Vatican 'meddling' as Italian minister quits

Rome, Italy - The Vatican has been accused of trying to bring down the Italian government after a Catholic minister abandoned Romano Prodi's coalition government, leaving it facing collapse.

The prime minister was forced to call a vote of confidence after Clemente Mastella, the former justice minister, withdrew his support on Monday.

Mr Mastella's Udeur Christian Democrat party has three crucial seats in the Senate, where Mr Prodi had a majority of two, at best.

New elections could be called, or a caretaker government could be appointed to reform the complicated electoral law if Mr Prodi loses the vote of confidence in both chambers.

Silvio Berlusconi, the leader of the opposition, said yesterday that he wants "elections in the spring".

Mr Mastella resigned from the government last week, after he and his wife were implicated in a cash-for-favours scandal.

He promised that his party would vote with the government, but changed his mind over the weekend. Now he has said Mr Prodi's coalition was "dead, dead, dead".

The impetus for his change of heart appears to have come from the Vatican, which has voiced its disapproval at Mr Prodi's stance on gay rights and abortion.

The Vatican also shook the government last year, when Mr Prodi lost a vote on his foreign policy on the same day that a gay marriage bill entered parliament.

Several senators from the old Christian Democrat party either absented themselves from the chamber or abstained from the vote.

La Stampa, a newspaper, said that the Holy See was trying to meddle in Italian politics. "Prodi's government dared to challenge the ecclesiastical hierarchy for the second time and this time it has had its hands burned," it said.

Franco Giordano, a Communist MP, said that Mr Mastella was merely a "loudspeaker" for the Vatican, and that he had switched sides because he was told to.

As Mr Mastella announced his defection on Monday, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, the head of the Italian Bishops Conference, attacked Mr Prodi.

"The country is in pieces," he said. "There is lazy administration and a shirking of responsibility."

He cited the rubbish crisis in Naples and deplored the policy on gay rights. He also accused the government of having blocked the Pope from visiting La Sapienza university after some students demonstrated against the pontiff's perceived anti-science stance.

The government immediately denied the charges, and said the Vatican had been reassured that security was not an issue.

The Vatican's department for communication did not try to deny the charges, and said that Cardinal Bagnasco's comments were "presented exclusively in political terms".

The Church's relentless attacks on the state have resulted in falling support among Italians. In a survey released by Eurispes, a research institute, the Church fell from an approvalrating of 59 per cent in 2007 to 49 per cent.