Italian voters choose populism, break from social Catholic teaching

Before there was a President Donald Trump, there was Silvio Berlusconi. The media tycoon, first elected as Italy’s prime minister in 1994, would go on to serve as the country’s leader on three separate occasions. Despite controversies, scandals and conflicts of interest, Berlusconi was prime minister for a total of nine years – and most recently in 2008 – and remains the longest-serving post-war leader in the nation’s history.

At age 81, Berlusconi and his party Forza Italia (which means “Go Italy” after coopting the country’s famous soccer slogan) no longer dictate terms when it comes to the country’s center-right. Nonetheless, the twice-divorced Berlusconi could very well serve as kingmaker following recent elections, a role largely reserved for the pope in decades past.

The March 4 vote swept to victory a wave of populist candidates – a coalition that included Matteo Salvini of the Lega party – who campaigned heavily against immigration under the slogan “Prima gli Italiani,” which translates to “Italians first.” Sound familiar? The slogan, reminiscent of Trump’s isolationist policy to place “America first,” worked. The party, formerly the Lega Nord that had called on the wealthy north to succeed from the rest of Italy, largely appealed to Catholics. For example, the party had defended the practice of public schools being allowed to display the crucifix in classrooms after Muslims had called for a ban.

Another populist party, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, founded by comedian Beppe Grillo in 2009, also won big. The party’s platform, which leans left, also included campaigning against the European Union as well as being anti-immigrant. In typical Italian political style, no party reached the 40% threshold needed in parliament to form a ruling government. The parties that finished atop the vote remain in a deadlock. Backroom deal-making is expected to determine a solution. If one is not found, a prime minister could be appointed or another vote called.  

For a country that often seems ungovernable and has had 42 different governments take shape since 1946, Italy was ruled for decades by Christian Democrats. Until 1994, before Berlusconi entered politics and years of corruption finally broke their stronghold, the Christian Democrats — known as the DC – had been the majority in parliament. It was a centrist party who forged alliances with those on the left and right and whose ideology was principally founded in Catholic social teaching.

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi visits a shop in Naples famous for making Nativity scenes just days before national elections. Twitter @Berlusconi

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi visits a shop in Naples famous for making Nativity scenes just days before national elections. Twitter @Berlusconi

Those teachings included social justice and wealth distribution and it vehemently opposed extreme ideologies such as fascism and communism. Under Popes Pius XII and Paul VI in the post-World War II years, the party thrived and the Vatican exerted great influence on Italy’s political system.

In recent decades, many Italian politicians held strong ties with Vatican officials — one reason why Italy was one of the last countries in Western Europe to recognize same-sex civil unions when it did so in 2016. The law, however, falls short of same-sex marriage and forbids gay couples from adopting children after successful lobbying from Vatican officials.

“The Christian Democrats were close to the Church. They were a political force which was seen as the guarantee for the country to remain solidly in the Western camp and as the main dam against the victory of Communism in the country,” said Franco Pavoncello, a political science professor at John Cabot University in Rome. “The Vatican has a tremendous influence on the DC and thus on the political life of the country. The Christian Democracy, however, in the late 1980s and early ‘90s had become a rather corrupt political force ... I am not sure in its last days the DC represented a good Catholic approach to politics. Berlusconi certainly has not set an example of good Catholic behavior, but again I do not think that in electing the leaders of the center-right Italians — even the Catholic part of the population – were too conditioned by the Catholic moral quality of the leaders.”

Pope Francis, who was born in Argentina but is of Italian ancestry, and the Vatican publicly sat out the recent elections. The pontiff didn’t even bother to use his weekly Sunday address, like other popes had in the past, to encourage Italians to vote. The recent electoral outcome also raises questions about how Italy – where 88% of the population identifies as Roman Catholic – has largely ignored the pope’s message of inclusion and opening arms to refugees from Muslim nations.

Berlusconi galvanized the right during the ‘90s as an alternative to the established political power. Molding it after the Republican Party in the United States, Berlusconi united several smaller parties on the Right, including the Northern League, to form a coalition that appealed to Catholic voters. With Francis as pope, his message of solidarity towards refugees has resulted in a polarization between what the Vatican is preaching and what Italians want from their political leaders. 

“Pope Francis’ emphasis on welcoming the poor, the needy and the foreigner … has come at a time in which Italy withstood the massive wave of refugees landing with hundreds of thousands of arrivals a year,” Pavoncello said. “Italians felt the phenomenon was out of control and that Europe has left them alone to face the ‘invasion.’”

The populist wave has been years in the making. A 2014 Eurobarometer survey, a public opinion poll conducted of European Union residents, showed that an estimated 75% of Italians were against the immigration of non-EU nationals and 50% were against immigration from fellow EU countries.

“This is a clear indication of the malaise of Italians concerning immigration, and it runs against the concern of the Church for the refugees,” Pavoncello noted. “However, I do not think that Italians make the connection between the two issues and I do not believe that Pope Francis’ attitudes on the matter have much of an impact on the identification of the Italian people with the Catholic Church.”

Political observers said a new generation of a more secular electorate have started to differentiate between religious obligations and political desires.

“These elections say that Catholicism has become politically irrelevant,” said Gianfranco Pasquino, an Italian political scientist and Professor Emeritus at the University of Bologna. “Also, the pope may be applauded, but he is unable to change collective behavior.”

As Italians, like many across Europe, become more agnostic, their politics morph. Pope Francis’ pleas have gone largely ignored as political parties move away from the papal power that once exerted great power on the ruling class. Berlusconi, who once called himself the “Jesus Christ of politics,” is a practicing Catholic, although he was rebuked by Italian bishops in 2013 after accusations emerged that he held so-called “bunga bunga” sex parties at his estate.

“Nothing incompatible in practice between being a Catholic and supporting Berlusconi who, however, has lost half the amount of votes he gained between 1996 and 2008,” Pasquino said. “Berlusconi represents social groups: small entrepreneurs, artisans, shopkeepers, old women. It does not matter whether they are or not Catholic – nor whether he behaves decently!”

Berlusconi, who was barred from officially being on the ballot because of a prior tax-fraud conviction, nonetheless campaigned throughout the country for Forza Italia candidates. He made an alliance with Salvini as part of a right-wing coalition bent on channeling the forces that resulted in the Brexit vote and Trump’s election. Berlusconi even made a trip to the southern city of Naples days before the vote, a trip he chronicled Trump-style on his personal Twitter account. One of his stops included a neighborhood just walking distance from the city’s main cathedral known for crafting handmade nativity figures.

The election even drew the presence of Steve Bannon, considered the architect of Trump’s successful presidential run in 2016, to Rome. The former White House strategist and Breitbart News chairman, who is Catholic, is tight with Cardinal Raymond Burke, who has emerged as Pope Francis’ biggest critic at the Vatican. While Francis has called populism “evil” and even denounced Trump as “not a Christian” for his desire to build a wall along the Mexican border, Burke and Salvini held a meeting last year. The encounter was largely seen at the time as a sign of a growing political split within the Catholic Church. In an interview published in the Italian daily Il Corriere della Sera, Bannon called himself a “proud Catholic,” but accused the pontiff of having “exacerbated the migrant crisis” with his call for Western Europe to accept Muslim refugees.

“The pope is infallible in doctrine,” Bannon added, “but not in church policy in the world.”   

Despite the split between Church and state, Pavoncello said don’t rule out an all-out divorce quite yet.

“I am sure the political system will also start seeking the Church advice and blessing as it tries to find a solution to the very complex puzzle on how to form a government in the next several weeks,” he said.