THE Italian elections of May 25 came at the time of the great peril to the French Republic, and the passionate talk one could hear in the streets and cafés seemed to overshadow the national issues. People clearly feared that as France goes, so eventually goes Italy. The two countries are closer than they appear, and democracy is not so strongly established in the Italian heritage as to be invulnerable.

It is in this light that one should assess the results of the elections. The people returned the Christian Democrats — that is, the Catholic party — to power by 42 per cent of the vote, giving them an additional few seats but leaving them short of the absolute majority they had been striving for. This showed prudence both ways. Possession in Italian politics is nine points of the law. The party has by now a huge well-oiled machine, experienced in doling out patronage and favors, and it looks stable and safe. Its very lack of a definite program allows it to be most things to most men.

The chief loser was the rock-ribbed Right in its various disguises. The Monarchists were cut down to half of their previous 7 per cent. Their colorful rabble-rousing chief, millionaire shipowner Achillc Lauro, great doler-out of the persuasive spaghetti package, has come to his sunset. The Christian Democrats are beginning to attract the votes of the poor peasants in the South, who were once in bondage to the local potentates and landowners. The Nenni Socialists moved from 12 to 14 per cent of the vote, showing a significant gain: 800,000 new votes. The Communists have remained much as they were, at 22 per cent; the smaller splinters are also unchanged. The overall pattern shows a small but steady gravitation toward positions Left of center. As one analyzes the actual vote, one cannot escape the impression of a majority patiently but persistently asking for reforms and not getting them.

As things stand, the Catholic party with its new Premier, Amintore Fanfani, still has to walk a tightrope. Its lack of an absolute majority compels it to some compromise with the strengthened Left. And there is no serious Left to deal with except Nenni’s Socialists, who thus take on a pivotal importance.

Nenni’s breach with the Communists, at the time of the Hungarian crisis, led to vicious Communist attacks against him which in turn helped him greatly with the electorate. But he has only the beginning of an independent force. He knows he cannot play along with the Christian Democrats except on their own terms, which for him would be destruction. They, on the other hand, know that they could hardly muster a stable center coalition against him, but would be thrown on the mercies of the discredited Right. So Nenni plays a waiting game.

The Italian “Pentagon”

In youth and family groups, Christian Democratic principles appear in their most attractive guise; in politics they reveal all the insufficiencies of compromise and lack of principle. At the top, one finds a cozy Tammany-like atmosphere of all-pervasive clientele, favors, short cuts, boondoggles, and shocking preferences that the Italians by now call simply “the undergovernment,” in the sense in which one would mean the underbrush. This undergovernment is being taken over by the Italian “Pentagon,” the ruling group in the Vatican.

The five cardinals of the Roman Curia known as the Pentagon include the head of Vatican finance and of many other things besides, Cardinal Canali; Secretary of the Congregation of the Holy Office, Cardinal Ottaviani; Cardinal Pizzardo; Cardinal Micara; and Cardinal Mimmi, Secretary of the Consistory.

To this group there has come now the support of the young Cardinal Siri of Genoa, whom some Italians regard as the heir apparent to the papal throne. The Pentagon has in fact become a hexagon, and an all-powerful one at that, since opposition to it among the other twenty members in the Curia is scattered and ineffectual. Cardinal Stritch, the first American to become a member of the Curia, had been expected to help the opposition, but his tragic death ended that hope.

It is hard to assess the influence of the Italian Pentagon in American terms. Imagine a sovereign power installed squarely in Washington; a power whose influence extended over half the world, whose finances not only reached out on the international plane but also controlled an impressive share of the nation’s stock market and real estate; a power which practically monopolized the nation’s social assistance with money contributed by the state itself, which owned one half of the nation’s schools, and which could back its diplomatic power with the undeviating assistance of the U.S. State Department.

In Italy this group can bring its pressure to bear not only through action in Rome but anywhere in Italy through the 257 bishops, the innumerable village priests, teachers, and preachers. It has, moreover, the huge organization of Catholic Action and, by now, the beginnings of an Opus Dei.

