Every year as summer draws to a close, Italy’s media fills with reports of two major meetings. One is the Meeting for friendship among peoples and the other is the Ambrosetti Forum. Both are attended by Italian and international movers and shakers. Usually, Italy’s prime ministers make an appearance at these meetings too.
This year, 2014, Italy’s latest prime minister, Matteo Renzi, avoided both. Publicly, Renzi did not attend either meeting because he says he wants to make a break with the clientelism of the past. He recently railed against the informal though exceptionally powerful association of Italian industrialists known as the salotto buono – or good sitting room. The Ambrosetti Forum is more or less a big get together for the salotto buono and its friends.
One wonders, though, whether Mr Renzi avoided these meetings to ensure he didn’t have to face any awkward questions. Anyway, what are these meetings, who organises them and what effect do they have upon Italy?
First of all, here’s something about the annual meeting and cultural event run by the organisation known as Communion and Liberation. Then I’ll take a more detailed look at this controversial organisation itself. I’ll write about the Ambrosetti Forum, another time.
Communion and Liberation
The Meeting for friendship among peoples, often shortened to The Meeting, is organised by ultra-Roman Catholic movement Communion and Liberation – CL. This annual event, held at Rimini’s trade fair complex, attracts as many as 800,000 people. Past guests have included popes, politicians – both Italian and foreign, nobel prize winners and personalties from the arts and culture. Mr Bunga Bunga convict Berlusconi has attended The Meeting three times. Many, many more influential Italian politicians from all sides of the political spectrum have participated too.
How Come a Religious Association Meeting Attracts So Many?
The answer in one word: influence. Communion and Liberation, which organises The Meeting, is a rather controversial and cliquey right-leaning but very powerful ultra-Roman Catholic movement. One of its primary aims seems to be to increase the political and economic influence of the Roman Catholic church in Italy and far beyond Italy’s boundaries. In Italy, it has made a huge amount of progress on the influence front.
Italy’s infrastructure minister, Maurizio Lupi is a “cellino” which is the semi-derogatory term used to describe members of this purportedly religious organisation. Some in Italy regard Communion and Liberation as being rather sinister and not unlike a sect or close to freemasonry. CL’s power is unquestionable.
“Not even the mafia of Palermo has so much power. In hospitals, social assistance, universities, everything is run by four or five people”, commented former editor of Italian newspaper La Repubblica Eugenio Scalfari in 2008.
A Roman Catholic priest I know here in Milan, Italy is not a fan of Communion and Liberation. Indeed, he dislikes the organisation intensely. I won’t mention the name of this priest in case he faces any backlash. Other members of the Roman Catholic church have not been overly happy with the organisation or its aims.
During a private audience, Pope John Paul is reported to have reproved the president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Ballestrero of Turin, for his lack of enthusiasm for CL: “When you come to know them better”, the cardinal replied, “you won’t like them that much either.” – Wikipedia
Communion and Liberation members carry no membership cards and no list of the estimated 300,000 or so members worldwide exists either. Indeed, it’s very hard to know just who the members of this organisation actually are. Some admit to belonging to CL, though others do not, at least not openly.
Facing, and denying, a string of allegations relating to corruption and fraud, is Communion and Liberation member Roberto Formigoni, a former governor of the Italian region of Lombardy; he’s also part of the sect within the sect known as the Memores Domini. Supposedly, the Memores Domini people take a vow of celibacy, though doubts exist as to whether this is respected. Vatican reporter John Allen claimed that the Papal household was run by Memores Domini members with ex-Pope Benedict being a great fan of the sect. Reportedly, Pope Francis is also a supporter of Communion and Liberation, though publicly, he is against corruption.
Communion and Liberation was close to Italy’s Christian Democrat political party, the members of which splintered into what are today’s centre-left and centre-right political parties after the ‘clean hands’ and ‘bribesville’ scandals of the early 1990s. Alleged members of Communion and Liberation were caught up in Italy’s most notorious corruption scandals.
Owing to the lack of membership cards or a membership register, proving that Communion and Liberation is involved in corruption or whether favouritism is shown to members is not simple. It is strongly suspected, for example, that managers within the public health system in Lombardy had been awarding services contracts to fellow Communion and Liberation associates. Investigators are trying to establish whether or not public tender procedures were ‘fixed’ to ensure certain companies won them. In other words, the influence of CL distorts the free market.
The tentacles of Communion and Liberation spread right into the very heart of Italy’s political and ecclesiastical institutions in Italy.
Gianni Letta, one of Silvio Berlusconi’s closest advisors, and a relation of former prime minister of Italy, Enrico Letta, has links to Communion and Liberation. Berlusconi himself has had links to the organisation since the mid 1970s.
Not only is it well entrenched within government and the Roman Catholic church, amongst the organisation’s members are bankers and many business owners.
By all accounts becoming a member of this so-called religious organisation has its advantages in cliquey Italy. Italian friends – not, as far as I understand, members of Communion and Liberation – have told me that the organisation looks after its own very well indeed. Businesses find business through Communion and Liberation connections and individuals find jobs. It’s a kind of Roman Catholic Linked In.
Italian news website Il Post ran an article on Communion and Liberation back in 2012 in which it mentioned the Compagnia delle Opere (CDO), a kind of Roman Catholic employer’s association. The CDO boasts links to 34,000 businesses worldwide, the turnover of which is put at €70 billion. Not only this, but members receive favourable credit terms from associated banks. In some areas of Italy, the CDO is a vociferous business lobby.
In complex Italy, many businesses will find the advantages offered by membership to be attractive and highly advantageous.
The organisation is also active within Italy’s university system which, no doubt, proves a healthy recruitment environment thus extending Communion and Liberation’s influence from one generation to the next.
Politically, Communion and Liberation tends to lean very much to the right. Roberto Formigoni, Gianni Letta, and Maurizio Lupi were all members of Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party. While Formigoni and Letta still are, Lupi is now a member of the NCD or New Centre Right party led by former Berlusconi protégé, Angelino Alfano.
The stance of Communion and Liberation on Italy’s corruption problem is unclear, as one might expect from an organisation which apparently thrives on clientelism. Its long time association with one tax fraud convict Silvio Berlusconi suggests that it is not averse to unorthodox and unethical business practices. Nor do the accusations faced by Formigoni. It was Berlusconi who, conveniently, ensured Roberto Formigoni ended up as a senator thus protecting him from arrest. The relationship between Berlusconi and Formigoni has proven beneficial to both parties.
Is Communion and Liberation in favour of reforming Italy?
Unlikely. Its well oiled and greased machine works pretty well the way it is. If Italy starts functioning well, there will be no need for Communion and Liberation. You can be sure the organisation is aware of this. It is arguably, not in the organisation’s interests for Italy to be reformed.
How does one join Communion and Liberation? That’s a very good question. From a little web based research, it appears that one has to be introduced. However, attending one of CL’s events might help start the ball rolling. If you want to know more, Google will point you in the right direction. I’m not sure I want to.