Defender of the Faith

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If opposites attract, then it makes perfect sense that Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, one of the most conservative members of the Italian Catholic hierarchy, should be based in Bologna, traditionally a leftist stronghold in northern Italy. The iconoclastic Archbishop has been accused of a host of sins by his secular critics. They say he's intransigent, sexist and living in the past. His latest cause celèbre, a suggestion that the government's immigration policy should favor Catholics over Muslims, drew criticism from church and lay leaders alike. But Biffi thrives on conflict. He even repeated his proposal at a conference on immigration last month, charging that "the vast majority of Muslims come here intent on remaining outside our humanity as well as the most essential and non-negotiable aspects of our secular identity."

A theologian by training, Biffi, 72, has been Archbishop of Bologna since 1984. With his keen intellect and sharp wit he enjoys jostling with leftists, believers or not. Whether the subject is gay rights, radical feminism or abortion, he'll make his voice heard. Equal opportunity for Biffi means he can blast both Catholics and communists, and Christians feel his heat just as often as avowed atheists. The Cardinal complains Italian priests talk about things such as how to minister to divorced Catholics, but never make any mention of how to "make Christians understand that divorce is an egoistical act in opposition to God's plan."

The Gospel according to Biffi contains a lot more tough love than it does feel-good theology. Biffi sees dangers in putting compassion ahead of what he considers to be the truth. He notes that modern Christians always want to show their concern for unwed mothers and AIDS victims, but, he says, they tend to be "much less worried about remembering that violation of God's commandments and behavior against chastity always bring with them the risk of self-destruction, self-destruction here on earth and putting one's eternal life in danger."

Despite all the commotion he caused on the immigration issue, Biffi had chosen his words carefully. He first made his comments in a 36-page "pastoral note" to the Catholics of Bologna. The question of immigrants comes in a section entitled "Challenges of Our Time" and the Archbishop recognizes the need for Christian charity to all, regardless of religious affiliation. "Those who belong to other, non-Christian religions," he writes, "are to be loved, and helped in their needs as much as possible." But clearly not all immigrants are to be loved in the same way at the same time. "It's necessary to be seriously concerned about saving the nation's own identity," he wrote. "Italy is not a deserted or uninhabited land, without history, without living traditions and without an unmistakable cultural and spiritual shape."

Biffi claims that most Muslims have come to Europe not to assimilate but with the hope of "making us all become essentially like them." He did not get a lot of support, although former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said the Cardinal's suggestion was "worthy of attention." Most political leaders, however, could barely conceal their scorn. "If the country wants to get rid of those who are fundamentalists and intolerant, it should start with him," said Marco Cappato, a Radical Party deputy in the European Parliament. Liberal Italian Catholics were also quick to distance themselves from Biffi's bully pulpit. "This is the road to racism," declared Antonio Riboldi, a former Bishop of Acerra, a small diocese outside Naples.

But other Italian Catholics, including Vatican Secretary of State Angelo Sodano, No. 2 in the Church hierarchy, argued that Biffi had a point. "He gets a lot more support in the Vatican than he does from the other Italian bishops, who are more to the left," said Father Gianni Baget Bozzo, a theologian and political commentator. "Many of the bishops think the same way Biffi does, however, but don't dare say it."

Italy has only about 1.5 million immigrants, more than 400,000 of whom are Muslims, mostly from northern Africa. The numbers are still relatively small, and except for isolated incidents, the country has not seen much backlash against immigrants. While Muslims and other non-Christians may find it hard to integrate in what has for decades been a monocultural society, many find jobs and employers who treat them well. One of the most eloquent responses to Biffi came from Romano Prodi, President of the European Commission. As a native of Bologna, Prodi knows Biffi well. Just days after the Archbishop's assertion that Europe would become either Christian or Moslem, Prodi inaugurated a Sikh temple outside his hometown.