ROME – While Pope Francis is away this week in Canada, three things are true about the Italy he’s temporarily left behind and to which he’ll return on Saturday.
- The country is in a full-blown political crisis, caused by the collapse of the government of Prime Minister Mario Draghi and the calling of snap elections for Sept. 25. That’s of real and present concern to the pope’s Vatican team, given that the most likely scenario is a return to power for a right-wing coalition hostile to the pope’s agenda on multiple fronts including immigration and poverty relief.
- Despite being the Primate of Italy, Pope Francis largely has avoided direct involvement in Italian politics, preferring to leave that role to the local bishops.
- The new president of the Italian bishops’ conference, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi of Bologna, a veteran of the Community of Sant’Egidio and hand-picked by Francis, is widely seen as a leading papabile, meaning a contender to succeed Francis someday.
Adding all that up, the 60 days between now and the Italian elections shape up as a possible star turn for the 66-year-old Zuppi, which, given his profile as a figure many observers take seriously as a possible future pope, ought to be of interest to Catholics everywhere.
Not since the era of Cardinal Camillo Ruini under Pope John Paul II has there been a president of the Italian bishops’ conference perceived so clearly as the personal ally and interpreter of the pope, and as possessing the pope’s full confidence to translate his agenda into the Italian context.
Before proceeding, an important caveat: Pope Francis repeatedly has shot down speculation that he’s about to resign, and whatever his health challenges may be, they’re not preventing him right now from undertaking a grueling five-day overseas trip. There’s no reason to believe the end of this papacy is nigh, so all speculation about what might come next is just that – speculation.
Yet even beyond Zuppi’s hypothetical papal prospects – for the record, the online betting guide “gamblingsites.org” currently has Zuppi as a 14-1 contender to become the next pope, the same odds they’re laying for Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State – he’s currently one of the most important Catholic prelates in Europe, and, because of his closeness to Francis, he’s also seen as an exemplar of the kind of leadership this pope wants.
Here’s what’s at stake.
Italian polls currently suggest the most likely outcome in September is a victory for a center-right coalition, which would not be a dream scenario for the Pope Francis agenda. Among other things, the Italian right likely would move to significantly tighten immigration policies, which could set the stage for significant church/state battles. One center-right leader recently vowed that if they prevail in September, there will be “zero illegal immigration” in Italy.
Before Draghi’s government collapsed, Zuppi issued statements which were broadly seen as efforts to put a finger in the political dyke, somehow keeping Draghi’s centrist coalition together.
The current situation, Zuppi said July 15, requires “the maximum of convergence and stability to finish the launch of decisive interventions.”
In the end, those appeals fell on deaf ears. Since the government fell, Zuppi has been quasi-ubiquitous in the Italian media.
Last Friday, he issued a statement on behalf of the bishops’ conference describing this as “the hour of duty and responsibility,” calling on politicians to “guarantee serious responses that aren’t ideological or deceptive” and to “free politics from tactics which are incomprehensible and risky for everyone.”
Zuppi’s basic pitch seems clear: Business as usual won’t cut it this time, because the stakes are too high.
“In the post-war period, we’ve never experienced such a complex conjuncture [of challenges] due to rising inflation and inequality, public debt that’s reached enormous levels, the return of conflict between global blocs that’s absorbing enormous energies and impeding development, the climactic and environmental emergency, problems in the world of labor, and a seeming condemnation to insecurity and fluidity,” he said in a July 22 statement.
Zuppi unpacked that analysis in a July 24 interview with La Stampa, warning that “the temperature and the disintegration of the country are rising dangerously.”
Pointedly, Zuppi defended the “National Recovery and Resilience Plan,” known by its Italian acronym Pnrr, which was the centerpiece of the Draghi agenda, and which envisions large-scale public investments to rebuild the economy and to assist those most in need.
“The Pnrr is a unique opportunity to rebuild many pieces of our nation, looking to the future and not just the present,” he said.
Pointedly, Zuppi noted that statistics show there are 6 million people in Italy living in poverty, meaning one in ten.
“The millions of Italians who live in misery aren’t a statistic,” he said. “They’re us.”
Politically speaking, Zuppi’s challenge is to thread a needle: He wants to lay down markers for the agenda of a future government, without alienating the most likely leaders of that government on the right. It would appear his strategy is to make the Pnrr a political Maginot line, which may be tactically astute, given that most polls say Italians not only want the recovery plan maintained but enhanced.
“We have to start over from love for our neighbor who’s most in need,” Zuppi said. “It’s the Word of Jesus, but it’s also a social and political exigency that can’t be put off any longer.”
Right now, it’s impossible to say what the Sept. 25 elections may bring. What seems clearer is that before our eyes, Cardinal Matteo Zuppi of Bologna is positioning himself as the conscience of the nation – and that, in turn, is a deeply interesting Catholic development, no matter who ends up running Italy.