Bartolomeo Sorge

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

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.

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