Tryin' to make me go to rehab...

Silvio_Berlusconi_to_a_joint_session_of_Congress Bacchanals at his residence, liaisons with prostititutes, an ambiguous relationship with a teenage girl -- allegations against the Italian Prime Minister have been roiling the country for months.

You think that the Silvio Berlusconi story couldn't get more luridly Baroque -- then darned if someone doesn't slap on another layer. Add to politics and sex a religious element, and it gets very complicated. Foreign readers, possibly unused to reading for Italian nuance between the lines (unlike some of our Vaticanista commentators), need a writer who will tell the story clearly and explain the subtleties. Particularly the theological ones. People "get" prostitutes and models, but they don't always understand rituals of penitence.

And in this case, believe it or not, oft-critiqued Times of London Vatican Correspondent Richard Owen has done a very nice job. We'll get back to him in a minute.

But first, the lede of a story from the Italian news agency Adnkronos which gives readers the story with a little Italian tinting:

Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi on Friday cancelled plans to attend a religious service for the remission of sins in the quake-hit city of L'Aquila and a dinner with the Vatican's secretary of state, Tarcisio Bertone. Berlusconi and Bertone were due to head to the city for the annual "Perdonanza" or festival of forgiveness, instituted by the 13th-century Pope Celestine V.

The scandal-plagued Berlusconi was to have been accompanied by his equal opportunities minister, Mara Carfagna, a former model to whom the premier once professed: "If I weren't married, I'd marry you."

But at the last minute Berlusconi's office announced he would not be attending the event to "avoid exploitation" and would send his top aide, Gianni Letta, instead.

Was it strictly neccessary to mention equal opportunities (hmmm) minister Carfagna? I think not. But the fact that Berlusconi was attending a service instituted by a 13th-century Pope to provide an opportunity for penance is important. Strangely, though, the article does not say that it was Cardinal Bertone, Vatican Secretary of State, who decided he could do without the dinner.

Now why would the second-in-command at the Vatican turn his back on a chance to have dinner with a prospective penitent? In a story that balances news and analysis, unsnarling some of the complexities for baffled readers, Reuters correspondent Philip Pullella fills us in:

The rapid sequence of events began when Il Giornale, a national newspaper owned by Berlusconi's brother Paolo, ran a banner front-page headline against Dino Boffo, editor of Avvenire, the daily newspaper of the Italian Bishops Conference.

Il Giornale said Boffo, whose paper has been very critical of Berlusconi's private life, had accepted a plea bargain in a court in 2002 after he was accused of harassing a woman. The paper said Boffo had a homosexual relationship with her husband.

Il Giornale regularly attacks Berlusconi's critics but rarely if ever targets the Church.

It called Boffo, one of the most influential Catholic opinion makers, a hypocritical "supermoralist" who should not criticize Berlusconi's lifestyle when it said he has sexual skeletons in his own closet.

Read Pullella's article for Boffo's response. He quotes a source as saying "Vatican officials" went "ballistic" when they saw the Il Giornale story. Various stories say that Berlusconi has distanced himself from the Il Giornale article.

But readers still don't know why his brother's paper made what seems to be an almost unprecented attack on a highly influential editor on the eve of a service and dinner apparently intended to offer Berlusconi an opportunity to cleanse himself of some of the controversy and scandal of the past few years. In the first paragraph of his story on the fiasco, Owen sums up the current situation in a few words (not an easy job):

Silvio Berlusconi's relationship with the Catholic Church was in the deep freeze last night after he was forced to pull out of a Mass intended to begin his religious rehabilitation and his family's newspaper mounted a personal attack on the editor of Avvenire, the bishops' newspaper.

Here's some really good analysis (also from the Times) by a professor at the American University in Rome that suggests that Berlusconi is a man on the edge.

But who knows? Did Berlusconi jump? Was he pushed? Why publicly take on the church at the highest levels? Read National Catholic Reporter senior correspondent John L. Allen's blog for what may be a partial answer.

There will be another act, or perhaps many acts, in this opera buffa (or Boffo) and maybe we'll get a few answers. In the meantime, we need writers who can ride the waves of political and religious tempests without drowning in a sea of Italian intrigue. This requires that religion writers be able to explain the theatrical and traditional aspects of a culture in which a public display of atonement is even more effective than an appearance on a talk show or a press conference (atonement, American-style). Covering religion Italian-style demands continued skill in translation, even if the writer's first language is English. The most experienced Vatican-watchers fill in some pieces where they can -- or admit that they don't have all the pieces.

Berlusconi addressing a joint session of Congress a few years ago from Wikimedia Commons

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