Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi talks with members of the parliament during a debate at the lower house of parliament in Rome September 28, 2011.(Photo: Reuters)
Fiercely criticised by the opposition and members of his own party alike, the Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi has always enjoyed the discreet support of the Catholic Church in exchange for respecting its uncompromising stance on bioethics.
But as fresh allegations of corruption and callgirls at the highest levels of politics hit the headlines, a senior Catholic bishop broke his silence to condemn the immoral behaviour, stopping just short of naming the premier.
Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, head of the powerful Conference of Italian Bishops (CEI), this week denounced what he called "behaviour that is contrary to public dignity" and "difficult to reconcile with institutional decorum".
The tirade seemed to be mainly aimed at Berlusconi, who has just celebrated his 75th birthday and faces a series of legal cases, including one in which he is accused of paying for sex with a Moroccan pole-dancer when she was 17.
On his way to Germany last week, Pope Benedict XVI also called for "an increasingly intense ethical renewal for the good of beloved Italy."
According to Italian press reports, the pope met Bagnasco and Vatican number two Tarcisio Bertone last month to discuss how best to react to the scandals surrounding Berlusconi -- though Benedict insisted the premier not be named.
Parishes, Catholic associations and pilgrims have complained about the scandals, which have made the headlines in both Italian and foreign newspapers.
Marco Politi, Vatican expert for Il Fatto Quotidiano newspaper, accused the Church of being "two years late" in reprimanding the premier.
He added that Italy's bishops "are responsible for having waited too long to say who has brought Italy to the brink of the abyss."
The Church has long supported the Berlusconi government, even in the wake of a string of lurid sex scandals, with the premier defending its stance against euthanasia, genetic manipulation and gay marriage.
An alternative to the Latin lover Berlusconi has also proved difficult to find, and should a left-wing coalition gain power the Church would no longer be guaranteed support on its most traditional principles.
Bagnasco has not said what he sees in a post-Berlusconi Italy, but has spoken of a "cultural and social party on the horizon, which would dialogue with politics" and be a "promising crib for the future."
"It is clear for the CEI leaders that the Berlusconi era is over, but that does not mean controlling the transition to a new phase, or how long it takes," Church affairs expert Andrew Tornielli wrote on the Vatican Insider website.
The CEI is hoping for a "new generation" of Catholic politicians, he said.
Some in the Church dream of overhauling the political system, bringing separate Catholic forces together to form a large centrist party -- but Vatican expert Sandro Magister says such a vision would be difficult to make reality.
Differences between right and left-wing Catholics are too great and the prevailing mood in the Church was to keep "the bipolar system," he said.
The arrangement, experts say, allows Catholic politicians to back different social and economic policies but unite on issues like the "sanctity of life."