Italy’s Great Schism
Italian Catholics are deeply divided between traditionalists and supporters of Pope Francis’s liberal vision. Matteo Salvini is seeking to give the Vatican’s detractors a new political home.
The dramatic session of Parliament on Aug. 20 that put an end to Italy’s populist government was unusually infused with religious language. Giuseppe Conte, the resigning prime minister, rebuked the interior minister and leader of the far-right League party, Matteo Salvini, for exploiting symbols of Christianity to energize his base. He described Salvini’s customary exhibitions of fervor as “episodes of religious unconsciousness” that “hurt believers’ sentiments and eclipse the secular foundation of the modern state.” Salvini, who was sitting next to him, cunningly pulled out a rosary from his pocket and kissed it—an unlikely form of liturgical trolling, but his supporters loved it.
Last year, Conte, an obscure lawyer who was tasked with leading the alliance between the League and the anti-corruption Five Star Movement, was introduced to the Italian people as a devotee of the revered saint Padre Pio of Pietrelcina—and during a TV interview he even showed a holy image he always keeps with him. In his jittery rebuttal to the prime minister last week, Salvini quoted Pope John Paul II and vindicated his right to entrust Italy to “the immaculate heart of the Virgin Mary,” a variation on a devotional refrain he has reiterated at his rallies for months. The opposition Democratic Party’s senators responded with screams and boos.
And yet, a few minutes later, former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, of the Democratic Party, pulled a quote from the Gospel in order to correct Salvini’s heretical stances on immigration: “For I was cold and you invited me in, I was hungry and you gave me something to eat,” he recited. Renzi misquoted the passage from the evangelist Matthew—showing it’s been a long time since he was an altar boy in Florence—but the political message was unmistakably clear: “If [Salvini] believes in those values, he should free the people who are hostage of a shameful policy,” he said, referring to a boat belonging to the nongovernmental organization Open Arms that was carrying more than 80 migrants and for weeks was not allowed to dock in Italy.
The display of religious rhetoric in a political setting was unusual even for Italy, a country deeply shaped by the Roman Catholic faith that in the postwar era was ruled for almost five decades by Christian Democracy, a big-tent party that included different Catholic sensibilities and was closely entwined with the Vatican hierarchy. Salvini’s quasi-papal attitude in the name of an ethnonationalist interpretation of the faith, in stark contrast with Pope Francis’s vision, has been under scrutiny for months, but the government crisis prompted a full-on holy war.
It is a tale of two Catholic churches. One is focused on social justice, welcoming migrants, helping the poor, protecting the environment, defending the virtues of the European Union, and building bridges rather than walls. It proudly sports a cosmopolitan identity and talks about diversity and inclusion. It firmly opposes leaders like Salvini and U.S. President Donald Trump, whose ideology is one “that always ends badly—it leads to war,” as Pope Francis said in a recent interview with the daily La Stampa, adding that he’s concerned “because we hear speeches that resemble those of Hitler in 1934.” The poster child of this Catholic Church is Greta Thunberg, the Swedish environmental activist whose initiatives have been blessed by the pope.
The other Catholic Church stresses the importance of tradition and defending the so-called Judeo-Christian West from mass immigration, pledges to protect the traditional family, and fights permissive laws on abortion and LGBT rights. It is skeptical of a bureaucratic, highly secularized EU and believes that Christianity thrives in a world organized around nation-states as opposed to supranational organizations. This faction fears that the current Vatican leadership may eventually turn the church into a progressive NGO.
In this highly polarized ecosystem, both sides claim to represent the true faith. And both sides are struggling to find a political home. Italy’s government crisis reveals a deeper tectonic shift in the Catholic world that has left many devout voters with no political home. In Italy, 74 percent of the population identifies as Catholic, but only 27 percent of those are actively practicing. In the recent election for the European Parliament, more than half of practicing Catholics didn’t vote.
Among the weekly churchgoers, 33 percent voted for Salvini’s League, which was the most popular party among believers, followed by the Democratic Party (27 percent). Salvini was able to mobilize the most conservative chunk of the religious electorate, but a much bigger slice does not seem to fit in anywhere on the current political spectrum.
The unusual resort to religious language these days—with politicians preaching, catechizing, invoking saints, quoting the Gospel, and excommunicating one another—is also part of an electoral strategy to target the silent majority of the Italian Catholics.
While the Five Star Movement and the Democratic Party reached an agreement this week to form a new government—led again by Conte and blessed by the Catholic hierarchy—to avoid an election that would have likely consolidated Salvini’s power, both the progressive and the nationalist churches are working to prepare for the challenges ahead. Salvini, who prompted the crisis, lost this battle and is now politically sidelined, but he’s gathering his forces to fight the long-term war. He announced a big rally in Rome on Oct. 19 to protest a government that “was born in Brussels,” as he said in a message on Facebook Live. Rosaries and holy invocations will certainly be fully displayed on that stage, too.
