Populist wave continues: Nationalism and Catholicism collide in run-up to European elections

Italians will go to the ballot box on May 26 to elect members of the country’s delegation to the European Parliament.

The vote — part of elections held across the European Union — will be another litmus test regarding Italy’s two populist political parties and whether they can withstand challenges from the left. What this latest electoral test will also do is reveal Italy’s love-hate relationship with the Catholic church.

The country’s Democratic Party, which holds a majority of seats, is likely to go down in defeat like it did in last year’s national elections. That’s where two populist parties, the League, which is on the right, and the Five-Star Movement, on the left, joined forces since neither had gained a majority in parliament.

The result? Matteo Salvini, who leads the League party, could take his anti-immigration stances to Brussels if opinion polls prove correct. His hardline stance on the issue has put him at odds with the Catholic church in Italy as well as with Pope Francis, who has repeatedly spoken in favor of refugees seeking asylum in Western Europe.

Like the Brexit fiasco, this clash has also divided Italians, where a majority remain Roman Catholic. However, a Pew Research study found that only 27 percent of Italian adults consider themselves “highly religious,” putting them in 13th place among Europeans. Nevertheless, Pew also found that Italy remains in first place in Western Europe when it comes to Christians who attend services regularly at 40 percent. That’s higher than Ireland (at 34%) and the United Kingdom (at just 18 percent).

Salvini, like President Donald Trump in the United States, has made closing the borders a priority since becoming Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Secretary. Last summer, Salvini ordered that ships containing migrants not dock at Italian ports. As a result, they were diverted to Spain, angering the European Union and the Catholic church. 

The European elections have also allowed Salvini to take his message outside of Italy’s boot-shaped borders in an attempt to create a pan-populist movement that puts it on a collision course with the continent’s Christian roots and the message emanating from the Holy See these days. Salvini recently announced the formation of a new European alliance of populist and far-right parties. The announcement was used as an excuse for the group to put out a series of talking points, including the use of Frontex, the European Union border agency, to be used to rescue migrants, then repatriate them.  

The irony here is that Salvini proclaims himself to be a Catholic, arguing that crucifixes be mandatory in all schools and that people adhere to traditional gender roles. Politico branded Salvini’s Christianity “populist pseudo-Catholicism.” At a campaign rally in Milan during the 2018 national elections, Salvini even raised a Bible and a rosary before the crowd. In response, Archbishop Mario Delpini of Milan rebuked Salvini, saying the lawmaker should just stick to politics.

Father Antonio Rizzolo, a priest who also serves as editor of Familia Cristiana, has used the weekly Catholic magazine to push back against Salvini’s brand of religion. Salvini has returned the favor by labeling it a “extreme leftist magazine.”

Will Italians choose between the church’s teachings or Salvini’s social media-savvy campaign tactics? The feud between the church’s hierarchy and right-wing politicians has put devout Catholics in the middle. Indeed, many church-goers are also devoted to Salvini. For example, among Catholics who attend Mass at least once a week, support for Salvini has doubled — from 15.7 percent in March 2018 to 31.8 percent four months later during the height of the migrant crisis from Africa, according to an Ipsos poll. At the same time, Francis’ popularity in Italy has steadily declined.

While Salvini’s poll numbers rise (he has a penchant for taking selfies with his supporters), so does the resistance from publications like Familia Cristiana. In December 2018, the magazine ran a cover story denouncing a new immigration decree backed by Salvini, which would cancel asylum protection for immigrants.

Alberto Melloni, a church historian, said Salvini’s politics are a new religion.

Continue reading “Nationalism and Catholicism collide in run-up to European elections,” by Clemente Lisi at Religion Unplugged.

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