ROME – While bishops in the United States continue to voice support for immigrants in a generally hostile political setting, Italian clergy are stepping up to do the same as March 4 general elections in the country draw near.

In the context of populist movements often rallying support with disparaging and fear-mongering rhetoric against immigrants, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, leader of the powerful Italian bishops’ conference, in a speech to his fellow Italian bishops this week, criticized what he described as an alarming resurgence of racist language in Italian political discourse, and offered a conceptual map of issues for citizens to reflect on as they go to the polling booths.

These included the welcoming and integration of immigrants, the fostering of family life and values and a strong stance in defense of life.

In the United States, Catholic bishops have been outspoken defenders of both the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), and Temporary Protected Status (TPS), as well as forcefully condemning instances of racism and xenophobia.

Italy’s Racism Renaissance

The Lega Nord (literally, “Northern League”) political party, a right-wing populist movement that has garnered enormous support across the peninsula, has made anti-immigrant sentiments the bulwark of their campaign. Its leader, Matteo Salvini, has effectively used Donald Trump’s presidential campaign as a blueprint to take the country by storm under the reworked slogan of “Italy First.”

While Salvini has had to temper his language in regards to foreigners and immigrants in the context of a national campaign, the same cannot be said for other members of his party who have drawn blowback in light of their remarks reminiscent of white supremacy currents in American debates.

“We have to decide if our ethnicity, if our white race, if our society must continue to exist, or if our society must be eliminated,” said Lega member Attilio Fontana in a recent interview with Radio Padania, where he framed the immigrant issue as a battle for survival between Italians and immigrants.

Criticisms of Fontana’s words came from all directions, but none were as impactful as those from Bassetti, who allowed himself an exception – something not as rare as some Italian bishops might want people to believe – of their claim not to comment directly on the political dynamics of the country.

“We thought talk of (the white) race had been buried for good,” Bassetti said during his speech inaugurating the conference’s meeting on Monday. “Every Christian is called to go towards (migrants) with an attitude of understanding and compassion” because “we are one human family,” he added.

Bassetti’s speech, while maintaining the pretense of not taking sides, was seen by most Italians as having a strong political subtext. In effect, it painted a picture of what the bishops might be thinking regarding the upcoming elections.

According to the prelate, the main issues facing Italy – and arguably many countries in Europe – are jobs, youth, family and, obviously, migration. On the last point the cardinal urged bishops to “mend a country marked by social rancor,” in order to “rebuild hope and bring peace to society.”

Quoting Paul VI’s 1967 encyclical Populorum Progressio, Bassetti reminded the conference that racism is an issue that Italy has been struggling with for a long time. After all, this year marks the 80th anniversary of the Racial Laws enacted by Mussolini in 1938, which Bassetti called “a dark page in the history of our country.”

The cardinal condemned those who would wish to promote a “culture of fear” and hail a “dramatic reemergence of xenophobia,” and emphasized the Church’s role in promoting an environment of dialogue and encounter that is close to families and the people.

“Emphasizing and feeding these fears, not only is not in any way a Christian behavior, but could also be the cause of a fratricidal war among the poor in our peripheries,” he said, adding that “this possibility must be avoided at all costs.”

Bassetti did not shy away from getting into the nuts and bolts of the debate on immigration in Italy, which in recent months has been taken up by the question of whether the children of legal immigrants who are born in Italy should be granted citizenship.

Populist and right-wing political parties have essentially shut down the issue in the Italian parliament, despite perceptions that it was widely supported by Italian clergy and even by Pope Francis.

“In light of the Gospel and the experience of humanity of the Church, I think that the construction of a process of integration could take place through the recognition of a new citizenship, that would help the promotion of the human person and the participation to the public life of those men and women born in Italy, who speak our language and adopt our historical memory, with the values it entails,” Bassetti said.

Life, from beginning to end

The current democratic government in Italy has dealt the Church a series of political losses, in particular the legal recognition of de facto couples, which include unmarried and gay couples, and more recently the acceptance of a living will allowing people to choose to withdraw from life support, which has been defined as a “soft euthanasia” by conservative commentators.

Bassetti reaffirmed that the Church is concerned with life from beginning to end, sending a warning to whichever political party wins the elections.

“The culture of charity is also synonymous of a culture of life, which must always be defended: Whether it’s a question of saving the existence of a child in his mother’s womb or that of a very sick person; and whether it’s a man or woman sold by a trafficker of human meat,” he said.

The cardinal also noted that the family is undergoing profound changes in the country, with a growing number of separations and divorce as well as a plummeting birth rate. In the spirit of Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, Bassetti said that these changes “urge us to look at the family with concrete eyes, without looking for shortcuts, finding in the vulnerabilities of the family not only the limitations of man, but also especially a place of mercy.”

Calling Catholics to Politics

Gone are the days when the Christian Democratic party in Italy promoted Catholic values within the society and on the political playing field. Today the Italian public discourse is largely dominated by secular assumptions and concerns, with Catholics filling the ranks on all sides.

Bassetti encouraged faithful not to be separated between “moral Catholics” and “civil Catholics,” where the concern for immigrants and the poor trumps the need to protect life or vice-versa.

“The dignity of the person can never be stepped upon and must be the lighthouse of a Catholic’s political and social action,” he said.

Despite his wide-ranging discussion on many hot topics in Italian politics, Bassetti insisted that the Church “is not a political party, and does not make deals with any political player.” He also encouraged all Italians to “overcome any reason for distrust and disaffection, [and] to participate in the vote with a sense of responsibility.”

Political commentators in the Bel Paese have tried to surmise what Francis makes of the candidates and if he favors one party over the other.

His generally friendly relations with the mayor of Rome, Virginia Raggi, might lead some to believe that the ‘Populist Pope’ might be partial to her party, the populist left-wing Five Star movement. On the other hand the Vatican’s collaboration with the Democratic Party on questions of immigration, including the ius soli, could prove that the pontiff would not be opposed to their victory at the polls.

Bassetti’s statements, which no doubt encompass this pontificate’s spirit, could be interpreted as a window into what the pope might be thinking regarding Italy’s political future.

“I am in close contact with the pope. I had a chance to meet and speak to him in these month,” Bassetti said in a recent interview with local newspaper La Stampa.

“Francis has a full understanding of what is happening in our country and, especially, he understands its virtues, limitations and the character of the people,” Bassetti said.

“After all, we must never forget that the Holy father is a ‘son’ of Italians who emigrated to Argentina,” the Italian prelate said. “I can testify that he is close to us and with us because he loves Italy very much.”