Among the most active in the current debate is Antonio Spadaro, the editor of the Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica, who strongly chastised Salvini’s use of Christian symbols. “Like a leech, he drained the religious vocabulary of its original meaning, and presented to the electorate an empty shell of it,” Spadaro told Foreign Policy, describing what Salvini did as a “sly linguistic operation.”
Spadaro admitted the leader of the League “tapped into feelings and fears that were deeply rooted in the people,” and it was “a mistake not to listen closely enough what the Italian society was telling us.” But Salvini weaponized people’s discontent and put a religious label on his anti-immigration measures, like the security decree passed in early August. He did not miss the opportunity to thank the Virgin Mary for that accomplishment. “The security decree passed by Salvini is against the very meaning of Mary’s devotion, and it’s therefore blasphemous to invoke her protection to defend it,” Spadaro said.
Spadaro, one of Pope Francis’s closest advisors, insisted that “these are times of human, civic, and religious resistance,” becoming the informal leader of a coalition of Catholics who vehemently oppose the Salvinization of the faith. In March, he also launched the idea of a “Synod for Italy,” to redesign the relationship between the church and Italian politics. Several bishops publicly endorsed the idea.
“With his gross and vulgar manners, Salvini is channeling the frustrations of Catholics who are politically homeless. It’s ironic, though, that politicians who were fiercely anti-Christian only a few years ago now use the Gospel to attack Salvini,” said Sergio Belardinelli, a professor of sociology at the University of Bologna and former advisor to Cardinal Camillo Ruini, who for several decades led the Episcopal Conference of Italy. Ruini forged an energetic and tactically realist approach to political power that came to be known as “ruinismo,” and that doctrine during the 1990s created a special relationship between the Catholic hierarchy and the conservative coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi. The current political scene has definitively buried whatever remained of ruinismo.
“I hope Catholics will be able to look again at politics with realism,” Belardinelli said, “as realism is the only way to be protected both from Salvini and the assimilation to the progressive paradigm.” Belardinelli’s position reflects the anxiety of some Catholic intellectuals who think the current political climate is forcing the church to embrace either the populist or the liberal narrative, and to be therefore absorbed in a worldly political paradigm.
The church historian Alberto Melloni, a professor at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, reads the current turmoil in Italy in the context of international relations that were profoundly redefined by the election of Pope Francis and the global rise of populism and ethnonationalism. “The election of a pope from the global south was an immensely relevant event, and the resistance against him took a very particular form. Salvini’s religious fundamentalism is the result of an anti-Francis, anti-immigration movement that was conceived in the U.S. and Russia by people like Steve Bannon and Aleksandr Dugin,” Melloni said, referring to the former White House chief strategist and the far-right political analyst with close ties to Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin.
Bannon and Dugin, Melloni argued, “considered Italy the center of a wave coming from Eastern Europe to fight the pope,” and that project determined the unique strategy Salvini embraced. “The League didn’t just target the Catholic electorate, as every party does,” Melloni said, “but it tried to gain control of a section of the church. It penetrated the church from the inside, leveraging the connection with a small group of conservative cardinals and bishops that had significant political affiliations, and then claiming to have seized the whole Catholic electorate.”
Spadaro also mentioned Bannon’s influence, citing his ties with Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, an American conservative prelate who was sidelined by Francis. In the last few years, several clergymen who didn’t fall in line with Francis have been accused of being in league with a vast, quasi-conspiratorial network of forces that works side by side with right-wing populists to weaken the pope. The United States is often cited as the epicenter of this alliance.
Not surprisingly, Bannon disagrees. He blames Pope Francis for politicizing Christianity. “Salvini is not politicizing religion, he’s just representing the voice of the working-class Catholics in Italy,” said Bannon, who has been involved with populist movements throughout Europe. “On the contrary, Pope Francis and the radical cadre of Jesuits around him are the ones who politicized religion, originally instigating a campaign against Trump over immigration that now is erupting on a global scale,” he told FP.
Bannon attempted to push his anti-pope agenda through the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, a think tank that operates from a medieval abbey two hours outside Rome. The former Trump strategist was planning to establish a “gladiator school for culture warriors” there, as one of his acolytes described it, but the project was halted by the Italian government, which in May revoked the license to run the monastery. The ensuing legal battle didn’t discourage Bannon.
According to Bannon, the advisors who surround Francis “exported to Italy the same liberation theology mentality that ruled South America for decades,” and the clash between the two churches is “not only inevitable, but it’s already happening.” And he seems to relish it.
Salvini may have lost this month’s political battle, but he’s not finished. He’s playing a long game that leverages a deeper cultural schism within the Catholic Church, and a hastily made up government coalition won’t mend that divide. The rosary-kissing leader may be proving how this epochal clash could be turned into an electoral strategy that Bannon described as “absolutely brilliant.” Did he play any role in designing that strategy, I asked?
Bannon chuckled. “Salvini is his own man,” he said.