State versus church

Yet crises are bound to arise. When, last spring, the Bishop of Prato in a much-discussed trial was found guilty of libel and fined eighty dollars, there was great anger in Vatican circles and talk of a showdown and excommunication. But public opinion, openly indignant, backed up the verdict. Within twelve hours, the Christian Democratic Party was disassociating itself from the quarrel and saying that the authority of the state should be respected.

The incident should have been enough to show the men of the Pentagon, who belong by instinct and tradition to the old authoritarian Right, that the control of the church over the state must be reached by means other than electoral. A campaign was intensified lo stamp out tile liberal influence within the parly (a good third of its strength at a rough estimate), as well as the “pernicious influence” of the French clergy and of Jacques Maritain, who have a considerable number of sympathizers. Is the aim to turn Italy into something like Salazar’s Portugal? The issue remains in doubt.

Such crises are inevitable in a country like Italy, which is also the territorial base of papal power. When the intensely, nay, superstitiously devout kings of Piedmont, during the last century, undertook to separate the church from the state, they had to arrest and imprison eight cardinals and more than twenty bishops in the course of a decade. Only after that a comfortable understanding was reached, which lasted for a century until the collapse of the Italian state in World War II. Today, it is infinitely more difficult for the state, because of the Communist threat and the weakening of the Western world, to recapture the authority it needs.

Prosperity and the Communists

The Italian economy has been enjoying a boom for a number of years, with an annual growth of 7 to 8 per cent. Production stands now at 187 per cent of 1948, 201 per cent of 1938.

It might be asked why this does not affect the strength of the Communists, who were on the ropes for months after Hungary and have lost their intellectual leaders almost to a man. The answer is that the vote has shifted. In the more industrially advanced sections of the North, once the home grounds of Communism, the party has suffered a disastrous setback.

If economic progress spreads to the South, the Communist Party will have no place to go. That is why social-minded firms like the Olivetti complex (typewriters and computers) and Microlambda (electronics, at present with Raytheon backing) are setting up plants in the South, from Naples to Sicily, so far with excellent results. There seem to be no limits to what a few, even a very few, socialminded industrialists can do. Adriano Olivetti has not only launched a new, Christian-oriented political movement called Comunità; he is also, singlehandedly, supporting a number of the best cultural publications and periodicals in Italy. Unfortunately, the Confederation of Industry has a different conception of how its money is to be spent.

The roads are swarming with automobiles, and traffic in major cities has grown to a problem of American proportions which will require drastic rearrangements. A start has been made on construction of modern turnpikes, among which the one from Milan to Rome and Naples will prove a great blessing for the tourist.

The arts and the obstacles

The theater has been enjoying a good season, thanks to a lot of talented producers, among whom Luchino Visconti is still pre-eminent. Everyone is discussing the respective merits of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A View from the Bridge. But the Italian movie, after the brief splendor of neo-realism a few years ago, finds itself censored and smothered. The excuse of the pious clerical nationalism, which now controls the purse strings, is that such authors as De Sica gave the wrong idea of Italy to viewers abroad.

This is the same argument whereby Danilo Dolci, the apostle of nonviolence, has been indicted and deprived of his passport for describing the sufferings of the poor in Sicily. The idea is that such things should not be mentioned. If they are ignored, perhaps they will go away. The real incentive, in the view of authorities, is to present adequately curvaceous successors to Loren and Lollobrigida, who have ceased to be news, Loren also being a defector to Hollywood. A number of candidates are being groomed.

A novelty which is still in the happy spontaneous stage is the multiplying summer art festivals. Rome, Venice, and Florence have had theirs a long time. Florence is going to add, at San Miniato above the city, a new series of theater performances. Spoleto, a ravishing hill town in Umbria, entered the festival lists this year in June with a delightfully varied “TwoWorlds Festival” in which operas of Gian Carlo Menotti were featured along with plays by Eugene O’Neill. The two perfect little theaters of the town provided adequate sets, and the people of Rome came in droves.