ROME – While many bishops in the United States have taken advantage of Pope Francis’s momentum and political relevance to be more outspoken in the public arena, their colleagues in Italy so far have been uncharacteristically quiet in the context of an uncertain general election.
But the mood may be about to change, as the president of the Italian bishops’ conference declared during its general assembly Tuesday that it’s time for the Church to return to engaging politics in the Bel Paese.
“He who is committed to administering the public square must return to being our favorite son,” said Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, president of the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI). “We must place all of our remaining strength to the service of he who does good and is truly an expert in the world of suffering, work and education.”
The Italian general elections on March 4 produced an uncertain result. The anti-establishment and left-leaning Five Star movement, led by the young Luigi di Maio, and the right-wing populist party Northern League, led by Matteo Salvini, were the frontrunners, splitting the electorate.
For the past three months, party leaders have been holding private meetings to come up with a common plan for a government that could be approved by the President of Italy, Sergio Mattarella.
In this “crucial moment in our history,” Bassetti told the Italian bishops, “we offer with conviction our esteem to the President of the Republic for his wise and patient guidance in doing everything to give Italy a government.”
The CEI leader emphasized that a government is not enough to run the country, which instead needs leaders who “really know [Italy], who know and respect its history and identity.”
He also stressed Italy’s role as “cofounder of Europe,” a strong reminder to the country’s new leaders of the importance of remaining part of the European Union.
“Even our Church has a European breadth, and those who frequent our brothers know how much the churches of the continent are in search of ideas and enthusiasm to educate and encourage the growth of a public ethic,” Bassetti said.
“These principles are an integral part of our culture,” he added, stressing that “this is a time in which it’s necessary to reconstruct hope, tie the country back together, pacify society.”
Francis underscored on many occasions the need for a Europe that returns to its Christian roots and founding principles. Speaking to European leaders at the Vatican last year, he criticized doing politics by “appealing to emotions to gain consent,” and called for a new leadership driven by “a spirit of solidarity and subsidiarity.”
The two parties attempting to govern Italy have been outspoken against the European Union, and initial proposals leaked to the press called for a referendum for a possible Italian exit.
While leaving final talks between parties, Di Maio told reporters that Italy was going to remain part of the union, though they appeared to be favoring the famously anti-Europe economist Paolo Savona to lead the ministry for the economy.
Fear of an exit from Europe was not the only concern for Italian Church leaders. The Northern League has been a strong advocate against immigration and Salvini even swore on the Bible and rosary that he would deport half a million illegal residents if elected.
“We need a less biased attention toward migration flows,” said Bishop Nunzio Galantino, the secretary of CEI, ahead of the general assembly, adding that he was concerned about a “political culture that makes the refusal of migrants its flag.”
Though the bishop never mentioned Salvini directly, he warned that “the ideologies, the presuppositions, the pre-electoral proclamations must be reconsidered and measured on reality and on real needs.”
Di Maio and Salvini tapped Giuseppe Conte, a law professor, to be the Prime Minister of Italy, taking the place of Paolo Gentiloni of the Democratic Party, who managed to earn the respect of Italian and Vatican officials thanks to his pacifying attitude.
“I believe that, with the usual critical spirit, the time has come to rise to the challenge of the new, which is advancing in Italian politics,” Bassetti said, because “faith cannot be smoke, but [must be] fire in the heart of our community.”
Little is known of Conte, who was not elected by Italians directly but chosen by parties who had the majority of the votes. His debut on the public stage has been enveloped in a certain amount of scandal, since the New York Times reported that while Conte claims on his biography to have “perfected” his studies at New York University, the university had no record he ever attended.
Other Italian news outlets then reported that universities and academic institutes in Vienna, Malta and Paris, all of which were also listed by Conte on his biography, likewise have no record of his ever attending courses.
An exchange of emails later showed that Conte did indeed spend part of the summer at NYU at one point, taking part in cultural events, using the library, and meeting with faculty. Di Maio brushed off the mini-tempest, saying of reporters, “They don’t know what to invent anymore.”
From a Vatican perspective, Conte is a bit of a gamble. On one side, he frequented Villa Nazareth, an exclusive college known as the “Temple of Catholic Democracy,” where the likes of Aldo Moro, Romano Prodi, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro and even Mattarella were formed. For a while, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin headed the group, and St. John Paul II and Francis both visited it and acknowledged its important political influence.
On the other side, Conte was also the lawyer in the controversial Sofia case in 2013, involving a young girl with a degenerative neural disease, which opened a debate in Italy concerning stem cell research. In a country where the Church already has lost several significant bioethics battles, such as abortion and living wills, this may be an alarm bell for the bishops.
Despite the risks, Bassetti remained optimistic about the Catholic roots of the country, despite “the moral and cultural confusion” and “social unease” that have caused the current political uncertainty.
“But brothers, don’t you believe that even in the current context there are solid reasons to say that the battle is not lost? Don’t you believe that the roots are good and the country is healthier than how it’s often depicted?” the cardinal asked.
Bassetti praised the history of the Church in Italy and its special attention toward evangelization in politics.
“No episcopal conference like ours has such a rich treasure of documents and witness,” he said. “We must be proud of it, but the time has come to ask ourselves if we are really heirs of that noble tradition or if we limit ourselves to only protecting it, as sometimes risks happening even with the Gospel.”
In the past, Catholicism in Italian politics has seen great victories as well as great disappointments, the cardinal continued, but today political parties have “fallen apart” and there are new protagonists on the political scene.
“Where are our intellects, where are our passions?” Bassetti insisted, asking bishops why they’re hesitant to enter the fray. “What are we afraid of?” he asked.
The president of the CEI encouraged participants at the summit to renew the political influence of the Church by preparing a new class of politicians that can incorporate its teachings in the political realm.
“The spaces that papal doctrine and the magisterium have opened for us are enormous, but they’re empty if we don’t inhabit them,” he concluded.
“Spaces empty of doctrine, or full of pious rhetoric, aren’t enough to face the tragedies of humanity, where the mercy of the Lord has placed us,” he said.