ROME – Italy’s governing populist coalition and the Catholic Church have seen tensions rise this summer as the question of immigration remains a dividing factor on the peninsula.

The Italian Church has pulled out the big guns against the Minister of the Interior and head of the right-wing political party Northern League, Matteo Salvini. A major Catholic magazine recently compared the statesman to the devil, a papal advisor criticized his political use of religious symbols, and the Italian bishops’ conference pushed back against his anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Things between the newly established government and the Church began to heat up in June, when Salvini closed all Italian ports to vessels carrying immigrants – a move that caused a strong backlash from bishops and laypeople.

It’s the Minister of the Interior’s job to negotiate the relationship between the Church and the State, and, given the heated exchange between Salvini and the hierarchy in Italy, it looks like things are not going to get better soon.

Be gone Salvini!

The widely-read Italian Catholic weekly, Famiglia Cristiana, made its opposition to Salvini clear in its latest edition by putting the minister’s face on the front page next to an extended hand and the banner headline: “Be gone Salvini!”

The reference is to the ancient exorcism rite of yelling “Be gone Satan!” or “Step back Satan!” to cast out evil spirits.

The magazine contains several excerpts from interviews with high ranking Italian prelates who have taken issue with Salvini’s strong stance on immigration. The minister has fought with the European Union to share the burden of immigrants reaching the southern coasts among all member states – according to critics, often putting political objectives before charity.

Even the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Piero Parolin, told reporters that Salvini’s decision to close ports “is not the solution.” From cardinals to Franciscans, it’s obvious that a large portion of the clergy disapproves of the minister’s approach.

Famiglia Cristiana, while stating that it’s “nothing personal or ideological,” nonetheless insisted that the ideas moving Salvini are a long way from Catholic values and the Gospel.

The minister answered on Facebook that he doesn’t deserve being compared to Satan, and boasted of the support that he says he receives from many Catholics.

“I am comforted by the fact that I receive daily support from many women and men of the Church,” he said.

Salvini may have a point, since the Northern League still enjoys widespread support from the population, with polls saying that Salvini’s party is rated favorably by 30 to 50 percent of the overwhelmingly Catholic vote.

Not all clergy have opposed the minister either, with some making statements opposing the aggressive first page of the Catholic weekly. The bishop of Chioggia, Andriano Tessarollo, made his umbrage clear.

“I believe it’s stupid to identify all priests with Famiglia Cristiana,” he said in a statement, adding that Salvini’s policies “are not necessarily irrational.”

Hands off the crucifix

Salvini has often relied on Catholic symbolism to rally crowds or make a point in the past. During the electoral campaign last year, the populist leader swore on the Bible, with a rosary clutched in the other hand, that he would deport over half a million undocumented immigrants from the country if he were to be elected.

Since his victory, Salvini has made several nods to his large, yet mostly silent, Catholic electorate. For instance, he nominated Lorenzo Fontana, who opposes same-sex marriage and objects to in-vitro fertilization, as minister of family and disability.

Recently the League has proposed a law requiring that ports and public institutions display a crucifix unless they want to pay a fine in excess of $1,000. Instead of being received as a peace offering, the proposal reenergized the Vatican’s opposition.

While at a conference in Rome, Father Antonio Spadaro, editor of the Jesuit magazine Civiltà Cattolica and a close advisor to Pope Francis, said that removing religious symbolism from the crucifix turns it into a “parody.”

“Using the #crucifix like some type of #BigJim is blasphemous,” Spadaro tweeted. “The cross is a symbol of protest against sin, violence, injustice and death. It’s never a symbol of identity. It screams love to the enemy and unconditional welcoming. It’s God’s embrace with no defenses. Hands off!”

The message was also retweeted by the official profile of Civiltà Cattolica.


Recently the Italian bishops came down against the minister on another front, in reaction to his comments on the Roma people, or gypsies, who live in Italy. In a recent meeting with the Mayor of Rome, Virginia Raggi, Salvini promised to evacuate the 30,000 undocumented Roma people who live on the Peninsula.

“The problem are those who stubbornly live illegally, this minority and parasitical sack,” Salvini told local reporters July 25, adding that it’s not a case of discrimination against the Roma people but a question of “equality of rights and duties.”

On July 26, the daily newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, Avvenire, published an analysis called “No man is ever a parasite.” The front-page editorial was written by Marco Impagliazzo, who’s active in cases of immigration as well as the head of the Sant’Egidio Community which has been dubbed “the pope’s favorite movement.”

“It’s perplexing, the language used by an important minister of the Republic in regard to a varied minority living in Italy for some time, that of the Roma people: referring as Salvini did to 30,000 people who stubbornly live in illegality, defining them as a parasitical sack, sounds prejudicial toward an entire community, beyond the fact that it doesn’t correspond to reality,” Impagliazzo wrote.

The editorial continues by stating that “words are important,” and called institutional figures and representatives to choose words wisely.

“The definition of parasites was used against Jews, and those who know history, know that from this and other definitions grew marginalization and then to consider that minority an enemy, with the tragic consequences we know,” the bishops’ magazine reads.

“Where there are problems of illegality, they must be handled according to the law,” it added.

For his part, Salvini insists that he’s not an enemy to the Vatican.

During his most recent Sunday Angelus, Pope Francis made an appeal to combat the “shameful crime” of human trafficking a day before the date set by the United Nations to encourage anti-trafficking efforts.

Asked by reporters if he agreed with the pope, Salvini declared that he was “pleased” with Francis’s remarks against the “infamous crime” of human trafficking. He also underlined that ever since he began his mandate he has declared war against traffickers and the mafia.

His objective, he said, “is to save lives and guarantee a better future for Italy and for Africa.”