Papa, Don’t Preach
Italy’s far-right deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, is publicly attacking the pope in a battle for the country’s soul.
Speaking earlier this month at a rally for local elections in Foligno, a small town in central Italy, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini said he felt like a father to “60 million Italians.” The liberal mayor of Milan, Giuseppe Sala, replied that he wouldn’t want him as an uncle. But Salvini wasn’t speaking as a politician: He was speaking as a religious leader.
In the past few months, Salvini—who is also the interior minister and the head of the far-right League party—has increasingly become the de facto leader of Italy’s governing coalition. As his star rises, he has shifted his rhetoric toward Catholic religious symbols, filling his speeches with references to the Virgin Mary and styling himself as a fatherly, quasi-papal figure.
Ironically enough, in the ghastly emptiness of Italian politics, the only true rival whom he has encountered is the pope himself. Not only has Pope Francis often taken pro-immigrant stances, in direct contradiction to the League’s overt xenophobia, but he has also sent messages that seem unequivocally directed at Salvini’s leadership and his appropriation of religious symbols.
But Pope Francis and Salvini are not just two popular leaders who happen to disagree with—and possibly dislike—each other. In an increasingly polarized nation, they embody two opposing views about Western civilization and its values; they are literally battling for Italy’s soul.
The conflict is sometimes subtle—and sometimes not. When Francis summoned 500 representatives of the Roma and Sinti communities (both minorities that are often referred to as “gypsies”) in early May, he gave a speech that unequivocally attacked Salvini’s anti-gypsy rhetoric: “There are second-class citizens, it is true,” the holy father intoned. “But the real second-class citizens are those who discard people: these people are second-class, because they do not know how to embrace.” Since his political ascent, Salvini had always made anti-gypsy stances one of the key elements of his propaganda, vowing to expel as many Roma as possible, while admitting that “unfortunately some are Italian citizens.”
A few days later, Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, a close aide to the pope and the Vatican’s official charity chief, ostentatiously broke Italy’s law when he broke a police seal to restore power to a squatted building in Rome, where families were lagging behind in paying electric bills. “Krajewski couldn’t have possibly acted without at least the pope’s tacit approval, and the message couldn’t have been clearer: We are defending the poor, and you are not, so don’t you dare quote the Gospel,” said Cristina Giudici, a political analyst at the newspaper Il Foglio, who has written two books on the League.
Salvini—to whom the police report directly in his role as interior minister—was quick to pick up the provocation: “I want to believe that, after restoring the power, he will also pay the 300,000 euro overdue bill,” he said, speaking at a rally in Bra, a town close to the French border.
The League leader went so far as to attack the pope at his now-infamous May 18 speech in Milan, where he hosted the far-right French and Dutch leaders Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders in a joint campaign rally ahead of the EU elections. “I am telling this to Pope Francis, who said that we need to reduce [the number of] deaths in the Mediterranean,” Salvini said. “Our government is bringing the deaths in the Mediterranean Sea to zero, with pride and Christian spirit.” The moment Salvini mentioned Francis’s name, the crowd, mostly composed of hardcore League fans, booed.
The pope had repeatedly criticized the League’s hostile stance toward asylum-seekers, and especially the government’s crackdown on rescue ships, which has driven most nongovernmental organizations out of the Mediterranean and has prompted a rebuke from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
He has also criticized Salvini’s policy of preventing ships carrying immigrants—even when they belong to the Italian navy—from docking in Italian ports. It should be noted, however, that Francis never mentioned either Salvini or his ruling coalition directly, preferring not so thinly veiled statements such as, “We hear the plea of persons in flight, crowded on boats in search of hope, not knowing which ports will welcome them, in a Europe that does open its ports to ships that will load sophisticated and costly weapons capable of producing forms of destruction that do not spare even children.”
For his part, Salvini has attacked the pontiff more overtly. A few years ago, he wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “My pope is Benedict,” referring to the abdicated Pope Benedict XVI, who is more popular with conservative Catholics. On another occasion, he dismissed Francis’s criticism in a TV interview: “Let him worry about the souls, I worry about indigent Italians.”
