Carla, my beautiful Italian wife and the mother of our six young children, is what I call a Catholic fundamentalist. She believes abortion is murder and goes to Mass several times a week. But unlike more mainstream conservative Catholics, she will not hear a word said against Pope Francis.
I met her 20 years ago in Predappio, in the foothills of the Tosco-Romagnolo Apennines, where I had gone to write a biography of Mussolini who was born and is buried there. I lived in a small and isolated rented house, 14 hairpin bends above the little town.
Next to the dictator’s former castle and a tiny church was a raucous bar where people came to dance and sing karaoke late into the night. I became pretty good actually at “Light My Fire” by the Doors.
Everyone called me Inglese. Sergio, a local cowherd, could never resist making slicing motions across his throat at me with his right index finger with a big grin on his face every time he caught my eye through the crowd from his usual position leaning against a wall.
“You risk death, Inglese,” he used to tell me, “You want death.”
The first I knew that Carla was interested in me was one summer night towards dawn when she came crashing through the open kitchen window of my little house where I had returned from the bar alone as usual. It was only later that she discovered her faith. I am convinced I am to blame: it was the only way she knew to cope with me. Is this something I should be proud of?
The situation is this: for many years now she has been a believer ad oltranza and she seeks to impose this on me and our children. That’s absolutely fine by me because the Catholic Church these days is the only institution left standing which defends our culture and way of life. She fasts, for example, on Wednesdays and Fridays – and so must we in theory, though we wriggle out of it by hook or by crook. She believes that illness is caused by the Devil and she may well be right if you think about it.
She may commune with a picture of the Madonna pinned to the wall above the kitchen sink seeking advice, but she is highly intelligent and not as mad as most women I’ve known in my life – let alone me. Let us face it: there is something wonderful about someone who has genuine faith in God.
Before our marriage, I had hardly gone to church as an adult. I believe God probably exists and I certainly see no conflict between religion and science. I am also convinced that only a renaissance of Catholic values can save the West.
But I do not have this magic thing called faith. I do not feel a compulsion to worship God – and find the idea of Confession to a priest virtually impossible. We have been to Lourdes and also a couple of times to Medjugorje, where the Virgin Mary, they say, has spoken more or less non-stop to a group of locals for nearly 40 years, and I too have walked up the mountain barefoot. But the only miraculous thing I witnessed at Medjugorje was that it is still possible to smoke in bars and restaurants.
Whereas I love booze, Carla always used to be hostile to it and several times forced me to stop for long periods of time, years even. Confronted with the choice of losing my wife or wine, I chose her.
This all changed at a parish dinner about a year ago when she tried the red wine served in unnamed bottles called Barba Rossa and nicknamed il vino dei preti, because all the local priests drink it. This fabulous wine is only obtainable direct from a small producer in the hills 15 miles away. She is now a regular at the vineyard and once back home with her five-litre flagons swigs it back in a Devil-may-care way, and it’s me saying: “Do you really think you should have another?”
Carla has become a leading light in a tiny Catholic party, Popolo della Famiglia, which has no MPs. The other night she dragged me along to join her little group of diehard Catholics determined to get its point across at a meeting in Ravenna of atheists where a famous gynecologist from Turin told us his colleagues who refused to carry out abortions were wrong.
Dressed in tight black PVC trousers and black leather biker jacket, and looking the exact opposite of your typical Catholic traditionalist, Carla gave him a piece of her mind. “I’ve got six children but I lost others. I’d have given my life to keep them,” she told him during questions.
“So we will see each other soon then in my hospital when you get pregnant again and the baby has Trisomy 18 [a serious genetic condition],” he replied.
“You’ll never see me again, thank God, because I’d keep the baby regardless!” she retorted.
And then – and I just could not believe it – she gave him the standard continental raised fist gesture. Che donna!
Nicholas Farrell is a British writer based in Italy. His books include Mussolini: A New Life (Weidenfeld/Orion)