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ROME – Italy’s leading Catholic prelate has urged the country’s new leadership, seen as hostile to much of the pope’s social agenda, to stand up for the poor and vulnerable, saying the church itself will continue to advocate for the common good with “severity.”
In a statement published Sept. 27, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, archbishop of Bologna and president of the Italian Episcopal Conference, said the church in Italy “will continue to indicate, with severity, if necessary, the common good and not personal interests; the defense of the inviolable rights of the person and the community.”
“In respect of the democratic dynamics and in the distinction of roles, it will not miss its contribution for the promotion of a more just and inclusive society,” he said.
On Sunday, Italy held national elections that saw the overwhelming victory of post-fascist politician Giorgia Meloni, who will be Italy’s first female prime minister, and her conservative “Brothers of Italy” party.
Meloni’s success marked the latest instance in Europe’s broader sweep towards nationalist right-wing populism, but also noteworthy were the number of abstentions from the vote.
Just 63.95 percent of those eligible to vote went to the polls, marking an all-time low that has many political analysts furrowing their brow over an increasingly concerning aspect of the country’s changing political landscape.
This election cycle marks the 70th government Italy has had since the end of the second world war, with the average lasting around 13 months.
In his statement, Zuppi, widely considered by Vatican observers as papabile, meaning eligible to become the next pope given his close association with much of Francis’s agenda, lamented the high number of abstentions.
“Italy needs everyone’s commitment, responsibility, and participation,” he said.
For this reason, he said, the bishops “renew with even greater conviction the invitation to be protagonists of the future, in the awareness that it is necessary to rebuild a fabric of human relations that even politics cannot do without.”
Zuppi also asked elected officials to “carry out their mandate as a high responsibility, at the service of all, starting with the weakest and least guaranteed.”
He pointed to various national problems such as continually rising poverty rates; Italy’s low birth rate; care and protection of the elderly; the sharp disparity between different sectors of the country, mostly north versus south; environmental challenges and an ongoing energy crisis; high levels of unemployment, especially among youth; bureaucratic backlogs; and much-needed reforms to the “democratic expression of the state and of the electoral law.”
Also of concern is “the welcome, protection, promotion, and integration of migrants,” which remains an urgent issue for Italy given the high number of arrivals, mostly from North Africa, and which is also an area on which the new government is expected to spar with the Catholic Church.
While supportive of the church’s position on classic cultural issues such as gender theory and euthanasia, Meloni and her Fratelli d’Italia party are seen as hardliners on immigration.
Throughout the election campaign, she has opposed “irregular” and “illegal” immigration and has promoted naval blockades to prevent the arrival of more migrants from Africa and the Middle East on Italian shores.
In previous media remarks, Meloni voiced her conviction that “the only way to stop illegal immigration” and to “put an end to illegal departures to Italy and the tragedy of deaths in the sea” is a “European mission in agreement with North African authorities” to stop ships from docking at Italian ports.
In a social media post over the summer, Meloni referenced this “European mission,” arguing that “a serious state controls and defends its borders” and “the time has come to turn the page.”
A similar agreement could be made with Turkish authorities, she said, saying a joint military action by the European Union and Libyan authorities would not only prevent migrant-laden ships from departing in the first place, but it would also establish “hotspots to identify immigrants, distinguishing real refugees from illegal immigrants and allowing reception of the first into the EU states.”
Matteo Salvini, a conservative populist Italian politician with Italy’s Northern League party who formerly served as the country’s deputy prime minister and minister of the interior, was frequently criticized by Italian church officials for his similar stance on migration.
Salvini was poised to potentially assume a top government post again given his party’s alliance with Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia, however, his Lega party massively underperformed in the elections, prompting calls for his resignation.
Known for his frequent refusal to allow migrant ships to dock during his stint as Minister of the Interior on grounds that other European countries had to take in their fair share, Salivni has been indicted by a Sicilian court on kidnapping charges for one instance of refusing to allow migrants to disembark.
Should Meloni maintain her hardline anti-migrant policies, including naval blockades, she is likely to meet similar resistance from Italian church officials.
In comments to Italian media, Godwin Chukwu, president of the Federation of African Diasporas in Italy, voiced hope that Meloni’s new role makes her “more responsible towards ‘others,’ non-Italians, even if I remember a Latin proverb: Quod natura non dat, Salamantica non praestat, no one can give what nature denies.”
Chukwu recalled a social media post Meloni made in 2019, after a policeman was brutally stabbed to death by two foreigners, the nationality of whom wasn’t immediately clear.
“She took it out on two North African ‘animals,’ only to discover that in reality the killers were two North Americans; that I know of, she never apologized for this episode,” Chukwu said.
“The word immigration is a taboo for the whole Italian political class.”
In his statement, Zuppi also pointed to the challenges related to the ongoing war in Ukraine, saying the “heavy consequences” of the conflict “require a commitment from all and in full harmony with Europe.”
His statement comes on the heels of an appeal released by the Italian bishops on the eve of the election, in which they jointly urged elected officials to “never forget the high responsibility they are invested with” and to remember that their service “is for everyone, especially the most fragile and those who have no way of making their voice heard.”
“It is time for courageous and organic choices. Not opportunism, but visions,” they said, and invited elected officials to carry out their political responsibility “as the highest form of charity.”
They stressed the importance of co-responsibility and dialogue, calling them “essential ingredients” for building up society, and urged faithful to “rediscover and re-propose the principles of the church’s social doctrine: the dignity of persons, the common good, solidarity and subsidiarity.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen