ROME – Italy is a county that reveres artists and intellectuals, in part because since antiquity, culture has been its leading export. Thus the recent death of a 51-year-old novelist and essayist named Michela Murgia, after a long struggle with cancer, has been a national drama here, even amid the traditional mid-August doldrums.
To be sure, Michela was not everyone’s cup of tea.
Although she professed herself to be a believing Catholic, her strongly progressive positions on issues such as women’s liberation, LGBTQ+ rights, abortion, euthanasia and artificial reproduction – expressed, for instance, in her 2002 manifesto God Save the Queer: A Feminist Catechism – generated both admiration and consternation in roughly equal measure.
Despite being at odds with official Catholic doctrine on many points, Murgia was laid to rest during a church funeral at the Basilica of Santa Maria in Montesanto in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo, better known as the “Artists’ Church” since every Sunday for more than 70 years a special liturgy has been staged there for people from the worlds of art and culture.
The funeral was celebrated by Father Walter Insero, the rector of the basilica who’s also served as the chaplain to Italy’s national broadcaster RAI since 2004. In 2021, he was named a monsignor by Pope Francis.
During the liturgy, Insero read out a message from Cardinal Matteo Zuppi of Bologna, president of the Italian bishops’ conference and currently serving as Pope Francis’s special envoy for the conflict in Ukraine. As it turns out, Zuppi and Murgia had a longstanding friendship, and Zuppi wanted to pay tribute.
“The book of her life is not finished, and its pages will continue to be written with letters of love, in that universal language of the spirit that reveals the greatness of every person and the eternity that’s hidden in all of us,” Zuppi wrote.
Zuppi said that even as Murgia was nearing the end, she still reached out to assure him of her prayers for his mission in Ukraine.
“I was struck that she was concerned for others in a moment that was so difficult for her,” Zuppi said. “But that’s the secret of live, which, finally, is the secret of God.”
As was inevitable in a deeply partisan time, Murgia’s passing was more noted on the Italian left than right. A cluster of LGBTQ+ activists gathered outside the church, and, when the funeral was concluded, the crowd outside burst into a chorus of Bella Ciao, a 19th century protest song associated with left-wing resistance.
In that context, not every Catholic here was pleased with Zuppi’s demonstration of affection.
In many ways, the scenario is reminiscent, in a sort of equal-and-opposite fashion, of what happened in 2007 when another celebrated female Italian writer died, only in this case one whose appeal was more on the right: Oriana Fallaci, whose best-known work is La rabbia e l’orgoglio (The Rage and the Pride), in which she railed against the rise of militant Islam and calls on Europe to defend its cultural identity.
Like Murgia, Fallaci died of cancer, though in her case at the age of 77.
For Fallaci, her break with Catholic orthodoxy came not on a specific policy point but something far more fundamental: The very existence of God. In a word, she was an atheist, who once defined Christianity as a “beautiful fable.”
Nevertheless, she saw Catholicism as a cornerstone of Western culture and defended its values strenuously, helping to coin to term “Eurabia” to describe what she saw as a creeping Islamicization of Europe, transforming the continent from the cradle of Christian civilization into an outpost of the Arab world.
In that context, like Murgia, she also carried on a friendship with a senior Catholic prelate despite rejecting the belief system he represented. In her case, the prelate was Archbishop Salvatore “Rino” Fisichella, a former chaplain to the Italian parliament who, at the time, was rector of the Lateran University in Rome, and who today serves as Pro-Prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Evangelization.
The friendship developed over the final years of Fallaci’s life, after she wrote a letter praising an interview he had given on Islam and religious freedom to the Italian paper Corriere della Sera. Towards the end, Fisichella said, the two would talk on the phone sometimes three or four times a day. (Fallaci was in New York, where she had lived for decades, undergoing treatment at the Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.)
After her death, Fisichella paid tribute to Fallaci, saying that despite her atheism and anti-clericalism, he saw signs of vestigial Christianity. At the end she returned to Florence, not wishing to die in exile, and Fisichella revealed that the day before the end came, he visited Fallaci offered a blessing despite her non-belief.
“I did it because Oriana Fallaci loved life, and because the God of Christians is the God of life,” Fisichella said. “I did it because, even though Oriana Fallaci said that she didn’t believe, she had great hope.”
Then as now, some Catholics objected to Fisichella’s outreach, in part because of Fallaci’s atheism and in part because it might be construed as an endorsement of her strident anti-Islamic views.
Putting together the Zuppi/Murgia friendship and that of Fallaci/Fisichella, here’s the thought that comes to mind.
In principle, there’s nothing surprising about clergy from a Church that espouses traditional faith and values being close to conservative thinkers and writers. Equally, for a Church with a strong social justice emphasis, there’s nothing unusual about its clerics being friends with liberal intellectuals and activists.
The glory of Catholicism, however, is that it can do both at once. As Pope Benedict XVI once famously said, the historic genius of Catholicism is that, where other traditions tend to be either/or, the Catholic instinct is both/and. It’s not that the Church endorses one extreme or the other, but rather that it has the capacity to embrace both.
For partisans who insist on seeing the Church as the terrain upon which zero/sum ideological battles are fought, this both/and dynamic will always be puzzling. For others, however, it’s the basis for faith that those sterile battles don’t have to be the last word.