Now begins a long conflict between the Church and the Italian state

Lega party leader Matteo Salvini holds a rosary during his campaign (Getty Images)

The Vatican, through Cardinal Parolin, has signalled its concern at the results of Sunday’s elections in Italy. Cardinal Parolin was attending a conference on migration, where he let it be known “that the Vatican realized that the election results meant it would have to continue “a work of education” about the dignity and rights of immigrants.” That does not sound much like the Vatican changing tack on its current stance about welcoming all who come.

In fact, Parolin went on to say: “Citizens must feel safe and protected but at the same time we can’t slam doors in the faces of people who are fleeing violence and threats.” At least Parolin did not repeat the words of his confrere Cardinal Bassetti, head of the Italian bishops, who has likened the current situation to that prevalent in 1938, the year that Italy passed its anti-Semitic laws.

The Guardian, in London, has been running a series of articles talking of the return of Fascism in Italy, as has the Daily Telegraph. However, Nicholas Farrell, a man who has worked for Berlusconi, lived in Predappio and written a biography of Mussolini, writing over at the Spectator, thinks this is nonsense. In fact, in the recent elections, neo-fascist groups made practically no impact at all.

Conflating populism with fascism ignores the true reason for the growth of parties like the Five Star Movement: populism grows when people become discontented, and the Italians have a lot to be angry about at present. Italy is wracked with poverty, and the services that the state provides to its citizens are lamentable. Moreover, it was ever thus. Beautiful as many places in Italy are, the despair felt by its people is never far from the surface if you have eyes to see it. Not very far from some of the most lovely city centres in Europe lie some if its most terrible slums, such as the notorious Scampia quarter of Naples. The slum dwellers of Italy must be sick to death of hearing both the Church and State constantly going on about the rights of immigrants. What about the poor who are already in the country?

The Church, naturally enough, in keeping with the mission of its Founder, has long championed the poor and their rights. However, what needs to be realised now is that the Church, in talking about migrants to the exclusion, it seems, of almost everything else, is adopting a stance that seems to damage the poor. There is a contradiction between championing the poor and championing migrants.

First of all, because Italy’s social services are stretched to breaking point, the arrival of 600,000 immigrants has meant that the poor of Italy now have to compete with the newcomers in matters such as housing and medical provision. This perception must be one of the reasons why the Five Star Movement swept the board in the Italian south. If Italy had a properly functioning welfare state, this point might not have been so persuasive, but because the Italian state has done so little for the poor for years, the point gains traction.

The other thing that has to be borne in mind is that these migrants are by and large arriving illegally, smuggled in by criminal gangs. This is good news for the criminal gangs who dominate much of southern Italy and elsewhere, but very bad news for the rest of us who believe there can be no economic progress without the rule of law. I am unable to find any spokesperson for the Italian Church warning anyone that the rule of law should be everyone’s paramount concern when it comes to voting intentions.

It strikes me that the Vatican and people like Cardinals Parolin and Bassetti are in something of a bind over the immigration issue. They took this up and now see no way of backing down without the appearance of a panicked handbrake turn. But they need to listen to the voters, many of whom are good Catholics and who should not be castigated by their pastors for being ignorant or racist. Moreover, once the Italian political system comes up with a government of some sort, it is most unlikely to be one of the sort the Vatican has long grown used to. Indeed the parties that took the Vatican line on immigration tanked spectacularly. That should make the Vatican stop and think. But if the Church really chooses to double down on the immigration issue, as Cardinal Parolin’s recent words suggest it might, then we are in for a long period of conflict between the Church and the Italian state.