ROME – As fighter jets flew over Rome on June 2 to celebrate Italy’s Feast of the Republic, no doubt many observers were wondering if the country’s new populist government was going to last longer than the green, white and red trail of smoke the planes left in their wake.
Amidst fireworks and parades, bishops invited faithful to pray the Te Deum – an ancient hymn usually reserved for the end of the year – for the future of their republic and constitution, which celebrate their 70th anniversaries this year.
After a three-month hiatus, the boot-shaped peninsula finally has an executive, born from the bizarre union between the right-wing populist Northern League, led by Matteo Salvini, and the left-leaning Five Star Movement, led by 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio.
This political chimera can only be compared, in U.S. terms, to a scenario where Donald Trump is forced to create a government with Bernie Sanders. Both parties can be considered anti-establishment, but the issues, modalities and approach could not be more different.
Italian clergy are aware they will clash with the new administration on matters such as Europe and immigration, but recent developments also suggest the possibility for dialogue when it comes to defending traditional family values.
Italy’s new minister for the family and disability, a practicing Catholic, has vowed to fight the “demographic winter” that is crippling Italy, meaning declining birth rates, and stated his support for a “natural family” with a mother and father, adding that families with same-sex couples “do not exist” under Italian law.
The Catholic Church has long waited for this type of interlocutor at the helm of the country which, to this day, remains the Vatican’s most important global partner, not to mention forming the pope’s backyard.
The only catch? Some of those now taking control in Italy don’t seem to be big fans of Pope Francis.
For instance, that same new minister for family and disability, Lorenzo Fontana, who might otherwise seem such a promising ally for the Church, was asked whether he liked the pope in a 2016 interview. His terse reply spoke volumes.
“Let’s say I prefer Cardinal Burke,” Fontana said.
U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke was among four cardinals who wrote to Francis voicing concerns about his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia and its cautious opening to communion for the divorced and civilly remarried. Burke is often portrayed as a hero to the anti-Francis camp.
For its part, the far-right Northern League has had more than its fair share of clashes with Francis. Salvini often has objected to the pontiff’s welcoming stance toward immigrants, inviting him to take them himself into Vatican City. On the other side of the equation, the founder of the Five Star movement, former comic Giuseppe Grillo, has criticized the Catholic Church for not paying taxes.
Irony has long been the coin of the realm in Italian politics, and, for however long it lasts, the new ruling class thus serves up an especially juicy one: Some of its most ardently “faith and values” Catholics are also those most ambivalent about the current pope’s social and political vision.
Only in Italy
For years now, the world has witnessed the slow, consistent rise of populist movements, and, while they come in different shapes and sizes, never before have two such different ideologies been forced to govern together, making Italy – once again – a social and political incubator.
Yet this bizarre fusion of a left-wing, anti-establishment insurgency and a right-wing, xenophobic party that once advocated splintering the county north-south, could really only happen in Italy, whose constitution – born after the collapse of the fascist dictatorship of Mussolini – is written so as to avoid that any one individual gains excessive power.
The result is that compromise is an essential component of Italian governments, which, while largely purged of extremisms, tend to be short-lived.
Despite this, the whole world is watching with a mix of curiosity and concern the political developments in the Bel Paese. Europe fears that Italy, the union’s fourth largest economy, will pull off a “Brexit” — dealing a final blow to the EU.
Steve Bannon, the anti-establishment puppeteer who helped propel Trump to power, visited Rome last week to rile up populist sentiment. Around the same time, the Hungarian-American magnate George Soros voiced concern “for the Russian influence in Europe in general and in the new Italian government,” at an economic conference in Trent.
Meanwhile, the Italian Church patiently waits for the new administration to show its colors, and the head of its bishops’ conference, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, has promised to be “vigilant” over the League-Five Star coalition.
Even Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, who heads the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life, in a recent interview with Italian newspaper La Repubblica, made clear that the Church has its eyes on Italy’s political drama, especially concerning immigration and remaining in the European Union.
