Several ecclesiastical figures expressed horror at the results of last week's European Parliament elections. Their reactions reveal the European Church's dangerous alliance with specific political positions.
The reactions centered on the Matteo Salvini's stunning victory in Italy, where his Lega Party took more than 34 percent of the Italian vote, exceeding even the most extravagant forecasts. This means that in absolute figures the Euroskeptic Lega party will have the third-highest number of seats in the new parliament. The fact that European churchmen have decried Salvini’s win as a categorical loss for the Church herself suggests that clerics have overly entangled themselves in politics, to the point of identifying the good of the Church with contingent—and debatable—political positions. This alliance could compromise the Church’s evangelizing message and needlessly alienate many believing Catholics who in good faith hold contrary political positions.
Three examples will suffice: Namely, the L’Osservatore Romano editorial against sovereignism by Andrea Monda, the lamentations of COMECE president Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich, and Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro's editorial in Thursday’s Famiglia Cristiana.
On May 27, the semi-official Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano published a front-page editorial by Andrea Monda (personally appointed as the newspaper’s editor-in chief last December by Pope Francis), who criticized the pro-sovereignty movement that made extraordinary gains in Sunday’s elections. That movement is the enemy of Europe, the editorial, and the Lega’s substantial victory in Italy was particularly worrisome.
“Sovereign, as the word itself indicates, is the one who does not want anyone above himself, who wants to be free from any other presence that is seen as a suffocating limit to his own freedom,” Monda wrote. “It is from this misunderstood sense of freedom that Europe’s problems arise, as highlighted by the election results.”
“Sovereignism and Europe are actually two diametrically opposed ideas. Europe is the union of states, it is a being-with,” he continued. The pro-sovereignty vote Sunday was “reactive.” It was not a vote for something, but “against” something, driven by fear.
Monda’s portrayal of national sovereignty as essentially negative, and the pro-sovereignty movement as diametrically opposed to Europe, represents a certain political perspective. But it cannot lay claim to representing the position of the Catholic Church. Moreover, even if all the European states were to relinquish their national sovereignty to the European Union, the E.U. itself would then become sovereign, and Monda’s criticisms of sovereignty would have to be applied to Europe as well.
The president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community (COMECE)the victories of Green parties in Sunday’s elections while lamenting the rise of populist-nationalists such as Salvini. Luxembourg Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich told reporters on Monday that the success of ecological parties is a “positive” sign, because it signals attention to the themes of environment and creation. He then went on to offer the curious assertion that “as a Church” the victory of the green parties “makes us happy.”
“There is, as expected, a strengthening of populist parties but it is not a trend in all countries,” he said, noting that the strong populist victory in Italy was not matched in countries like Spain, Denmark, Austria, and the Netherlands.
“Certainly, the presence of a strengthened group of sovereign and populist parties will surely be an obstacle, but not an insurmountable difficulty,” he said, “because these political forces do not represent a strong enough minority to block the EU Parliament.” Asked whether the overall results of the elections were positive or negative, the archbishop said they were “not completely negative” even if this is “perhaps harder for Catholics in Italy to see.”
Hollerich then criticized Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini for preying upon Catholics by appealing to their religious sense, also suggesting that Italian Catholics are easily duped and not particularly intelligent. “I think that in Italy, as well as in many other countries, Catholics have not been taken very seriously,” he said. “Their opinion did not count, and for this reason if someone holds up—for example—a rosary or something similar, people say: ‘Ah, finally there is a politician who cares about us.’”
“I could also hold up a communist flag,” he continued, “but that does not mean that I am a communist,” suggesting that Salvini is not a real Catholic, despite his claims to the contrary.
As a third exhibit, Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, the editor-in-chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, railed against the election results in a full-page article in Famiglia Cristiana. “There is a toad, a moral sickness, in the belly of our country, which is also infecting our Church,” Spadaro observed, since a significant number of self-identified Catholics evidently voted for Salvini.
“If the political usurpation of religious symbols of brotherhood has become acceptable; if a Christian accepts the imposition of a penalty on the one who rescues a drowning man; if nationalism contradicts the very essence of the universality proper to Catholicism… this means that the Christian conscience has been hacked, genetically modified,” Spadaro said. His denunciation of the Italian electorate's choices suggest that he would have preferred another party to come out on top, but which one? Why single out the Lega—which is pro-family and pro-life—instead of, say, the Partito Democratico (PD), which supports gay marriage and abortion?
