Populist surge continues in Europe: Was Pope Francis a big loser in these complex results?

After elections gave right-wing populists sweeping victories in the Catholic nations of Italy, Poland and France in the European elections, it seemed clear that the biggest loser wasn’t the political left or moderate political parties.

The side that suffered the biggest defeat was Pope Francis.

In Italy, The League party snagged 33 percent of the vote, a remarkable achievement given the country’s fragmented political system. The pro-European Democratic Party could only muster 22 percent of the vote, while the left-wing populist Five Star Movement finished third at 18 percent. The League victory highlighted the divisions within Roman Catholicism. Party leader Matteo Salvini — known for his nationalistic and anti-immigration rhetoric — didn’t shy away from his faith. On the contrary, he used church symbols to win seats.

It isn’t the first time in European history that the Catholic church, and the papacy, has been viewed with disdain. Over the past few years, the political populism that has enveloped Europe has sought to blame much of its social and economic misfortune on elites. While many of these elites traditionally hail from the political left, the doctrinal left — and with it the current Vatican hierarchy headed by Pope Francis — has also become a target in recent elections.

The election results capped off a bad week for the pontiff. While having to deal with populism undercutting Catholic social teaching, Pope Francis denied he knew about former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s history of sexual misconduct with seminarians in an interview with Mexican TV network Televisa. The scandal has plagued the papacy since last summer.

The European election, contested every five years, firmly places populism among the continent’s most powerful political forces. Never shy about brandishing a rosary or invoking God’s help, Salvini has provided Italians with an alternative to the pro-migrant stance and the church’s traditional social teachings put forth by the pope.

“I thank the man up there — with no exploitations,” Salvini told reporters, while kissing a rosary he was clutching in his hand, as results came in on May 26.

The 751-seat European Parliament, headquartered in Brussels, represents the second-largest democratic electorate in the world (following India’s parliament). The outcome of the recent election ignited a series of insults from both sides and only intensified the divisions among Catholics on the continent. Salvini called the results a win for law and order. His opponents called it a “Black Wave,” a reference to Benito Mussolini and fascism that took over Italy — and later most of Europe — in the 1930s.

Catholic social teaching, in part, calls for putting the needs of the poor and vulnerable first. This new brand of political populism, however, appeals to citizens who feel that their concerns have been ignored by the establishment.

In a tweet, Jesuit theologian Bartolomeo Sorge said of Italy’s current political situation: “Italy belong to the League, no longer is it a Christian nation. Those who support The League say, ‘Italians first,’ the Christian says, ‘Those who are abandoned first.’ All one needs to do is kiss Jesus in public. Judas did that.”

In response on his Facebook page, Salvini wrote: “Look at what this theologian wrote. All we need now is for someone to call for my excommunication [from the Catholic Church] … Onward with faith, respect and humility.”

Marco Politi, who has authored the book “The Loneliness of Francis,” told The Washington Post that Salvini is the first Italian post-World War II politician who has been “openly opposed to the social teaching of the pope.”

“Salvini has become in these last few years sort of an antipope,” he added. “In the last decades, he was never known as an especially engaged Catholic. But he has cleverly created an electoral bloc where there are believers and priests and even some undercover bishops.”

While there has been some recent talk of a Francis-Salvini meeting at the Vatican, Cardinal Gerhard Muller, former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under former Pope Benedict XVI, said it is time for the Vatican — and many Italian bishops — to make peace with Italy’s deputy prime minister.

“In this moment, the church is engaged too much in politics and too little in faith,” he told the Italian daily Il Corriere della Sera in a recent interview. “A church authority cannot speak in such an amateur way about theological questions and especially it must not intrude in politics, when there is a democratically legitimized parliament and government as there is in Italy.”

In the run-up to the European elections, several Italian bishops scolded Salvini before for using a rosary or Bible as a prop during his speeches. Others have even opposed his anti-immigrant stances.

“It’s better to talk with Salvini, discuss, or correct him when necessary,” Muller said.

It is unusual that Francis and Salvini have never met, Muller admitted, given the pope’s penchant for meeting with almost anyone.

“It’s curious that the pope has received the most secularist people, and not Salvini,” he said. “He dialogues with the Venezuelan regime or with China which places millions of Christians in re-education camps, destroys churches, persecutes Christians… You must speak with everyone in a spirit of fraternity.”

Continue reading "Pope vs. populists: European election results highlight Catholic divisions," by Clemente Lisi.

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