At the same time, the interior minister has recently made several public displays of his self-styled Catholic religiosity. At one rally, he kissed his rosary. At another, he brandished the Gospel. When his party reached an all-time high in the polls, at 34 percent, in the recent European elections, Salvini dedicated the result to the Virgin Mary, or rather “the Immaculate Heart of Mary,” using heavily devotional terminology.
On the bookshelf behind his desk, he proudly displays an Eastern Orthodox icon of Jesus Christ, but also a bottle with water from the Po River, in homage to his party’s supposed neopagan past: In its early days, the League was a secessionist Northern party, claiming to represent the North’s “Celtic” roots, in opposition to “Latin” Italy, and some of whose members half-jokingly worshipped the Po as a river god. Initially, they wanted secession and aimed to create a new nation called Padania; then they softened their stance, arguing for tax autonomy for the wealthier North. It was Salvini who moved the party to a national scale, turning it into a right-wing nationalistic force since he became leader in late 2013.
This display of faith is unusual in Italy: “Italian politics are peculiar when it comes to religion. On one hand, there isn’t much separation between church and state; on the other, faith itself has been kept out of the public discourse, especially if compared to the U.S.,” said Lorenzo Pregliasco, a pollster who recently co-wrote the book Fenomeno Salvini (The Salvini Phenomenon), focusing on the firebrand leader’s communication style. In Italy, religion is seen more as an institution than a belief system. Italians are mostly secular but largely identify as Catholic. The Church has a strong presence but is perceived more as a source of stability than a symbol of faith. Italian newspapers, for instance, often feature articles about the Vatican power struggles, but religious doctrine itself is rarely discussed.
At times, Salvini gives the impression he wants to convince Italians that he’s more Catholic than the pope. As some analysts have pointed out, his displays of faith stem from three motivations. First, it’s a reaction to Francis’s attacks, said Dario Tuorto, a sociologist at the University of Bologna and a co-author of the book La Lega di Salvini: “He cannot fight the pope directly, when he attacks him on the social aspect of Catholicism, so he diverts the attention toward the traditional aspect.” Secondly, argued Tuorto, he is trying to “soften his image” to appeal to the moderate, older centrist-conservative voters, who used to vote for Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi but still haven’t migrated to Salvini: “His cattivismo [ bad boy image] is scaring them off, so to compensate for it he’s resorting to something familiar, like religion.” Third, Salvini is also dog-whistling to hardcore reactionaries and identitarians, who are “not that numerous but not statistically insignificant, either,” Tuorto said.
To the older voters, he seeks to show that he may look scary but deep down inside is an average Joe with a picture of Padre Pio, the Capuchin friar who is Italy’s most beloved saint, in his pocket. To the reactionaries, he’s sending the message that he, and not the bleeding-heart pope, is the true defender of Italy’s Catholic identity.
Pregliasco, the pollster, noted that the League is not particularly popular among frequent churchgoers, but it’s very popular with occasional churchgoers—people who aren’t really practicing and yet still identify as Catholics. Among those who attend church regularly, the League scores below its national average of 34 percent, and the same goes for those who don’t attend church at all. But 38.5 percent of those who go to church sporadically vote enthusiastically for Salvini, according to data collected by Pregliasco’s agency, Quorum.
Salvini is popular with those who feel Catholic but don’t practice, because his views resonate with their attachment to religion as a national identity and a countervailing force against the influx of Muslim immigrants. He’s not as popular with very secular voters, who tend to skew left, nor with devout Catholics, who respect the pope deeply. Luckily for him, 71 percent of Italians identify as “nonpracticing Catholics,” according to a 2016 Eurispes survey.
There are two ways to look at the surge of far-right parties across Europe. Some view it as a battle between pro-Enlightenment and anti-Enlightenment forces. Others see it as a battle between Christianity and barbarity: On one side, the church professes values of respect for the other and civility; on the other side lies the unapologetic rejection of foreigners and basic human rights.
In Italy, the latter explanation is more fitting. As the progressive opposition struggles to find a united voice to counter the League’s xenophobia, the Vatican has so far remained the only force capable of containing Salvini’s ascent.