These three examples are just the tip of the iceberg, the latest signs of a process by which leading spokesmen for the Church in Europe seem to be growing more overtly political and intolerant of challenges to a globalist agenda. Globalists can certainly look to some Catholic Church teachings for inspiration and a justification of their aims, since the Church proclaims the essential unity of the human race and the universal brotherhood of humanity under the common fatherhood of God. Yet defenders of national sovereignty can also look to the Catholic principle of subsidiarity to justify their desire to limit supranational organizations to functions that can only be carried out at that level. They can also appeal to the Catholic virtue of patriotism in seeking to defend their national culture, history, and values.
In short, no political program or party can claim a monopoly on Catholic allegiance as if it were the sole and perfect incarnation of Catholic social thought to the exclusion of all others. The Second Vatican Council appealed to this legitimate multiplicity of political positions in Gaudium et Spes. The Council Fathers noted that sometimes “the Christian view of things will itself suggest some specific solution in certain circumstances,” before proposing that this is not always the case.
“Yet it happens rather frequently, and legitimately so, that with equal sincerity some of the faithful will disagree with others on a given matter,” the text reads. “Even against the intentions of their proponents, however, solutions proposed on one side or another may be easily confused by many people with the Gospel message.”
“Hence it is necessary for people to remember that no one is allowed in the aforementioned situations to appropriate the Church’s authority for his opinion,” the text says. They should instead “always try to enlighten one another through honest discussion, preserving mutual charity and caring above all for the common good.” It would seem that this healthy respect for contrary opinions regarding the best political course—along with a recognition that the gospel allows for a diversity of political solutions—is precisely what is missing in Europe’s ecclesiastical world at present.
To take just one more example from the Italian political scene, leading ecclesiastical figures have demonized Salvini for closing Italian ports in an effort to curb illegal immigration, calling him everything from the antichrist to Satan. But Pope Francis himself has insisted that politicians must employ the virtue of prudence in deciding how many immigrants they can reasonably accept and integrate, which implies there is not a single, one-size-fits-all measure for welcoming immigrants.
Many have rushed to the assumption that Salvini is motivated by racism and xenophobia in his opposition to mass migration, a judgment that seems as hasty as it is uncorroborated. Two high-ranking African prelates—who can hardly be charged with racism—have in fact joined Salvini in denouncing mass migration as particularly bad for the African migrants themselves.
In April, Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah, head of the Vatican’s liturgical department, said that the Church should not be encouraging migration. It is wrong to “use the word of God to promote migration,” he said. It is better “to help people flourish in their culture than to encourage them to come to Europe.” The cardinal denounced the Church’s push for migration into Europe, insisting that most immigrants wind up in Europe “without work or dignity” and assume the condition of slaves. “Is that what the Church wants?” he asked, adding that prelates should not support “this new form of slavery that is mass migration.”
Nigerian Cardinal John Onaiyekan, the archbishop of Abuja, noted that mass migration out of his country is a sure sign that political leadership has failed. Having visited Italy and seen the number of Nigerian prostitutes on the streets of Rome and other cities as a result of mass migration, the cardinal said he was. “To tell you bluntly I’m ashamed, I’m ashamed,” he the BBC. “I’m moving through the streets of Rome, Milan, Naples and I see my daughters on the street on sale.”
“I’m ashamed and I stop and even greet some of them—you can’t even engage them in conversation because they were brought out of the village illiterates. All they learn and all they know on the streets of Italy is what they need for this business—I’m ashamed.”
According to reports, some 80 percent of Nigerian women who have arrived on Italian shores wind up in prostitution, usually by force, and currently one of every two prostitutes in Italy is Nigerian. Many young Nigerian women are enticed into traveling to Italy with promises of honest work, only to find they are expected to sell themselves on the streets. This means that every Nigerian woman who gets off an NGO vessel and steps onto Italian soil has an 80 percent chance of winding up prostituting herself as a sex slave.
Italian Catholics can agree with Salvini’s programs or disagree with them. They can vote for his party or another one. That is the way democracy works, and by and large the Catholic Church supports this.
What is not working is for important ecclesiastical figures to ally themselves to political causes as if those positions represented the stance of the Church herself. This is indeed a “toad” in the belly, and Europe’s Catholics have the indigestion to prove it.
Thomas D. Williams is an American writer and philosophy professor who lives in Rome, Italy. His fifteen books include The World as It Could Be: Catholic Social Thought for a New Generation (Crossroad, 2011).