ROME – While in the United States, the concept that the Vatican might influence public policy is outrageous, in Italy, the relationship between politics and the Catholic Church is like a well-made cappuccino: The espresso and milk foam may seem separated at first, but once you drink it, they blend into one.
Popes theoretically handed in their temporal power almost 150 years ago, but their voice and opinions still hold considerable weight in public discourse, which, in Italy as well as in many parts of the world these days, is centered around the immigrant crisis.
In the past, Pope Francis has been hesitant, if not downright opposed, to using his hefty popularity to intervene directly in matters of Italian public policy. But while the pope remained quiet as Italy’s parliament passed a law on de facto-couples, which critics say opened the road towards gay marriage, he was vocal on a recently proposed law concerning citizenship to the children of long-term immigrants.
The legislation is based on the concept of ius soli, which establishes citizenship depending on where you are born and not ius sanguinis, requiring a blood lineage, and would offer citizenship to the children of immigrants born in Italy who have completed at least five years in the Italian school system.
Under Italy’s current ius sanguinis system, it’s difficult and somewhat rare for the children of immigrants to the country to acquire citizenship. Under a ius soli standard, it would become much easier.
The country’s senate is currently at a standstill on the law, with opposing parties entrenched in a battle where no political blows are spared.
At the weekly general audience Sep. 27, Francis extended his arms wide toward St. Peter’s square and called faithful to welcome migrants and refugees.
“Just like this,” the pope said, “arms wide open, ready for a sincere, affectionate, enveloping embrace.” He then praised the work done by the civil organizations involved in collecting signatures in order to push the ius soli legislation forward.
This wasn’t the first, nor most adamant time the pope publicly expressed his support for the legislation. In his message for the 2018 World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Francis said, “in line with the universal right to citizenship, it must be recognized and appropriately certified to all young boys and girls from the moment of birth.”
This provoked distress and outrage on the part of those who strongly oppose it. Matteo Salvini, leader of the populist right-wing party Northern League tweeted that if the pope “wishes to apply the law in his State, the Vatican, he can go ahead. But as a Catholic, I don’t believe Italy can welcome and sustain the entire world. To God what is of God and to Caesar what is of Caesar. Amen,” to which he added his staple hashtag ‘stoptheinvasion.’
The pope had used the same quote from the Gospel in an interview with sociologist Dominique Wolton, where he stressed how “the lay state is a healthy thing,” but Francis’s recent statements on the ius soli show that when the topic is close to his heart, he is not willing to back down.
Some Italian media outlets even hypothesized a deal between the current Prime Minister of Italy, Paolo Gentiloni, and Francis sealed during a “secret meeting” between the two in July at the house of Archbishop Angelo Becciu, the number two at the Vatican’s secretariat of State. The idea is not so far-fetched, considering that managing relationships between Italy and the Holy See is somewhat of a family hobby for Gentiloni. His ancestor, Vincenzo Ottorino Gentiloni Silveri, was responsible for the “Gentiloni Pact” that allowed Catholics to vote in Italy in 1912, after Pius IX had forbidden it in 1874.
Some Italian reporters have been calling the alleged agreement a “Gentiloni Pact 2.0” aimed at ensuring the stability of the current administration, which risks losing the vote of confidence on the question of the ius soli. Admittedly, the Vatican would have an interest in maintaining the status quo in Italian politics, since the alternatives would reside either in the anti-immigration right or the strongly anti-clerical left.
A chorus of priests, bishops and cardinals joined in their support of the ius soli legislation, with Bishop Nunzio Galantino, secretary general of the Italian Bishop’s Conference (CEI), saying that if a way was found to accelerate things with regards to the rights of same-sex couples, “the same attention should be given to the rights of Italians left without citizenship.”
“The Vatican doesn’t vote,” the bishop clarified, “but the Church is bound to call out the heart of the matter.”
On Sep. 25 the president of CEI, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, also joined the ranks in favor of the controversial law, adding that while welcoming immigrants is an important first step, “there is another responsibility, promulgated over time, that has to be tackled with prudence, intelligence and realism.”
Many reporters spotted a difference of expression between Francis’s “open arms” approach and CEI’s call to caution, but Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, quickly shot them down.
“You can welcome people with open arms, but also with prudence,” Parolin told reporters Sep. 27, before taking part in Rome’s Lateran University’s conference sponsored by the pontifical organization Aid to the Church in Need on the situation facing Christians in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains area.
“The fundamental thing is welcome, because they are our brothers and sisters,” Parolin said. The prelate said that in the context of this “very intense Italian political debate,” it’s best if the Vatican sticks with “recalling principles.”
“What’s important is that these people not just be welcome but integrated, so that they can be inserted in a positive way into the fabric of our society,” Parolin said.
The president of Caritas Internationalis, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of the Phillipines, took the opportunity to stress the principles in favor of immigration during the presentation of the new global campaign ‘Share the Journey’ on Sep. 27, aimed at promoting an encounter with immigrants.
“Everyone enriches the community that accepts them: Look at me, my grandfather was Chinese, without a penny, very poor, who would have never guessed that his grandson would become a cardinal,” Tagle said.
“I invite everyone to remember those who were migrants in our family or community,” he said, adding that it’s necessary to welcome immigrants who can offer great benefit to the community they join.
“All those who have faith, especially if they are politicians, as such cannot close the door in the face of immigrants and refugees,” Tagle said. “The evangelical mandate is clear, to not listen to it means to betray it.”