Pope vs. populists: European election results highlight Catholic divisions

(NEWS ANALYSIS) A week after elections gave right-wing populists sweeping victories in the Catholic nations of Italy, Poland and France in the European elections, the biggest loser wasn’t the political left or moderate political parties. The side that suffered the biggest defeat was Pope Francis.

In Italy, The League party snagged 33 percent of the vote, a remarkable achievement given the country’s fragmented political system. The pro-European Democratic Party could only muster 22 percent of the vote, while the left-wing populist Five Star Movement finished third at 18 percent. The League victory highlighted the divisions within Roman Catholicism. Party leader Matteo Salvini — known for his nationalistic and anti-immigration rhetoric — didn’t shy away from his faith. On the contrary, he used church symbols to win seats.

It isn’t the first time in European history that the Catholic church — and the papacy — has been viewed with disdain. Over the past few years, the political populism that has enveloped Europe has sought to blame much of its social and economic misfortune on elites. While many of these elites traditionally hail from the political left, the doctrinal left — and with it the current Vatican hierarchy headed by Pope Francis — has also become a target in recent elections.

The election results capped off a bad week for the pontiff. While having to deal with populism undercutting Catholic social teaching, Pope Francis denied he knew about former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s history of sexual misconduct with seminarians in an interview with Mexican TV network Televisa. The scandal has plagued the papacy since last summer.

The European election, contested every five years, firmly places populism among the continent’s most powerful political forces. Never shy about brandishing a rosary or invoking God’s help, Salvini has provided Italians with an alternative to the pro-migrant stance and the church’s traditional social teachings put forth by the pope. 

“I thank the man up there — with no exploitations,” Salvini told reporters, while kissing a rosary he was clutching in his hand, as results came in on May 26.

The 751-seat European Parliament, headquartered in Brussels, represents the second-largest democratic electorate in the world (following India’s parliament). The outcome of last week’s election ignited a series of insults from both sides and only intensified the divisions among Catholics on the continent. Salvini called the results a win for law and order. His opponents called it a “Black Wave,” a reference to Benito Mussolini and fascism that took over Italy — and later most of Europe — in the 1930s.

Catholic social teaching, in part, calls for putting the needs of the poor and vulnerable first. This new brand of political populism, however, appeals to citizens who feel that their concerns have been ignored by the establishment.

In a tweet, Jesuit theologian Bartolomeo Sorge said of Italy’s current political situation: “Italy belong to the League, no longer is it a Christian nation. Those who support The League say, ‘Italians first,’ the Christian says, ‘Those who are abandoned first.’ All one needs to do is kiss Jesus in public. Judas did that.”

In response on his Facebook page, Salvini wrote: “Look at what this theologian wrote. All we need now is for someone to call for my excommunication [from the Catholic Church]… Onward with faith, respect and humility.”

Marco Politi, who has authored the book The Loneliness of Francis, told The Washington Post that Salvini is the first Italian post-World War II politician who has been “openly opposed to the social teaching of the pope.”

“Salvini has become in these last few years sort of an antipope,” he added. “In the last decades, he was never known as an especially engaged Catholic. But he has cleverly created an electoral bloc where there are believers and priests and even some undercover bishops.”

While there has been some recent talk of a Francis-Salvini meeting at the Vatican, Cardinal Gerhard Muller, former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under former Pope Benedict XVI, said it is time for the Vatican — and many Italian bishops — to make peace with Italy’s deputy prime minister.

“In this moment, the church is engaged too much in politics and too little in faith,” he told the Italian daily Il Corriere della Sera in a recent interview. “A church authority cannot speak in such an amateur way about theological questions and especially it must not intrude in politics, when there is a democratically legitimized parliament and government as there is in Italy.”

In the run-up to the European elections, several Italian bishops scolded Salvini before for using a rosary or Bible as a prop during his speeches. Others have even opposed his anti-immigrant stances.  

“It’s better to talk with Salvini, discuss, or correct him when necessary,” Muller said.

It is unusual that Francis and Salvini have never met, Muller admitted, given the pope’s penchant for meeting with almost anyone.

“It’s curious that the pope has received the most secularist people, and not Salvini,” he said. “He dialogues with the Venezuelan regime or with China which places millions of Christians in re-education camps, destroys churches, persecutes Christians… You must speak with everyone in a spirit of fraternity.”


Cardinal Raymond Burke, a member of the doctrinal right and Francis dissenter, met with Salvini last year. At an anti-abortion event last month in Rome, Burke echoed Salvini, calling nationalism a Christian value and the role of Europeans to resist “large-scale Muslim immigration.”  

On May 27, a day after the election, Francis addressed the migrant situation, saying that looking down on them is an “alarm bell” that warns of “moral decline.” He did not mention Salvini by name in his condemnation.

“That is why it is not just about migrants,” he said. “When we show concern for them, we also show concern for ourselves, for everyone; in taking care of them, we all grow in listening to them, we also give voice to a part of ourselves that we may keep hidden because it is not well regarded nowadays.”

Francis’ three-day trip to Romania that ended on Sunday, for example, was also an opportunity for the pope to warn of the dangers associated with populism. His message was largely embraced in the former communist nation, which has embraced being a member of the European Union. Romania is predominantly Orthodox.

Despite the pope’s pleas in recent years, populists also did well outside Italy, fueled with help from President Donald Trump’s former advisor Steve Bannon. In Poland, meanwhile, the country’s ruling Law and Justice (known as PiS) party surged to victory, a stamp of approval for the party’s euroskeptic platform before this fall’s national elections.

“We have to remember the decisive battle for the future of our homeland will take place in the autumn,” PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski told party supporters after winning 45 percent of the vote.

Kaczynski said casting votes fort PiS would be deciding on the “preservation of family values ... the future of Polish tradition and the church in our country.” 

“The success of PiS is part of a broad cultural divide across the world,” Jaroslaw Flis, a sociologist with the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, told Reuters. “It’s a divide between those who advocate economic solidarity and a uniformity of values, meaning they are socially conservative and support the welfare state, against those who back economic and social liberalism.”

In France, Salvini ally Marie Le Pen also won big after her National Rally party narrowly defeated President Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche. Since coming to power in 2017, Macron has struggled with a series of protests — most notably the anti-government Yellow Vests movement — since November. Amid this backdrop of unrest, the National Rally has become a political option not just for conservatives, but also those who identify as religious.

Marine Le Pen’s party — a rebranding of the National Front that lost the election to Macron — captured 23.5 percent of the vote to Macron’s centrist allies at 22.5 percent.

Where does all this leave Pope Francis? As head of the Roman Catholic church, it is his role to bring these balkanized factions together. Given Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s own controversial political past in Argentina, it isn’t likely these factions can come together. Politics and faith make for strange bedfellows. In these divisive times, the pontiff’s role is serving primarily as a healer — not make himself a political pawn for populists to run against during election season.   

“Those who pay the price are always the little ones, the poor, the most vulnerable… In every political activity, in every program, in every pastoral action we must always put the person at the center, in his or her many aspects, including the spiritual dimension,” the pope said. “And this applies to all people, whose fundamental equality must be recognized.”

Pope Francis could start with holding a meeting with Salvini. It isn’t likely that Salvini will tone down his rhetoric. Nonetheless, a meeting would go a long way in healing the wounds that have fragmented Roman Catholicism across Europe over the past few years.