Italy’s new government and the Catholic Church increasingly at odds over migrant crisis 

ROME — The soap opera that is Italian politics has taken a dramatic turn in recent weeks as two populist parties on opposite ends of the spectrum have decided to join forces as the Catholic Church opposes the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment that has engulfed the country over the past year. 

While the outcome of the hotly-contested March 4 election was a victory for populism, there was no clear winner that day. A coalition that included Matteo Salvini of the right-wing League party featured Trump-style campaign promises such as deporting thousands of undocumented immigrants out of the country. The party – formerly the Lega Nord that had called on the wealthy northern provinces to break off from the rest of Italy – largely appealed to Catholics. 

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 and anti-immigration. With no party reaching the 40% threshold needed in parliament to form a ruling government, the deadlock caused three months of negotiations and backroom dealing that resulted in the recent appointment of Giuseppe Conte as prime minister. A relatively unknown to the political scene, Conte, a law professor, is now tasked with leading a divided country.  

Italy’s new prime minister Giuseppe Conte (center), flanked by Luigi Di Maio (left) and Matteo Salvini (right), at a recent parliament meeting. (Photo courtesy of the Italian Prime Minister’s Office)

Italy’s new prime minister Giuseppe Conte (center), flanked by Luigi Di Maio (left) and Matteo Salvini (right), at a recent parliament meeting. (Photo courtesy of the Italian Prime Minister’s Office)

The League has faced widespread criticism for its xenophobic policies – primarily from the Catholic Church – after vowing to deport 500,000 illegal immigrants from Italy. An estimated 600,000 people have reached Italy by boat from Africa in the past five years. As part of the compromise over Conte’s appointment, Salvini was sworn in as Italy's new interior minister, while Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio will serve as labor and economic development minister, a position that allows him to fulfill his campaign promise of giving Italians universal basic income. 

One of the battles to emerge from all this is between the League and the Church. For a country that is 88% Roman Catholic, the vow to deport so many has put them at odds with Pope Francis and the church’s mission to provide services to the poor and homeless regardless of race or faith. Many of them are newly-arrived migrants from Africa and the Middle East. Critics have said that Salvini’s plans are nothing but a cover for Islamaphobia and that it limits the religious freedom of Muslims living in the country.  

Pope Francis has been vocal about inclusion and opening arms to refugees from Muslim nations – something that has put Salvini voters, many of whom are Catholic – at odds with the Church. The notion that police would round up people and remove them from the country has brought back fears that Italy could be plunged into a situation reminiscent of the fascist dictatorship of Benito Mussolini during the 1930s and ‘40s.  

While the pope did not address Italy’s new government in his weekly message this past Sunday, the Church hasn’t held back when it comes to taking on the issue. While many in Italy remain devoted to the pontiff, some do believe the Vatican should not be involved in the country’s internal affairs and whether Salvini decides to deport people living in Italy from outside the European Union. 

A prayer vigil was held on June 6 at Santa Maria in Trastevere Basilica in Rome, less than a week after Conte and his cabinet was sworn in, calling for compassion and grace towards immigrants, both documented and undocumented, to combat the newly-installed government’s plans. The event featured Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, who heads the Italian Bishops’ Conference, and was organized by the Community of Sant'Egidio, a Christian group officially recognized by the Catholic Church that claims 50,000 members.

Rescuers aiding a boat loaded with migrants that recently approached Italy’s shores. (Photo: SOS Méditerranée)

Rescuers aiding a boat loaded with migrants that recently approached Italy’s shores. (Photo: SOS Méditerranée)

The group, in a statement, said that since the election, Italy had undergone “a climate of tension and conflict that has allowed for the loss, on more than one occasion, of every social and civic responsibility that includes the protection of those who are weaker among the population. As Christians, as well as the same time citizens, it means that we must be involved in solidarity and work towards peace.”

Never has the Church so vehemently opposed a sitting government since the days when communists threatened to take power nationally – something evident since many Catholic parishes are now operated by clergy born outside the country given the shortage of priests. As a result, it always had a relationship with Christian Democrats, the country’s ruling political party for most of its time as a democracy during the post-World War II years, and later with Forza Italia, founded by media mogul Silvio Berlusconi. 

At the vigil, Bassetti called for unity and told the crowd that “there is an idea of Italians being humane and that it should not be lost on the population not to be racist or to hate, something that needs to be passed on to our children.”

“Some months ago, Pope Francis, speaking here … said that the ‘atmosphere of fear can influence Christians,’” Bassetti added.

The issue was put in the fore over the past few days with the government’s refusal, on Salvini’s orders, to close all Italian ports to the arrival of a ship, which had left Libya, loaded with some 600 migrants floating off the coast. Salvini even called on the tiny island nation of Malta to take in the migrants, something they refused to do that left the ship in limbo for days. SOS Méditerranée, a humanitarian group, said most of those aboard hailed from sub-Saharan Africa and included many children. The issue dominated the front pages of newspapers and political TV talk shows for days. 

A resolution was reached Monday when Spain said it would allow the ship, called the MS Aquarius, to dock in Valencia. The decision by the government was met with resistance by the Vatican and mayors from across southern Italy, including Naples and Palermo, who said he was ready to open the city’s port to take in the ship.

What makes all this even odder is the large number of prominent Catholics within the new government. Conte, for example, is an alum from Villa Nazareth, a cultural institution close to the Vatican. This has caused some embarrassment among some in the Church’s hierarchy as tension between the sides continues to build. As Commonweal magazine pointed out: “For now at least, the Catholic Church is the most important alternative voice to this populism in Italy. There has not been so much ideological distance between a pope and an Italian government in 70 years. While Francis preaches bridge-building, the new Italian government promises to tear down the old bridges between itself and its neighbors and to throw up new walls.”

Salvini, at a recent news conference in Rome, said he was working to find greater “convergence" with the Catholic Church on his planned crackdown of undocumented migrants, although he did not go into specifics. 

“I have started to cultivate useful and numerous relationships with various people within the Catholic world,” he said. “We'll work together, we'll amaze you, we will decidedly find convergences… there is much more closeness than distance with [the Catholic Church] because [migrant] reception, within the limits and rules and possibilities, is an interest of all.”