Church-state distance, if not separation, finally hits Il Bel Paese

Church-state distance, if not separation, finally hits Il Bel Paese

Church-state distance, if not separation, finally hits Il Bel Paese

Five-Star Movement's leader Luigi Di Maio smiles during a press conference at the foreign press association headquarters in Rome, Tuesday, March 13, 2018. (Credit: AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino.)

Pope Francis and his team have almost completely stayed out of Italy's political drama, and the results appear to be a mixed bag.

News Analysis

From a news point of view, the past week has been a tsunami, headlined in Rome by the mass resignations of all the Catholic bishops of Chile over scandals involving not only sexual abuse but also abuses of conscience and power, and in the UK by Saturday’s highly-anticipated royal wedding.

In the rush of all that, it’s probably not surprising that another fascinating development hasn’t really gotten the attention abroad it merits: Friday’s announcement in Rome of a deal between the Northern League and the Five-Star Movement, the country’s two largest anti-establishment forces, to become the new establishment.

Having notched the strongest results in Italy’s March 4 elections, leaders of the two parties on Friday published a 58-page “contract” to form the basis of a new government. It has no legal force and could be completely ignored once a government is in power, but still, it more or less represents an outline of what this odd couple alliance seems likely to do.

What remains now is for Luigi Di Maio, the 31-year-old leader of the Five Star Movement, and Matteo Salvini, the feisty head of the Lega, to decide on a choice for Prime Minister and then to ask Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella for permission to go ahead. The outcome of that encounter isn’t entirely certain, since Mattarella has reminded Italians he has the authority to block the formation of a government if he believes it’s unconstitutional.

At the moment, it appears the idea is to find a non-political “executive” as Prime Minister to implement the deal Di Maio and Salvini have struck – meaning, whoever gets the gig likely will be cast in the Art Howe role from Moneyball, with little real power to do anything other than what he’s told by the front office.

From a Vatican point of view, political affairs in Italy always take on outsize importance. This is the pope’s backyard, after all, and if he can’t shape political and social choices here, then what hope does he have anywhere else?

These were the first national Italian elections in the Pope Francis era, and perhaps the main take-away is this: Under a Latin American pope, a certain distance, though certainly not total separation, between church and state finally has arrived in il bel paese.

In the run-up to the March 4 vote, neither Francis nor his hand-picked leaders of the Italian bishops’ conference – Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, president of the conference, and Bishop Nunzio Galantino, the secretary – had much to say, and over the last two months of negotiations, they’ve been almost completely silent.

On the political side, here’s one fairly stunning fact about the 58-page contract between the Lega and the Five Star Movement: It runs to more than 18,000 words in length, and neither the term Chiesa (“church”) nor Vaticano ever appear.

Personally, neither Di Maio or Salvini talk much about the Church – in Salvini’s case, it’s usually only in the context of complaining about whatever the latest pro-immigrant declaration may be. In general, the impression is that while neither Di Maio nor Salvini would go out of his way to irritate Church leaders, equally, they wouldn’t really care much if that’s the result.

(Tellingly, the only reference to religion at all in the contract comes in a call for stronger security measures to combat Islamic radicalism.)

In effect, it’s as if suddenly, political life in Italy and the affairs of the Church – which, until very recently, had been so intertwined as to be sometimes almost indistinguishable – now move in parallel universes, intersecting only rarely, and often with fairly negligible consequences.

That’s quite the inversion in Italy, where for virtually the entire post-war period the Christian Democrats had a stranglehold on power, and both their “left” and “right” wings had deep church ties. That was followed by the center-right Silvio Berlusconi, who enjoyed a sort of tacit blessing from Cardinal Camillo Ruini, St. Pope John Paul II’s powerful Vicar of Rome, and then by center-left rule under Matteo Renzi, who loves to advertise his Catholic credentials despite parting with the Church on several social issues.

What has the hands-off approach of Francis and his team produced?

In the abstract, the idea of a populist alliance whose basic premise comes off as “rage against the machine” would seem an unsettling prospect for a Church that’s long seen itself as Italy’s guarantee of stability. Yet in truth, there’s actually a fair bit in the contract announced Friday for Francis and his team to like.

  • A strong pledge of greater environmental protection: “Man and the environment are two sides of the same coin. Whoever doesn’t respect the environment doesn’t respect themselves.”
  • Greater support to local governments for family welfare policies, including increased funding for women, for the elderly, and for the “peripheries,” as well as a fixed tax deduction of slightly over $3,500 for families.
  • A universal guaranteed income of roughly $1,300 a month, described as a measure to ensure the dignity of the poor.
  • An opening to Russia, “which is to be seen not as a threat but an ever more important economic and commercial partner,” as well as an ally in resolving crises in Syria, Libya and Yemen. The contract also calls for withdrawing the EU and U.S.-imposed sanctions on Russia imposed as a result of the conflict in Ukraine.

All those positions more or less comport with things Francis himself has supported in one way or the other. On Russia, though he’s no big fan of its policy in Ukraine, in general he’s in favor of partnership rather than brinkmanship.

For now, the main question seems more practical: How to pay for it all. Estimates of the cost of implementing the deal range from $75 billion to $150 billion, and Italy is already carrying a staggering debt load of more than $2.7 trillion. That’s 132 percent of Italy’s gross domestic product, the highest ratio anywhere in Europe apart from Greece. Di Maio and Salvini say they’ll recover some of the money from the EU, but it’s not quite clear exactly how.

On the other hand, Francis certainly won’t like the approach to immigration reflected in the contract, beginning with a vow to speed deportations of the 500,000 “irregulars” currently present on Italian soil. The Lega is known for its strong anti-immigrant positions, and days before the elections, Salvini swore on the rosary and the Bible that he would deport “all clandestine immigrants.”

The pontiff, who prides himself on being a friend of Islam, also may not approve of the new measures for speeding up the closure of Islamic associations and mosques suspected of ties to radical groups called for in the contract, which critics see as an expression of Islamophobia.

Finally, although the final contract omitted some of the stronger anti-EU measures proposed in a leaked earlier draft, including a call for a referendum on an “Italbrexit,” nevertheless it does contain some confrontational steps, including a review of EU governance and fiscal rules. In general, any government led by the Lega and the Five Star movement can be expected to challenge the EU on a host of fronts, including budget policy, trade and immigration.

Leaving the final summit with Salvini, Di Maio briefly spoke to local reporters and reassured the public by saying that Italy was going to remain in the EU, which resulted in a heavy sigh of relief by many market analysts fearing Italy’s economic collapse.

The Vatican has long favored greater European unity as a step towards Europe emerging as a serious player in global affairs alongside the U.S. and Russia, and Francis himself has called for integration and harmony as an alternative to increasingly nationalist fragmentation.

The bottom line, then, is that from the point of view of the pope’s own agenda, Italy’s New Order appears destined to be a mixed bag.

In that respect, at least, it may not be all that different from the Old Order. Perhaps the lesson, therefore, is that whether the Church is hands-on or hands-off, even here, the political outcomes may not change all that much – and, at least this way, Francis’s fingerprints won’t be on whatever happens next.

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