widespread violence, especially at universities, which has sprung up since the election, is part of a Right-wing plan to discredit Italian Communists before the next election. The violence is blamed on Communists, but those who instigate it are usually strangers to the area and others are known to be Right-wing militants.
So what is the role of radical priests, such as Fr De Paola, in the Church within the next few years'?
"We are, perhaps, like missionaries," he says. "We have to set out to reconvert the hierarchy, even the Pope himself so it seems, back to the true spirit of Christ's Message for mankind.
"The Catholic Church is'not an organisation to shore up fascistly inclined political regimes — whether they call themselves Democratic or Communist — and prevent the true Christian goal of an equalitarian, humane and pacifistic society. That was the goal of Christ: that must be the Catholics' goal."
Whatever the outcome of the "new missionaries", it would seem the next two years will be crucial in the history of the Italian Church.
Already the Latin American Church is almost solidly radical, and the schism between it and the Vatican is amply demonstrated by Archbishop Camara's attack. To many young Italian clergy, Camara is more their spiritual hero than Pope Paul. The Church, like Italy itself, seems poised for one of the biggest upheavals in its history.
Peter Berresford Ellis