Postcards from Rome

Nobody does demonstrations quite like Italians. I was recently back in Italy, and stumbled into a massive political demonstration in Piazza Navona, one of Rome’s most beautiful squares. The place was half filled with tourists and half filled with red-flag-waving devotees of the far left. 

Loudspeakers boomed out speeches, with the speaker’s image cast up on a jumbo television screen, but my favorite part was the sales booth set up by the demonstrators. Along with Il Manifesto, a paper once associated with Italy’s Communist party, the booth was hawking T-shirts with hammers and sickles and, oddly, little cartoon cats saying “Basta! (Enough).” There were even Che Guevera refrigerator magnets. Up on the screen, an impassioned orator tried to rouse the masses, but aside from the flag wavers, most of the masses were looking for gelato and souvenirs.

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This is not to suggest that Italy is tranquillo. The debt crisis, high unemployment and its embarrassing, randy prime minister dominate the headlines. Silvio Berlusconi is a sort of an Italian Donald Trump with hair plugs. He is unbelievably wealthy, has actually won elections and, in fact, has held power for an astonishing amount of time. The general economic malaise has not improved with a billionaire at the helm, however. And now, to make matters worse, he is embroiled in various sex scandals that appear to involve very young women. His wife has left him, and he is now an aging and not very likeable satyr, when what Italy needs is a sharp-eyed leader who can negotiate the dangerous waters of the Euro crisis. 

After having endured Italians making fun of Americans’ “overreaction” to the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal, I admit to taking some pleasure in hearing Italians wrestling with the moral questions raised by Berlusconi’s behavior. A Catholic philosopher I met at dinner had an intriguing analysis, noting that although Berlusconi is viewed as a protagonist of the right, in his values he is in many ways a product of the left. While it may not be able to hold power, the left has succeeded in changing Italian society. Its birth rate is the lowest in Europe. Divorce and abortion are legal. Sacramental practice is down and cohabitation is up. The right may control Parliament, but the left’s values have won the culture war, capturing the media, consumer marketing and even a prime minister. 

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Having returned to Rome many times, and having lived there once upon a time, I do keep an eye on how the Bella Città has changed. I was there when the first McDonald’s opened, and I am now pleased to report that the burger chain is starting to close stores. The noble Pantheon’s ancient pillars must no longer rub shoulders with the Golden Arches. 

Another, more significant change must be noted as well. The longtime chief of Catholic News Service’s Rome Bureau is retiring. John Thavis, with whom I worked side by side for three years (as did OSV Newsweekly editor John Norton), is one of the more astute observers of the Vatican. 

John is a Minnesota native but, to be honest, I thought he was a Rome “lifer.” He and his wife introduced my wife and me to many of the city’s charms, and occasionally helped us overcome its headaches. He also taught me the ropes as a Vatican journalist. 

John will be returning to his roots next year, thus opening up one of the plum assignments in Catholic journalism. His solid reporting and excellent writing will be missed.  

The jury is still out on whether he will miss the chaotic opera that is Italian politics, but he will certainly have no trouble finding a McDonald’s back home. 

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.