ROME – Among the most persistent questions about Francis’s pontificate is whether his staunch pro-immigration stance is bearing any tangible results.
As bishops in the West raise their voice in support of immigrants, a growing number of citizens cast their vote in favor of nationalistic and isolationist politicians.
For the Church, immigration has become as much of a divisive topic as in any other part of society. Faithful storm out of Mass due to pro-immigration homilies, the Twittersphere chirps against a church that meddles in questions beyond its reach, and even priests and nuns whisper among themselves about the pope going “too far.”
The measure of this pontificate’s failure or success to promote its vision on immigration can be evaluated in its ability to win the heart of the people, to present a unified front within the clergy, to be effective at the global diplomacy level and to bring tangible results benefitting immigrants.
While it’s too soon to come to concrete conclusions, a quick glance at the Vatican’s score in these fields can provide a helpful barometer of Francis’s ability to apply and withstand pressure on what is likely to be the legacy of his pontificate.
A losing battle for the hearts of Europe
A survey of the political situation in Europe and North America shows that Francis faces an uphill climb in promoting the welcoming of immigrants among the population. Countries such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic (all three with Catholic majorities) have populist and protectionist politicians in power, while in the United States, anti-immigration policies continue to garner support despite the bishops’ outcry.
Italy serves as the perfect testing ground for the effectiveness of Francis’s rhetoric. Not only is it the Vatican’s backyard, it’s politics forever entwined with the whispers and moods of the papal halls, but it has also witnessed a consistent rise in popularity of its ruling populist and anti-immigration coalition, which has taken issue with the pontiff’s appeal to “welcome, protect, promote and integrate.”
Matteo Salvini, leader of the Northern League party and Minister of the Interior, is the flagbearer for the anti-immigration sentiment in Italy. Continued attacks by clergy have only increased his support and the numbers prove it.
His party is polling at 32 percent, a recent survey by the Italian Tecnè research and analysis institute found. The Northern League under Salvini has closed ports and borders, facilitated the deportation of undocumented immigrants and increased penalties for entering the country illegally.
The policies have been appreciated by the Italians and the party’s support has grown 15 percent since its election on March 4, 2018.
A divisive topic in a divided church
It’s difficult to establish a pontiff’s support among clergy. The bishops, priests and nuns who have spoken up in favor of Francis’s immigration agenda are many, but contrarians usually speak anonymously or amongst themselves.
“Every day I meet nuns, friars and priests who tell me: Keep going Matteo, we pray for you!” said Salvini Jan. 9 while campaigning for regional elections in central Italy. The minister said he has the support of “the territorial Church, the Church of the parishes, which experiences real problems on its own skin, that are perhaps seen from far away at the Vatican.”
“Integration is possible with a limited number,” he continued. “Even the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that welcoming the stranger is a duty to the extent that it’s possible. I believe we have reached the extent in which it is possible.”
Other clergy members speak openly in opposition to the Church’s pro-immigrant efforts. The former Archbishop of Ferrara Luigi Negri said that bishops and mayors who use conscientious objection to act in defiance of the laws of the country misuse the concept.
“The right to object is to be defended when fundamental principles are undermined,” Negri said on Sunday. Those “who use conscientious objection deliberately as a political tool against legitimate actions of superior or equal authorities, abuse the concept.”
Vatican diplomacy champions immigration
The most successful field for the papal message on immigration is no doubt at the diplomatic level, where papal ambassadors have made themselves promoters of a broad message of welcoming and integration of immigrants.
Despite the lack of participation by certain countries – including Italy, the United States and Australia – the signing of the United Nations-sponsored Global Compact on migration in Morocco at the end of last year represented an important milestone, in no small part thanks to the leadership and diplomacy of the Holy See.
At a global level no institution has promoted progressive views on immigration as much as the Holy See, and while not everyone agrees with its vision, the Vatican’s diplomatic corps has set the gold standard for promoting pro-immigration policies through statements and other forms of advocacy.
In his speech to the ambassadors to the Holy See at the beginning of the year, Francis officially launched phase two of his global pro-immigration stance by emphasizing the importance of multilateralism.
For example, over the holidays, Europe had been arm-wrestling over which country should welcome two immigrant vessels carrying 49 people. Several countries agreed to open their boarders Jan. 9 following an almost three-week impasse and a papal appeal.
“We cannot continue to rely on disorganized solutions,” said Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European commissioner for Internal Affairs. “We need a critical mass of member states, ready to show solidarity though participation.”