The Pope is the world's spiritual leader. His personal and religious experiences can only be told in terms of a grand, universal story. Therefore we won't make the mistake, both with regards to the pontiff and to Catholics on the whole, of reducing what's happening right now to the mere chronicle of affairs in just one country.
But, vice versa, it is also true that from the point of view (provincial, to be sure) of our Italian nation, which is also the physical home to the pope's immense immaterial power, Benedict XVI's resignation has a considerable, irreducible impact on our public affairs. For Italians, the pope's exit from the stage leaves two political vacuums -- at the head of the Vatican and at the head of our State -- increasing the precarious equilibrium of our national institutions.
There's little to be said on the matter: everyone can see the writing on the wall. Today Italy no longer has its pope, the country's most important spiritual leader, just as the Italian President of the Republic is reaching the end of his mandate, which over recent years has been his institutional anchor. The delicate processes through which, with different influence and at different levels, decisions are made about the successors to these two men will overlap. And while for the conclave, thanks to its extra-territorial dimension, the choice of a new Italian President of the Republic means next to nothing, while the same cannot be said the other way around.
During these first few hours of panic in the Catholic world this difference is already evident, even amid the confusion that current reigns among their ranks. Who has helped (and how, and why) create the power vacuum that has now formed within the Vatican? Who is going to benefit at the election booth from this religious fervor that the abandonment of the Stone Throne (a gesture so highly mystical that it affects even non-Catholics) is already creating in our country? There is no clear answer, as we can see from the early reactions of Italy's various political powers -- drama in the high-density Catholic areas of the center; an attempt to keep calm in the Left, where in any case most of the votes from Benedict's faithful are directed; and uncertainty in the center-right political party Pdl, where Catholics have never enjoyed a grand consensus.
New game scenarios are opening up for the last two weeks of campaigning: the Curia Benedict is leaving behind is reported to be deeply divided concerning the orientation of Italian Catholics, divided over the relationship between politics and faith. But it is in the immediate future, after the votes have been cast, that the vacuum at the head of the Vatican will most likely be felt the most keenly.
The new Italian parliament's first challenge will be to elect a new president. It's always a tough task for the Italian system, which has to create around its head of state a numerical consensus that usually misfits our parliamentary geography, and which will only prove that much more difficult to achieve now, with a parliament that has been taking its marching orders from a technocratic government, an exploded electoral system, an unstoppable economic crisis and a fair share of new, rebellious parties all thrown into the equation. It's difficult to foresee how they'll manage to find the numbers necessary to make such a decision. Even more so when one considers that even the usually decisive orientation of the Catholics has at this point become unforeseeable.
Whether you are a believer or not, there can be no doubt that the pope's resignation only adds more uncertainty to the general political volatility Italy is experiencing. Over the upcoming, crucial weeks, it will leave the country devoid of that stabilizing influence that the Vatican has always guaranteed Italians during every difficult period our country has lived through.