I walked up the weather-beaten marble stairs into the Rome headquarters of ACLI this week, I could have been standing in the offices of any militant union or left-wing lobby group. There on the walls were statements of solidarity with peasant coffee-pickers, yellowed posters calling for a general strike and rainbow-coloured banners demanding an end to the Iraq war.
But there was something else on the walls of the Associazioni Christiane Lavoratori Italiani, something you'll find in the headquarters of many Italian left-wing organizations -- pictures of Pope John Paul II. Big ones, in every room.
When I sat down with ACLI president Luigi Bobba, he expressed his excitement at this week's Italian elections, in which the socialists and communists roundly trounced the far right, and about his desire for full equality for Italy's beleaguered immigrants. And, of course, about the importance of the Roman Catholic Church, especially under the rigid leadership of John Paul II.
"This has been the pope of social justice, the pope of workers' rights," he said. "Like most workers' organizations, we believe that the church should continue in the direction it has been going, and all the Italian labour groups will be gathering at the end of the month to express this opinion."
When I began trudging around Rome this week to visit the Catholic organizations of the far left and the far right, I thought I knew the story: In an increasingly conservative Roman Catholic Church, there would be a struggle, following the death of the charismatic leader, between the orthodox, puritanical cardinals who support the hard-line regime and a circle of more liberal cardinals who want the church to have a firmer grounding in the realities of the world.
What I ignored, and what we all ignore at our peril, is that this is an Italian story.
Yes, the Vatican is a global institution, with more loyal members than any other institution in the world, and one that has a powerful influence over half the countries in the world, for better or worse. The conclave of cardinals, which begins next week, is more significant and meaningful than most national elections.
Yet it is almost entirely an Italian event. More than half of the aging, lonely men who will select the next pope will be Italians. The rest will be deeply immersed in Italian society, having lived in a city-state in the heart of Rome for a good part of their careers. The bureaucracy that supports and advises them is almost entirely composed of Italians. And in Italy, the usual political patterns do not apply.
Like many non-religious North Americans, I see today's Catholic Church as a deeply conservative force. People in Canada or England who convert to Catholicism almost always do so because they have political beliefs on the right. They believe that the church's enforcement of traditional values has helped to hold society together.
If your beliefs are on the liberal side of the ledger, this is how you see it: The church has tolerated the mass rape of children by its employees, it has vastly exacerbated the enormous problems of overpopulation and AIDS with its prohibition against birth control, it has set much of the world back by a generation with its refusal to recognize women and homosexuals as full human beings.
In Italy, things generally do not work that way.
The selection of the next pope will be heavily influenced by the myriad secretive Catholic sects, orders and movements given attention and legitimacy by John Paul II. North Americans tend to think of the Spanish-based Opus Dei order, home to so many conservative politicians and journalists, and its members certainly will have a place at the table next week.
But they will be joined by quite a few left-wing Catholic organizations that have had a profound impact on the church. While South American leftist-Christian movements have been driven to the margins of the church, in Italy the left is a welcome brother in the church -- in large part because it sees the church, and the pope who was buried yesterday, as an emblem of left-wing thought.
As Mr. Bobba sees it, the left has won 100 per cent control of the church. The pope issued his three famous "social" encyclicals, which condemned the excesses of free-market capitalism and called for robust labour rights and state regulation of markets. He championed the cause of the immigrant worker and the sweatshop employee. And he actively, aggressively opposed the Iraq war, in large part because groups like ACLI told him that he should.
Those social matters that get us North Americans worked up? Here, they are on the margins of the agenda. The debate over "family values" does not fall along left-wing or conservative lines. It is a matter of personal preference: Either you take the church teachings seriously, or you don't, or you just pretend and get an abortion on the sly.
This is the problem with politics here, Ezio Mauro, the editor of the Rome newspaper La Repubblica, told me. "Rather than developing a larger analysis of society, the left and the right are still only concerned with the politics of interest: If it appears good for their class, only then will it be part of their platform."
Back at ACLI, Mr. Bobba explained his theory: "There are four virtues out of the scripture that can be championed by the church -- life, freedom, work, peace. Of those four qualities, if you are on the right, you tend to sympathize more with life and freedom, and if you are on the left, you sympathize with peace and work. And this pope was able to identify with all four qualities."
Missing from that neat equation -- a version of which is expressed by almost every leader in Italy -- are most of the topics that actually matter in modern politics. A progressive pope? It might happen, but you won't notice the difference.