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If mixing religion and politics is a tricky affair, keeping them separate is nearly impossible.

Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister and leader of La Lega party, made headlines on May 26 by kissing the rosary, invoking the patron saints of Europe, and entrusting the country to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in the run-up to the European Parliament elections.

This earned him the approbation of the Italian religious establishment: the Vatican’s Secretary of State, the president of the Italian Bishops Conference, and the editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, all of whom criticized Salvini’s “instrumentalization” of religious symbols for political purposes.

Such criticism does not bother Salvini, who does not pretend to be a good Catholic. He says he does not receive Communion because he’s divorced and hasn’t been to Confession in twenty years. “Who is bothered if I believe in God and invoke Mary?” he asks.

It’s a rhetorical question, because Salvini already knows who is bothered and who isn’t. He gambled that more Italians would side with him than with the Vatican and the bishops. La Lega won, carrying even the hometowns of many cardinals. For what had been a fringe, separatist political party based in the north of Italy, this is a remarkable achievement.

La Lega has been successful at running cities and regions of the richer north. For much of its history, the party ran against sending money to Rome and the poorer southern parts of Italy. It has become a national party with a “Prima L’Italia!” platform by focusing on immigration and the reluctance of other European Union members to share Italy’s burden in receiving asylum seekers, which they are committed to doing under the Dublin III Regulation.

As interior minister, Salvini has turned away ships of migrants and sought ways to process them in North Africa rather than Italy. The Italian government has also reached an agreement with its counterparts in Libya to reduce the flows from across the Mediterranean. Salvini claims he has not only lowered the numbers of migrants coming to Italy but also saved lives by discouraging the undertaking of dangerous journeys.

Salvini’s rhetoric and policies have put him at odds with Pope Francis, who has made migration the chief social issue of his pontificate. It is therefore not surprising that Salvini has drawn the ire of the local Church hierarchy. Like all Catholic bishops, Italy’s answer to the pope. Unlike other countries, however, the Italian Bishops Conference does not see itself as a rival to the Vatican and generally carries out the policies the Vatican wants. This happens despite all the disclaimers that “I don’t do politics” (Non faccio la politica) that one regularly hears from Italian clerics.

The Vatican and the bishops lack influence with the Italian political class. Long gone are the days when priests such as Luigi Sturzo and Giovanni Battista Montini formed Christian Democrats of the left and right. Christian democracy is no more and the Church’s role as the mediating institution in Italian life is greatly diminished.

The Church’s reduced influence had been apparent during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II. Not being Italian, the pope relied on Cardinal Camillo Ruini, who served as the vicar general of Rome for fifteen years and initiated a “progetto culturale” to resist the secularization that had affected the rest of Europe. The focus of this “cultural project” was the defense of “non-negotiable values” concerning the beginning and end of human life, marriage, and the family. They were centered on opposition to the legalization of divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage. Perhaps taking a page out of the U.S. pro-life playbook post-Casey, the idea was to change hearts and minds before laws.

Phrasing the argument in terms such as “values” and “culture” shifted the emphasis away from direct involvement in politics. The Church has generally favored an indirect approach to politics in modern times, so such a strategy fit the Church’s self-understanding. It was also well adapted to John Paul II’s defense of human freedom in the religious, political, and economic realms.

Pope Benedict XVI was more theological-political in his approach (see Fr. Raymond de Souza and Marc D. Guerra on Benedict’s September speeches and my piece on Caritas in Veritate), but the focus was mainly the same. As with John Paul II, however, it did not find much political success in Italy or elsewhere in the formerly Christian West.

Francis has emphasized migration, poverty, and the environment, explicitly telling Catholics to stop obsessing over abortion, gays, and birth control. This may have signaled the end of Ruini’s “cultural project,” but in no way does it signal the end of the Church’s political involvement. The “non-negotiables” have just changed.

Salvini has wisely grasped the populist mood of our times and successfully used it against the bishops to further his agenda. I, too, do not like to see the rosary brandished about casually, but this is what good politicians do (why else does every U.S. president say “God bless America”?). Nothing is permanent and new alliances are always possible in Italian politics. After a closed-door meeting with Polish bishops in 2016, Francis apparently realized the downsides of a purely humanitarian approach to migration issues. Cardinal Parolin has recently said he is open to dialogue with Salvini.

The irony of the recent controversy is that Salvini and Francis share a bleak view of international finance and multinational corporations. Both lament the lack of economic growth in Italy and the developing world as causes of migration but seem to know little about how growth takes place. We may be past the age of throne and altar, but some mistakes never go away.

Kishore Jayabalan is director of Istituto Acton, the Acton Institute's Rome office.  

Photo by CAPTAIN RAJU via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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