The Vatican has thrown its weight behind outgoing prime minister Mario Monti, ditching the scandal-hit Silvio Berlusconi in favour of a practising Catholic they hope may lead Italy after February's general election, AFP
The Vatican's Osservatore Romano newspaper this week said Monti's appeal for compatriots to "rise up" and commit to renewal of national politics was "a call to rediscover the more noble meaning of politics."
The Roman Catholic Church, an influential political player in Italy, once supported Berlusconi but took steps to distance itself from the media magnate last year amid a series of high-profile sex scandals.
Monti's use of the term "ascent into politics" -- a barbed reference to Berlusconi's oft-quoted phrase in which he announced his "descent" into the political fray in 1994 -- captured the appeal he holds for a Church which has tired of the aged media magnate.
"Berlusconi's governments have been characterised by a level of inaction," Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian Bishops' Conference, said Friday in reference to the three-time premier, who is once again running for the top job in February 24-25 elections.
Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, head of the Italian Church, weighed into the election campaign fray on December 10, warning against letting Monti's reforms -- which pulled Italy away from the debt crisis brink -- go to waste.
"We can't allow a year of sacrifices to be ruined. What is stunning is the irresponsibility of those who think of their own interests while the house is still burning," he said.
The Church supported Berlusconi for almost two decades -- despite tales of parties with young starlets and allegations of orgies -- because he promised to block attempts to push through new laws on key topics, such as gay marriage.
But the scandal involving "Ruby the Heart Stealer", a Moroccan pole dancer Berlusconi is accused of paying for sex in the latest trial against him, strained the relationship to breaking point and the Church publicly distanced itself.
"Since last year, the Church has been looking for an alternative to Berlusconi," said Vatican expert Marco Politi.
When Monti announced last weekend that he is ready to stay on as premier in a move that could destroy Berlusconi politically, it seemed to have found its man.
As an Italian senator for life, the former premier cannot himself run for office, but is in a position to be renamed prime minister if a party or coalition that he supports wins the vote on February 24-25.
Monti may be a church-goer who has met the pope seven times since taking power last year, but he believes strongly in the division of state and Church and observers say his aim is not to launch a new version of the Christian Democratic (DC) party, which ruled Italy for 45 years.
"Monti is not a Catholic in politics. The Vatican supports him because he is serious. They place their trust in the man, and in his work, in what is a very difficult current situation," Vatican expert for La Stampa daily, Marco Tosatti, told AFP.
According to religious watcher Paolo Rodari, who writes for the right-wing Il Giornale newspaper, the Vatican has switched its alliance to the former eurocrat because "Monti has never betrayed the non-negotiable values dear to the pope."
It is still unclear as to how far a Monti-backed coalition could go in the race between the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) -- currently tipped to win -- and Berlusconi's centre-right People of Freedom party.
A poll this week gave Monti between 19 and 21 percent as the head of a "new centre" -- with around half of the votes coming from disaffected Berlusconi supporters.
What should not to be forgotten, Politi says, is that the Vatican supports Monti not only as an anti-Berlusconi figure, but also "because it fears a victory for the centre-left PD," which may refuse to make a pact with the Church and overhaul laws safeguarding key Catholic morals.