Nationalism and Catholicism collide in run-up to the European elections

(NEWS ANALYSIS) Italians will go to the ballot box on May 26 to elect members of the country’s delegation to the European Parliament.

The vote — part of elections held across the European Union — will be another litmus test regarding Italy’s two populist political parties and whether they can withstand challenges from the left. What this latest electoral test will also do is reveal Italy’s love-hate relationship with the Catholic church.

The country’s Democratic Party, which holds a majority of seats, is likely to go down in defeat like it did in last year’s national elections. That’s where two populist parties, the League, which is on the right, and the Five-Star Movement, on the left, joined forces since neither had gained a majority in parliament.

The result? Matteo Salvini, who leads the League party, could take his anti-immigration stances to Brussels if opinion polls prove correct. His hardline stance on the issue has put him at odds with the Catholic church in Italy as well as with Pope Francis, who has repeatedly spoken in favor of refugees seeking asylum in Western Europe.

Like the Brexit fiasco, this clash has also divided Italians, where a majority remain Roman Catholic. However, a Pew Research study found that only 27% of Italian adults consider themselves “highly religious,” putting them in 13th place among Europeans. Nevertheless, Pew also found that Italy remains in first place in Western Europe when it comes to Christians who attend services regularly at 40%. That’s higher than Ireland (at 34%) and the United Kingdom (at just 18%).

Salvini, like President Donald Trump in the United States, has made closing the borders a priority since becoming Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Secretary. Last summer, Salvini ordered that ships containing migrants not dock at Italian ports. As a result, they were diverted to Spain, angering the European Union and the Catholic church. 

The European elections have also allowed Salvini to take his message outside of Italy’s boot-shaped borders in an attempt to create a pan-populist movement that puts it on a collision course with the continent’s Christian roots and the message emanating from the Holy See these days. Salvini recently announced the formation of a new European alliance of populist and far-right parties. The announcement was used as an excuse for the group to put out a series of talking points, including the use of Frontex, the E.U. border agency, to be used to rescue migrants, then repatriate them.  

The irony here is that Salvini proclaims himself to be a Catholic, arguing that crucifixes be mandatory in all schools and that people adhere to traditional gender roles. Politico branded Salvini’s Christianity “populist pseudo-Catholicism.” At a campaign rally in Milan during the 2018 national elections, Salvini even raised a Bible and a rosary before the crowd. In response, Archbishop Mario Delpini of Milan rebuked Salvini, saying the lawmaker should just stick to politics.

Antonio Rizzolo, a priest who also serves as editor of Familia Cristiana, has used the weekly Catholic magazine to push back against Salvini’s brand of religion. Salvini has returned the favor by labeling it a “extreme leftist magazine.”


Will Italians choose between the church’s teachings or Salvini’s social media-savvy campaign tactics? The feud between the church’s hierarchy and right-wing politicians has put devout Catholics in the middle. Indeed, many church-goers are also devoted to Salvini. For example, among Catholics who attend Mass at least once a week, support for Salvini has doubled — from 15.7 percent in March 2018 to 31.8 percent four months later during the height of the migrant crisis from Africa, according to an Ipsos poll. At the same time, Francis’ popularity in Italy has steadily declined.

While Salvini’s poll numbers rise (he has a penchant for taking selfies with his supporters), so does the resistance from publications like Familia Cristiana. In December 2018, the magazine ran a cover story denouncing a new immigration decree backed by Salvini, which would cancel asylum protection for immigrants.

Alberto Melloni, a church historian, said Salvini’s politics are a new religion.

“The problem with Salvini's operation is that he doesn’t just want the votes of Catholics,” he said in an interview. “Sometimes it almost seems like he wants their souls.”

Also running are Forza Italia, the party founded by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The media mogul-turned-politician has also gained widespread support in recent years and once had the backing of church leaders before a series of scandals tarnished him. Berlusconi has also said he favors deporting immigrants.

Opposition parties, meanwhile, have complained that the focus on immigration has distracted from the country’s real problems such as combating organized crime, which has been a major problem in Italy for decades. Instead, Salvini has used his social media accounts to warn against the threat of a “Nigerian mafia.”

Members of the clergy, meanwhile, have unified against the League, saying they would open churches to house refuges if need be. Since 2017, according to data published in the Italian Catholic daily Avvenire, the church has already taken in 25,000 migrants in its facilities. 

Bishop Calogero Peri of Caltagirone in Sicily noted that immigrants who risk expulsion would be housed on church property.

“It’s not a question of politics. It’s a matter of protecting individuals,” he told The Guardian. “Imagine this: in Italy now it is a crime to abandon dogs, but it is not a crime to abandon people. Even worse, abandoning men, women and children is now the law.”

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, who heads the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life, told the Italian daily La Repubblica that the Holy See continues to keep an eye on what happens politically in Italy regarding the European Union.

“In the Christian tradition and lay humanism, it’s a ‘categorical imperative’ to welcome those who flee war or traumatic situations,” he said. “Those who distort reality and favor a perception of insecurity said to be created by immigrants foment collective anger.”

It’s with that collective anger that Italians — and many citizens spread out across the EU’s other 27 member nations — are headed to the polls once again. This schism among Catholics not only reveals the country’s love-hate relationship with the church (and Pope Francis in particular), but is further proof that political ideology has replaced faith when it comes to the new state religion of its citizens.