By Madeleine Johnson
n a new book I found as gripping as crime novelist Stieg Larrson's triology, Italian investigative journalist Ferruccio Pinotti has produced a remarkable portrait of the charismatic Catholic movement known as Comunione e liberazione.
In "La Lobby di Dio" ("God's Lobby") Pinotti persuasively argues that Comunione e liberazione — known in Italy as Cl — is more powerful than Opus Dei, more well-oiled than freemasonry, and more "plugged in" than Confindustria, Italy's manufacturer's association. According to Eugenio Scalfari, the longtime editor of the daily La Repubblica, "Not even the Mafia has so much power. In hospitals, healthcare, universities...."
Known in the United States as Communion and Liberation, Cl's tenets are often confused with those of Marxist Liberation Theology. They couldn't be more different.
Secretive, wily and wealthy, Cl attracts sensationalist commentary, sloppy documentation and partisan conclusions.
But Pinotti avoids these traps. Although he acknowledges that Cl brings friendship and spiritual comfort to thousands, he is disturbed by how it stifles personal freedom and perpetuates Italy's patronage system.
Cl began as a student movement founded in 1954 by priest Don Luigi Giussani at Milan's Berchet Liceo classico. Gioventù studentesca, its original name, emphasized communal activities and sought to fill the existential and spiritual voids of adolescence. Virulently anti-Communist, it was a Catholic alternative to the radical youth movements of the 1960s. John Paul II officially recognized Cl in 1982. Group activity sustains its Christian message. The Ciellini hike, sing and study together. Later, they do business together.
Pinotti covers Cl's political and economic power, its recruiting system, legal battles, its dissenters, and its future. He clears up common confusion with the more elitist Opus Dei.
He also confirms some gossip. Roberto Formigoni, president of the Lombard region (who got Berlusconi's dental hygienist Nicole Minetti her political post) has been a Ciellino since the early 1960s. He belongs to the exclusive Memores Domini order, lay friars who vow poverty and chastity, live communally, and give their worldly possessions to Cl. However, Formigioni, considered a possible heir to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, has been pictured vacationing on a luxury yacht.
Pinotti also confirms the urban legend that top medical posts are reserved for Ciellini — quoting Enrico De Alessandri, a former manager in the regional government, who was fired after criticizing Cl.
The book contrasts Cl's spiritual mission with its political and economic ambitions, which it pursues through its network of personal alliances. Ciellini connections notoriously trump experience or professional credentials when it comes to getting a job.
Cl's other source of power is its "economic arm," the Compagnia delle opere (Cdo), which flanks its religious communities, retreats and youth activities. The Cdo is a professional and commercial network with 35,000 members, including 1,000 NGOs, 41 offices and annual turnover of €70 billion. Yes, that's right: billion.
Joining Cdo gives members access to favorable loan and insurance conditions as well as connecting them to a national network. It holds an annual fair where members and non-members can seek a piece of the pie. Cl says its business activities represent a "third way" between Wild West markets and East bloc central planning. Its mantra is "more society, less state".
Italy was once a punching bag when compared to "king innovator" America, but times have changed.
Little mentioned today, the Shakers may have something valuable to offer a busy, distracted world.
Victim-hood and concepts of responsibility often clash, which is why paternal roadmaps help.
The smell of a new place can all at once remind you of a lifetime of global arrivals.
Understanding a generation's profound frugality sometimes requires decades, and context.
More Milan Notebook