Don’t underestimate the Vatican’s power in Italian politics

Italy’s Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini (left) shakes hands with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence this past June in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: The White House)

Italy’s Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini (left) shakes hands with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence this past June in Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: The White House)

(OPINION) The Tiber River cuts through Rome in the shape of a serpent, splitting the ancient city in half. On one side is the Vatican, home to the Catholic Church with the large dome of St. Peter’s Basilica looming over the city’s skyline. Directly across from the Vatican is Palazzo Montecitorio, seat of the Italian parliament. It is a place many Italians despise because it houses bickering politicians.

These two forces, within miles of each other, yet far apart in so many other ways, could come into renewed conflict over the coming weeks. Italy’s government was plunged into chaos this past Tuesday when the nationalist-populist coalition that had struck fear across the European establishment fell apart. It means that Italians could be going to the ballot box once again in late October. It’s also a sign of how powerful the Catholic Church remains, mostly behind the scenes, in helping to determine the country’s political outcomes.

Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing party known as The League, triggered the political tsunami after he abandoned the anti-establishment Five Star Movement in an effort to force a no-confidence vote and provoke new elections. Ahead of the vote, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced this past Tuesday that he was resigning, which officially brought the coalition to its knees.

The developments of the past week have left a power vacuum that will be filled either in the upcoming elections or if the Five Star Movement creates a ruling coalition with the center-left Democratic Party and several other smaller political factions. Salvini, who had served as the country’s interior minister and deputy prime minister, is pushing for a vote.

Salvini’s 40% approval rating — considered high for a country known for its very fractured political system — could very well get him elected prime minister. At the same time, traditional conservatives, led by billionaire-turned-politician Silvio Berlusconi and his Forza Italia party, have seen support eroded as voters increasingly flock to the League.

Outgoing Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (right) tenders his resignation during a meeting with Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella this past Tuesday in Rome. (Photo credit: Presidenza della Repubblica)

Outgoing Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (right) tenders his resignation during a meeting with Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella this past Tuesday in Rome. (Photo credit: Presidenza della Repubblica)

That these political parties, largely rejected by the electorate last year, want to join forces and stop the anti-immigrant League should come as no surprise. Undoubtedly, the Catholic Church will be rooting for such an outcome, favoring a French-style centrist coalition. Any chance the church has in regards to regaining the Italian electorate from the far right can only come through this potential alliance. It would also help slow Salvini’s momentum over the past year, where even the once-hostile southern region of the country has started to support his policies.

Pope Francis has been largely pro-immigrant, leading to a theory that the Vatican (through Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin) may be trying to broker a deal between Five Star, the Democratic Party and even Forza Italia. Salvini and the Vatican hierarchy have been at odds for years, primarily on the issue of immigration.

Catholicism, church leaders argue, teaches compassion and charity, qualities lacking from Salvini’s anti-immigrant policies regarding refugees from Africa and the Middle East. Salvini, on the other hand, ran on the campaign slogan Prima gli Italiani (which translates to “Italians First”) and is an unapologetic nationalist. That Salvini modeled his campaign after President Donald Trump’s is part of a larger, global dissatisfaction against elites and lifelong political ruling class.

In a New York Times Op-Ed last month, Mattia Ferraresi, who wrote for the Italian newspaper Il Foglio and is a Nieman fellow at Harvard University, noted that The League’s “embrace of Christianity is a recent addition.” The former secessionist party had been mostly libertarian on social issues. Under Salvini, the party became anti-immigrant and more conservative on issues such as abortion and gay marriage. He’s been known to clutch a rosary at political rallies, where Pope Francis is often booed whenever his name is brought up. Politico has branded Salvini’s Christianity “populist pseudo-Catholicism.”

For decades, Christian Democrats and the church were allies against left-wing forces, primarily communists. That was reinforced by John Paul’s II papacy throughout the 1980s and by Pope Benedict XVI. The rise of The League and Five Star Movement in recent years upended the previously predictable power base of Italian politics that was a hallmark of post-war Italy and subsequent Berlusconi years. At the same time, Francis moved away from cultural issues that were a hallmark of John Paul II’s papacy, focusing his efforts instead against the rising tide of nationalism.

Traditionally, the church’s political power has been largely felt, not seen. The church doesn’t field candidates or openly endorse politicians. Instead, it’s all part of backroom dealing — involving the country’s ruling-class elites — that has been elevated to an art form in Italy. Many of the country’s most-powerful politicians, for example, have been members of a Catholic fraternal group known as Communion and Liberation. That the Vatican may be behind the latest effort to push The League out of power should come as little surprise in a country where the church has exerted plenty of influence since the fall of Benito Mussolini and end of World War II.

The soap opera that is Italian politics played itself out on live television, even taking on a religious twist. In his resignation speech before parliament, Conte took the time to scold Salvini for using religious symbols, like a rosary, during political rallies. Party officials returned the favor by waving rosaries from their seats.

“I never told you Matteo, but combining religious symbols with political slogans are behaviors that have nothing to do with freedom of religious conscience,” he said. “They are rather episodes of religious unconsciousness that risk offending the believers’ feelings and obscuring the principle of secularism, which is a fundamental trait of the modern state.”

Salvini, for good measure, shrugged and took out his rosary beads, kissing them as Conte continued his speech. Indeed, the charismatic Salvini, who is twice-married and twice-divorced, appears to be an unlikely poster child for Catholic values. Nonetheless, he’s has been able to galvanize voters around the notion of tradition and culture, values seemingly lost to globalism. His party did very well in this past May’s European elections, another indication to Salvini that he should abandon the coalition and strike out on his own.

“Can’t I go into the hall [of parliament] with the rosary of the Madonna of Medjugorje without someone getting offended or regarding it as a threat to democracy?” Salvini rebuked.

Lawmakers on the other side of the aisle heckled back: “Show us your stigmata!”

That the church is part of the country’s elite didn’t help matters as Salvini’s nationalist views earned him plenty of growing supporters. The Vatican has meddled in other countries in the recent past (unsuccessfully in Ireland as they voted last year to lift an abortion ban), but this is Italy. Proximity and tradition should not be underestimated here when it comes to power dynamics. In the end, the Vatican could be a major player in helping to broker who will be Italy’s next prime minister, leaving Salvini sulking on the banks of the Tiber River.

Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to Religion Unplugged. He currently teaches journalism at The King’s College in New York City.