Church-tax scandal: Are secular Italians paying for Berlusconi’s sins ?

NSS Newsline - november 2009
Thursday 3 December 2009
popularity : 1%

By Muriel Fraser

On their income tax forms Italians can choose to support good works by the state, rather than apportioning their "church tax" to a religion. However, it’s been revealed that since September a Decree has allowed Prime Minister Berlusconi to apportion this money as he pleases. In 2009 he used this to give to Catholic churches and monasteries €10.6 million (£9.5 million) which Italian taxpayers had tried to direct to non-religious purposes.

For example, €369,000 (over £332,000) of the tax money from those who ticked the "secular" box was given to the Brotherhood of Saint Mary’s Purity. Its task is to conduct the Holy Saturday part of the "Procession of Mary’s Desolation" in Gallipoli. The Brothers of Saint Mary’s Purity wear long white penitentiary robes, short yellow cloaks and peaked hoods with eyeholes, as they parade with torches, crosses and statues of the Virgin to the sound of a funeral march.

The Prime-Ministerial funding for this display of penitence comes at an interesting time. In August Berlusconi was rebuked by the editor of the Italian bishops’ daily for his dalliance with models. The Milan newspaper controlled by the Prime Minister’s brother shot back, attacking the editor of the Church newspaper who’d breached both Church morality and the secular law.

On the same day as the journalistic attack, Berlusconi decided not to join the Vatican Secretary of State at a famous annual "repentance" Mass. Berlusconi’s cancellation was widely seen as done out of embarrassment for the Milan paper’s report, for this had undercut his attempt to avoid censure from strict Catholics by taking part in the ceremony.

One Church source said that when Vatican officials saw the newspaper report they "went ballistic". Since support from Catholic voters is considered crucial for any Italian government to come to power, already on August 30 Berlusconi sought to distance himself from the journalistic attack on the Church editor and the same day a leader in his party announced it would try to mend relations with the Church. Yet, after pulling out of the "repentance" Mass, it remained unclear exactly how the Prime Minister was going to absolve his sins — until the revelations about the use of the Decree to fund the Church.

There is a long Catholic tradition of performing penance in monetary form, and it was the sale of indulgences which prompted Luther’s break with the Church. Even there, however, the money donated by the sinner was expected to be his own. Now it appears that Berlusconi and the Vatican have arranged to have the errant Prime Minister’s penance paid for by someone else – by the Italian secularists.


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