ROME – In the early 21st century, you can analyze politics pretty much anywhere in terms of the interplay of four basic forces: The populist left, the establishment left, the establishment right and the populist right.
As applied to what now seems the outlines of a new Italian government involving the leftist Democratic Party and the populist Five Star movement, the Catholic role (and, indirectly, that of Pope Francis) can be expressed this way: To block the populist right, Church leaders are backing the establishment left.
August is typically the dictionary definition of “sleepy” in Italy, but this year it’s been one of the most tumultuous months on record after far-right populist leader Matteo Salvini backed out of his own coalition with the left-leaning Five Star movement in a bid for snap elections, possibly as early as October.
Salvini is viewed with deep suspicion by mainstream Catholic leaders in Italy, in part for his hardline anti-immigrant stance and in part for the obvious delight he takes in appealing to the Church’s populist wing, invoking the protection of the Madonna of Medjugorje and brandishing Bibles during campaign rallies.
Instead of new elections, it now seems the establishment leftist Democrats have agreed to set aside their loathing of the Five Star movement (which, since its inception in 2009, has cut significantly into the Democrats’ vote) in order to frustrate Salvini’s ambitions, forming a government with their bitter rivals.
It’s not a done deal, since the new coalition still has to survive a vote of confidence in parliament. What the Five Star movement may end up doing is anyone’s guess, since they’ve vowed to hold an online referendum among their members, though on what exactly remains unclear. Yet for now, it seems the most probable outcome is what the Italians call a giallo-rosso government, meaning the Democrats and Five Stars. (Perhaps not coincidentally, giallo-rosso is also the color scheme of Rome’s professional soccer club.)
The unlikely big winner in all this seems Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, a previously obscure law professor who, when he took the job 14 months ago, was seen as the puppet of Salvini and Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio, and who spent much of that time doing little to disabuse the notion.
Yet of late, Conte’s stock has risen dramatically. He delivered a blistering rebuke of Salvini on the floor of the Italian senate, and his performance at the G7 summit in Biarritz even drew an admiring Tweet from U.S. President Donald Trump. A poll conducted in late August, after the old government fell but before the new one took shape, found that Conte is now the most popular politician in the country other than Italian President Sergio Mattarella, whose role is mostly ceremonial, outdistancing both Salvini and Di Maio.
Italians generally respond to strength, and what they’ve seen of Conte lately suggests backbone. As it turns out, Conte also has a deep Catholic pedigree.
For one thing, he’s a serious devotee of Padre Pio (now technically Saint Pio of Pietrelcina), the famed 20th century Capuchin mystic and stigmatic who’s easily the most popular modern saint in the country, revered by ordinary people for his reputed healing powers and compassion for suffering. Conte’s uncle Fedele, himself a Capuchin friar, helped assist pilgrims at the massive Padre Pio shrine in San Giovanni Rotondo.
To this day, Conte carries a holy card of Padre Pio in his wallet. Last year, he spoke about his devotion in an interview with Italy’s most famous TV journalist, Bruno Vespa, saying that Padre Pio had taught him “humility.”
Conte is also close to the celebrated Roman institution of Villa Nazareth, founded in 1946 by Cardinal Domenico Tardini to assist children left poor and orphaned by World War II. In 1963, under the supervision of Tardini’s then-secretary, Monsignor Achille Silvestrini (who later became a cardinal himself), Villa Nazareth became a papal foundation under the supervision of the Secretariat of State, providing a residence and formation center for youth studying at Roman universities. It gives preference to poor students from Italy’s under-developed south.
Over the years, Villa Nazareth became a center for the left-leaning, social justice-oriented wing of the Italian Church, with Silvestrini as its great patron. Pope Francis’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, previously served as a spiritual assistant for students.
Ironically, Silvestrini, who was 95, died Thursday, on the very day an alumnus of his pride and joy received a mandate from Matarella to try to form a new government.
Conte, who comes from a small village in Italy’s southern Puglia region, lived in the Villa Nazareth in the early 1980s as a university student, and today sits on its board of directors. While there, he came to know Parolin who was then on the faculty.
Conte’s private life is not exactly 100 percent spotless from a strictly Catholic point of view, as he’s divorced from his first wife, with whom he had a son, Niccolò, and he’s currently in a relationship with the daughter of a hotel magnate in Rome who recently negotiated a plea deal to stay out of jail after having been found guilty of tax evasion to the tune of $2.2 million.
Nevertheless, as the country’s political crisis unfolded over the last month, it seemed that much of establishment Catholicism lined up behind what the Italians call “Conte bis,” meaning a return to the Prime Minister’s office.
The Jesuit-edited journal Civiltà Cattolica, for instance, carried an editorial saying that adopting a new budget and pursuing electoral reform are more urgent than new elections, which was considered code for blessing Conte remaining in power. The lay founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio, Andrea Riccardi, was even more explicit, saying that the Democrats and the Five Star movement could and should set aside their differences “affirming the primacy of good government.”
For many Italian observers, Conte brings to mind former Prime Minister Romano Prodi, who served twice – once from 1996 to 1998, and again from 2006 to 2008. In Catholic terms, Prodi came out of center-left circles associated with the late Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro of Bologna, who was among the architects of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and who helped pioneer the idea of a “Church of the poor” that Francis later embraced.
Prodi actually may not be the most promising comparison for Conte, since both of Prodi’s governments collapsed under their own weight. Conte also faces a serious challenge at the Catholic base, since pollster Nando Pagnoncelli reports that in the recent European elections in May, 33 percent of Catholics who go to Mass at least once a week voted for Salvini and his League, by far the best result for any political party.
Despite that, Conte nonetheless seems set to return to the Prime Minister’s role as nobody’s puppet, and with the backing of the leadership of what remains the country’s most important social force, the Catholic Church.
That may or may not be a recipe for success, but at least it seems to give the erstwhile academic and spiritual son of Padre Pio a fighting chance.
Follow John L. Allen, Jr. on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr
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