Sorry, your Eminences, but Vatican tourists need a cheap option like McDonald’s

A three-year-old enjoys a Happy Meal at a McDonald's in San Francisco (AP)

McDonald’s, the fast food restaurant chain, is planning to open a branch on the small square next to the colonnade of Saint Peter’s in Rome. This small square once was the site of a bus terminus, and the restaurant would be on the ground floor of a building owned by the Vatican, which houses the flats of several Cardinals. Their Eminences are not happy.

The Vatican owns numerous properties in Rome, many of which are rented out for peppercorn rents. One assumes this is one of the things the  ongoing financial reforms will address: that is, getting a proper return on these properties, which may involve dealing with squatters, or evicting those who have not paid their rent for years, or negotiating with sitting tenants. After all, the Vatican needs the money. Hence, when McDonald’s comes calling, offering a very good rent for a prime property, well, it must be an answer to the prayers of APSA, the agency that deals with the Vatican’s holdings. The site is a good one, perfect for catching the numerous tourists who mill around the area all day; the rent, accordingly, will be handsome.

Italians, however, are far from enamoured of McDonald’s or indeed foreign food in general. Italy is the home of the “slow food” movement which aims to protect local culinary customs, and which arose out of the original protests against McDonald’s first opening in Rome in 1986.

There is a perception in Italy that Italian cuisine, so dear to Italian hearts, is under threat from foreign imports like McDonald’s. This perception may not be wrong. So one can see why people may very well object to having something so unItalian so close to Saint Peter’s Square. It strikes a discordant and dissonant note. It represents a new barbarian invasion.

Indeed, it has even been averred that there is a religious element to this. Back in 2000, an Italian theologian attacked McDonald’s for being Protestant.The argument relies on rather a lot of abstractions, but one can see where it comes from. Anything that detracts from the traditional process of eating – slowly, in the heart of the family, and in a home where husband, wife and children play their traditional God-given roles – does seem to be an attack on Italian culture, which often seems interchangeable with Catholic culture.

Perhaps in the end the objection to McDonald’s is simply that as something unItalian and thus, one suspects, vulgar, it has no place just outside the walls of the Vatican. But the truth is that there is a need for some sort of cheap and fast food outlet near the Vatican, as anyone who has ever been into one of the overpriced cafés on the Via della Conciliazione will testify. And as for vulgarity, McDonald’s is a great deal less of an eyesore than all the traders selling cheap tat to tourists, whose stalls are just outside the perimeter of Saint Peter’s Square.

In the end this is another argument about globalisation. Is Rome destined to be host to all the other great chains? Will Starbucks drive out the numerous small bars and coffee shops? What will happen to the pizza al taglio places, which sell slices of pizza to take away? Or the rosticcerie, that sell ready cooked chickens? Come to think of it, are the tavole calde, the canteen style restaurants, doomed? But can we really hold back the tide of global trends? Contrary to what was said back in the 1980’s, Italians have got to like McDonald’s hamburgers as much as most other people do. And as for McDonald’s being anti-Catholic, it has in fact shown, historically, an ability to adapt to different cultural settings.

The unhappy Cardinals may be annoyed that they will soon be living above a hamburger joint, but unless APSA undertakes to open a typically Italian food outlet at a heavily subsidised rent, their Eminences will, like the rest of us, have to adapt to changing times.