Berlusconi Appeals for Communion

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Osservatore Romano / Getty

Pope Benedict XVI greets Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi in St. Peter's basilica after celebrating a mass at the Vatican in 2005.

Rudolph Giuliani and Silvio Berlusconi share more than just Italian roots and an off-the-cuff approach to politics. The former mayor of New York and current Prime Minister of Italy also have the same beef with Pope Benedict XVI and the rules of the Catholic Church. Both political leaders are divorced and remarried Catholics, which shuts them out from receiving Holy Communion because of longstanding Church doctrine that forbids divorce. The ban, however, has not stopped either Berlusconi or Giuliani from receiving communion — and getting caught on camera doing so, with much tsk-tsking from the Church.

Now Berlusconi, a media mogul who boasts about his Casanova talents, is publicly pushing for Benedict to change the Communion rules for remarried Catholics. A story in the Italian daily he owns, Il Giornale, recounted how the 71-year-old Prime Minister last Saturday passed up Communion, but asked the local bishop at the chapel near his villa on the island of Sardinia to reconsider the standing rules. Bishop Sebastiano Sanguinetti reportedly responded: "Go tell that to someone higher than me." There was no indication that Berlusconi had raised the matter when he met the pontiff earlier this month at the Vatican.

An Italian newspaper published a photograph last year of Berlusconi receiving communion at the 2000 private funeral in Tunisia of former Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi. Giuliani for his part was much more bold in his defiance of the ban, lining up for communion (offered in the pews by a priest) at the St. Patrick's Cathedral Mass during the Pope's visit to New York in April. New York's Archbishop, Cardinal Edward Egan, later publicly scolded the former mayor and presidential candidate, saying they had "an understanding" that he would not take Communion. A spokeswoman for Giuliani said his faith "is a deeply personal matter and should remain confidential."

The debate over Communion and politicians flared up during the 2004 race for the White House, when the Archbishop of St. Louis said he would deny the rite to Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, a pro-choice Catholic. Kerry is also divorced, but had his first marriage annulled, which allows Catholics to remarry in the Church. Last year, the Vatican reversed the annulment of Joseph P. Kennedy II's marriage to Sheila Rauch, who had written a book lambasting her ex-husband and the Catholic Church's practice of expunging marriages from their history. There have been no reports as to whether Kennedy, a former Congressman and son of Robert Kennedy, has stopped receiving the sacraments since Rauch's successful appeal was certified.

The rumblings on the specific issue of divorced Catholics were in large part stirred by the Pope himself. Shortly after rising to the papacy, Benedict said the problem needed "study." During a July 2005 meeting with priests from the Italian mountain region of Valle d'Aosta, the Pope said: "We all know that this is a particularly painful situation. None of us has a ready-made solution, because each person's situation is different."

Still, in the end, the Pope has not budged on the issue. The 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist held firm to the total ban for remarried Catholics who have not obtained an annulment. And Sunday, following Berlusconi's public request to his bishop, Benedict spoke about Communion to a gathering in Canada by video hookup. Though he didn't specifically cite divorce, the Pope said: "We must do all in our power to receive it with a pure heart." Again he offered his empathy for "those who cannot have Communion due to their situation," and urged them to nonetheless "find strength" in attending Mass, even if they must stay in the pews when their fellow parishioners approach the pulpit for the sacrament.

The Pope has expressed special concern for those devout Catholics who may face circumstances beyond their control: people who were married in the Church without being true believers, and only later marry a second time in full consciousness of their commitment to Catholicism; Catholics who wanted to stay in their original marriage, but were left by their spouse; victims of marital abuse. Many, however, are more like Giuliani and Berlusconi: ordinary sinners in search of a taste of salvation when Sunday rolls around.