Italian voters may be about to reject the Church’s words on immigration

Election posters in Rome ahead of March 4 general elections (Getty Images)

On Sunday 4th March there is going to be a general election in Italy which may well see the return of Silvio Berlusconi to power. Well, not exactly, for nothing is simple in Italy. Berlusconi is banned from office, having been found guilty of tax fraud; but it is likely that a Berlusconi ally will take power, for the Berlusconi backed alliance is expected to do very well in a three-cornered fight. The Left, currently in power, is expected to do badly, and the Five Star Movement, which refuses to support either left or right, may lose ground.

For once Berlusconi is not the issue; the real issue is immigration. It seems that all three groupings are now trying to show that they have noticed that this is a problem. This article from the Guardian gives you a picture of the situation. The Right are promising to deport hundreds of thousands of immigrants, and the Five Star Movement (who control the Roman local government) are also declaring enough is enough, and even the left are acknowledging that something must be done. As for the immigrants themselves, this article tells the story from their point of view.

No one should really be surprised that things now seem to be heading towards a crisis in Italy. Rome, like so many Italian cities, is peerlessly beautiful, but it has a frightening and squalid side to it as well, as anyone who has wandered around the area outside Termini Station will be able to tell you. And as with Rome, so too with other major urban centres. It is not unfair to say that Italy has reached saturation point. There seems little chance of providing the new arrivals with decent housing and jobs; after all, many native Italians lack both. Italian unemployment is astonishingly high, as these national figures show. A youth unemployment figure of over 30 per cent nationally masks the fact that in many places it is much higher.

All of this impacts on the Church. The Guardian may not say so, but much of the voluntary work done to try and integrate new arrivals is done by Catholic organisations. But there is only so much that such organisations can do. The Pope has spoken out repeatedly about the rights of migrants, and how the resident population has a duty of care towards them. But what happens when one simply cannot welcome any more migrants? It is at this point that everyone has to admit that there is a problem. Yet there is no sense that this is happening in Italy, given that anyone who proposes a solution runs the risk of being labelled racist or fascist.

The Church’s intervention so far has not visibly moved things on, as this recent standoff shows (in Italian). Cardinal Bassetti, head of the episcopal conference, has condemned racism and urged job creation and the creation of economic stability, and a leading member of the Northern League, Roberto Calderoli, has rather rudely replied:

But since our bishops, with their head, Cardinal Bassetti, continue to invoke the welcoming of immigrants, despite the fact that they are economic migrants and not refugees, as is shown by the minimum percentage of applications accepted, I ask myself a question: why in the meantime, do not they begin to welcome them in the Vatican State, setting us all a good example? (my translation)

Cardinal Bassetti is certainly right to lament the declining standards in Italian political debate, though his comparison of the current situation to that of 1938 when Italy introduced anti-Semitic racial laws on the German model is perhaps not helpful.

However, Calderoli’s words will certainly win him votes, tapping into, as they do, the traditional anti-clericalism of part of the Italian population. Moreover, Calderoli has got a point. There is a difference between economic migrants and refugees. That is a matter that the Church must address.  The immigration issue will not go away after the Italian election is over. Nor is it confined to Italy. The Church, in its response to this global challenge, needs to clarify its thinking, for the current situation, in Rome and elsewhere, is unsustainable.