The Cardinal's Virtues
Dec 16, 2005
Camillo Cardinal Ruini is not shy about pushing Church doctrine onto the Italian political agenda
(TIME, December 4, 2005) Church and state rub shoulders in the Eternal City — two adjacent cultures with their own rhythms and pageantry. The crowd packing a conference room at Rome's Villa Aurelia last Friday morning — nearly all men, most in business suits — look like members of a political tribe. They greet each other with kisses on each cheek and chatter away as they await one of the most influential public figures in Italy, who is expected to deliver a key policy speech. At a few minutes after 10 a.m. the hubbub ceases, and all eyes turn to the man at the microphone. He begins to speak, calmly and quietly. Camillo Cardinal Ruini doesn't need to raise his voice to command attention. For some months now, Italian politicians, as well as his colleagues in the Church hierarchy, have been hanging on his words.
Last April's election of traditionalist Pope Benedict XVI boosted the standing of conservatives like Ruini, 74. The Cardinal, the head of the Italian Bishops' Conference, also serves as the Vicar of Rome, charged with standing in for the Pope in many of his duties as official Bishop of Rome. In that role, Ruini forged close relationships with Pope John Paul II and with his successor, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, another top official in the Roman Curia. Vatican insiders say Ruini's support for Ratzinger in the conclave was crucial to his election. The Pope has since praised Ruini repeatedly for his aggressive — and effective — defense of Roman Catholic values in Italy's public sphere. A lanky figure with a tendency to slouch, Ruini can seem dour at times. But when it's time to work a room and press the flesh of the faithful, he knows how to crack a smile.
Over the past six months, Ruini has skillfully used the political stage to steer the Italian public closer to the Church's teachings. In 1974 and 1981, Italian citizens voted in referendums to legalize divorce and abortion respectively. But in June, the public failed to ratify a proposal that would have overturned Italy's restrictive laws on assisted fertility and stem-cell research. Politicians of all stripes acknowledge Ruini as the architect of that victory, thanks to a strategy that simply called for Italians to stay home. The measure attracted a voter turnout of 25.9%, far below the 50% required for a binding result.
And he hasn't stopped there. Buoyed by the outcome, Ruini has used lectures, homilies and rare interviews to help squash talk of Italy following Spain's lead on gay marriage, has challenged the use of the abortion pill RU486, and has called on the state to use pro-life counselors to speak with women considering an abortion. "Cardinal Ruini has immense political capacity," says one well-placed Catholic observer. "He knows you can't just talk about the sacraments. You need to use secular language. And you also need to know when to say nothing."
The last of these skills isn't much in evidence these days. Ruini's latest speech capped a week of almost constant headlines generated by earlier calls to restrict abortion, and warnings against intermarriage between Catholics and Muslims. On Friday, after defending the state's fundamental role in Italian society, he spoke up for the first time in favor of "intelligent design," the controversial theory popular with some U.S. conservatives that says evolution alone cannot explain the existence of the natural world. The Cardinal insists that he is just voicing the Church's teachings, as he has always done. But nowadays his message is attracting an ever more powerful congregation.
That's possible because the relationship between Church and state has been in flux for well over a decade. In postwar Italy, the Christian Democrats held or shared power in every government until 1992. But despite its leaders' intimate ties to the Vatican hierarchy, the party continued to stress the secular nature of politics. Its collapse after a bribery scandal in the early 1990s created a diaspora of former Christian Democrats into rival parties, and fierce competition among erstwhile colleagues. Each sought to demonstrate greater fidelity to the Church and better connections to the Holy See. "There was a whole political class of orphans, and Ruini was skillful in realizing that he could see which would offer more [help in pushing Catholic values]," says Edmondo Berselli, editor of the political journal Il Mulino. This "created something akin to a ratings agency for politicians' positions on moral values issues." Emma Bonino, a leader of the Radical Party, which led successful referendum battles to legalize divorce and abortion, is one of the few high-ups who aggressively challenges Ruini. "It has never been this bad, where their influence is so extensive and leveraged publicly on such a daily basis," she says of the Church hierarchy. "In the past, no matter what the debate, it was politicians on the front line, not the bishops."
Ruini's defenders say he has every right to seek to influence government policy. Francesco Rutelli, leader of the the centrist opposition Margherita party, used to be a Radical Party ally of Bonino, but rediscovered his Catholic faith while serving as mayor of Rome in the 1990s. He angered many of his center-left allies by backing Ruini's boycott of the assisted fertility referendum. Rutelli told Time that Italy remains a strongly secular state, but that it is "fully legitimate" that the bishops take public stances.
Italian Minister of Culture Rocco Buttiglione had his own battle over Church–state issues last year. His nomination as a European Commissioner was torpedoed after he defended Catholic teaching on abortion and homosexuals in his confirmation hearings in Strasbourg. Buttiglione, who has known Ruini for more than 30 years, says he is "very irritating for the intellectual establishment because he doesn't have an inferiority complex about his Catholic values. He says quite clearly what he thinks ... that what the Church does in Italy is positive for the country, that religion offers important values you need in public life." Buttiglione adds that the Cardinal has a talent for communicating with his countryfolk. "Cardinal Ruini is deeply, deeply Italian," he says.
That's a talent that will be in even greater demand in the run-up to April elections, when Italian voters will decide whether to reinstall Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for another five years or to oust him in favor of former European Commission President Romano Prodi. Thirty-six years ago, a young priest officiated at the wedding of a fresh-faced economics professor, who, like the priest, came from a region near Bologna. The priest and the professor, Ruini and Prodi, have weathered the years; their early rapport may have endured less well. Prodi ignored the Cardinal's call to boycott the June referendum, saying he was "a grown-up Catholic and I'm going to vote." But Prodi has since been more careful. As Italians are learning, the Cardinal wields enough influence to preside not only over marriages, but over the funerals of political hopes.