Italy's Catholic Church jumped into the fray surrounding Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's sex scandals on Monday, warning him that politicians who behave immorally hurt the country's image and pollute its future.
Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco said the political quagmire was sowing the seeds of an anthropological disaster where the young see easy money, moral compromise and selling oneself as the road to success instead of hard work and playing by the rules.
In a speech, Bagnasco, president of the Italian Bishops Conference, spoke of worrying clouds over Italy, the pitfalls of hypocrisy, and of a moral malaise sweeping the country.
Whoever accepts a public position must understand the sobriety, personal discipline, sense of measure and honour that come with it, he said.
Bagnasco's comments, which follow strong criticism of Berlusconi by Italy's main industry association, underline the extent to which the traditional conservative establishment has become disillusioned with the centre-right leader.
Since the Church announced that Bagnasco's speech would address the so-called Ruby affair that has transfixed Italy, there was no doubt who or what he was talking about, even though he did not mention the prime minister by name.
Milan prosecutors alleged that Berlusconi paid for sex with a significant number of prostitutes, including a then 17-year-old nightclub dancer who goes by the name of Ruby the Heart Stealer, at parties in his luxurious villa.
The 74-year-old prime minister denies any wrongdoing and says he has never paid for sex and that politically motivated leftist magistrates are bent on destroying him. He has refused to resign and refused to be questioned by the magistrates.
Not a day has passed in past weeks without new revelations in Italian newspapers about alleged wild parties between Berlusconi and other older men and young, aspiring starlets and models who received money and favours like free rent.
Newspapers have published phone transcripts describing kinky parties at his house with showgirls in, among other things, nurse uniforms.
Bagnasco said Italy was suffering from an explosive mix of ethical weakness and political fibrillation.
The country, he said, was drifting from one abnormal situation to the other as the public remained horrified by the acts of politicians and suffering from moral malaise.
Bagnasco's speeches are usually vetted by the Vatican, meaning his words had the approval of Pope Benedict, who last week made a thinly veiled reference to the scandal when he spoke of the need for the rediscovery of moral principles.
Some in Italy, Bagnasco said, needed a refresher course in the ABCs of ethics.
Those who promoted a false model of success based on cunning, social climbing, showing off and selling oneself were all part of an anthropological disaster in the making that would hurt, above all, the country's future generations.
Ruby says she received 7,000 euros ($9,390) from Berlusconi after attending one of his parties, but had not slept with him.
Italian media have published leaks of transcripts of wiretaps in which Ruby, a Moroccan, says she asked Berlusconi for 5 million euros in exchange for her silence. She denies it.
While Italy's Church has clearly been irked by Berlusconi's various sex scandals over the past two years, it has until now held its fire because many in the church hierarchy feel more comfortable with a conservative government at Italy's helm.
But Bagnansco's comments indicated that the latest scandal was too much and that the Church has decided to abandon its policy of realpolitik in favour of the moral high ground.