ROME, FEB. 22, 2001 ( The Vatican secretary of state shrugged off criticisms about his recent meetings with Italian politicians to discuss Catholics´ concerns. "If they ask to be received, what should we do?" said Cardinal Angelo Sodano.

The Party for the Re-establishment of Communism, led by Fausto Bertinotti and leftist newspapers such as Il Manifesto and Liberazione, as well as Republican sectors that frown on any communication between the Church and state, have reacted harshly to the series of meetings of Cardinal Sodano with leaders of the principal Italian political forces.

In recent days, the Italian cardinal received Francesco Rutelli, leader of the Olive group and former mayor of Rome. The Olive group embraces center-left forces currently in government. The cardinal also met with media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, a center-left candidate for the presidency of the Council of Ministers.

Electoral campaigns have not begun officially, but the next general elections for Parliament and the government could be held May 6.

Some camps oppose the Church´s expressing to the different political forces the values that Catholics wish to see reflected in political programs. Opponents contend that the Church should not be involved in issues of public life.

Speaking to the press Wednesday, Cardinal Sodano clarified that the Church has limited itself to explain to each political group the position of the Catholic vote on life and abortion, support to private schools, the family, and solidarity.

The two leaders already consulted defended the Church´s right to explain Catholic values to the political community. Francesco Rutelli said: "I think the Church has the right to ask the political forces what their position is on topics that are of major concern."

Gianni Baget Bozzo, adviser to Silvio Berlusconi, affirmed that "the Church in Italy is more open now than in the past, as it no longer speaks solely to Catholic parties." Until 10 years ago, Christian Democracy included Catholic values in its programs and therefore was considered a point of reference by the Catholic hierarchy in Italy.

Additional meetings with politicians are scheduled in the coming days.