“In the Christian tradition and lay humanism, it’s a ‘categorical imperative’ to welcome those who flee war or traumatic situations,” Paglia said. “Those who distort reality and favor a perception of insecurity said to be created by immigrants foment collective anger.”
Salvini, now Italy’s Interior Minister, has promised to expel over half a million undocumented immigrants as well as to strengthen border patrols. Given the new political reality, even the German Chancellor Angela Merkel has had to change her approach, acknowledging that “Italy felt left alone on the job of receiving so many migrants.”
But Paglia underscored that Italy has already integrated over five million immigrants from over 200 countries, proving that the country has the capacity to welcome.
“Immigration must be governed by avoiding closure and naïveté, both counterproductive,” he added.
Concerning Europe, the archbishop recalled the continent’s bloody history and the peace that the European Union has ensured.
“We must avoid the temptation of weakening it. If anything, there is a need for a stronger Europe, or of a better Europe, a common home where no one is left behind,” Paglia said.
Between odd couples and gay pride
Despite heading the Vatican’s bioethics panel, Paglia made no mention of the new government’s position concerning life issues. Fontana, however, was unapologetic in bringing them up.
“I am Catholic, and I don’t hide it. That is why I believe and say that the family is the natural one, where a child has to have a mother and a father,” Fontana said in an interview with local newspaper Corriere della Sera, adding that families formed by homosexual couples “do not exist” under Italy’s legal system.
The minister also stated that he plans to strengthen female counseling facilities to dissuade women from having abortions.
The contradictions in the new government are even more evident here. The Five Star movement has been a vocal supporter of same-sex unions, to the extent that dozens of their representatives kissed each other in parliament to bring home a message against homophobia.
Violent blowback over the minister’s statement came from Marilena Grassadonia, the president of the “Rainbow Association,” a group of same-sex parents. “Facing these remarks, I ask myself what will the Five Star Movement do? [They’re] allied with the League, but their mayors, for the most part, are transcribing the birth certificates of the children of homosexual couples,” she said.
According to Andrea Rubera, a representative of Italian Gay Parents, the minister is not entirely wrong in saying that such families do not exist under Italian law, but adds that despite this, “We exist, our children were born from a project of love between two people, they are integrated everywhere,” adding that his three children are welcome at his parish.
Salvini, who has proven his political acumen by knowing when to step back, said that while he agrees that “a child should be adopted only if there is a mom and dad,” the new government has no intention of reviewing past laws on abortion or civil unions.
Even Fontana was forced to retract his statement, saying that his number one goal is that of addressing the demographic crisis, which means promoting births, maternity and families.
“I thought it was something we agreed on, it’s a social and economic issue,” the minister said. “But obviously some don’t like it if one is Catholic, it seems like it’s a mark of shame.”
“But we are in Italy,” he added, “not in Saudi Arabia.”
The new minister’s recent comments are remarkably more moderate than others made in previous encounters with the press. In 2016, Fontana stated that “the biggest danger for Italian citizens are gay people and immigrants,” warning that the traditional family was under attack.
Needless to say, that line would appear to be at odds with Francis’s style when it comes to the LGBT community. The pope hasn’t retreated on doctrine, but he routinely emphasizes respect, compassion and welcome, symbolized in his most famous sound-bite of all, “Who am I to judge?”
It remains to be seen whether the two parties of the Italian government will be able to work and play well together, but, for the Church, it may well be a question of figuring out how to get into the sandbox in the first place.
Meanwhile, different colors will be flashing across the city of Rome on June 9, when striped rainbow flags will be on display for the capital’s annual Gay Pride parade.
Organizers have already declared war on Fontana and his remarks, and promise to be more numerous, determined and louder than ever, while once again Catholics will be in the background, staging a prayer of reparation at Rome’s Piazza del Popolo at the same time.