What happened to Italy’s Catholic vote?

Italy's populist Five Star Movement (M5S) party leader Luigi Di Maio (C) waves flowers as he celebrates with supporters in his home town of Pomigliano (Getty Images)

It is a strange thing, to see papers in Italy wondering what happened to the “Catholic vote” in this month’s general elections. In a country where basically everyone is Catholic, yet very few people go to church, the question ought to be: is there a Catholic vote to speak of?

As journalist Danilo Paolini explained in the pages of Avvenire, the Italian bishops’ official newspaper, “Catholics involved in politics can be found in most of the political forces that took part in the elections. The verdict the popular vote returned to the country [on Sunday] comes to a substantial flop for the lists that presented themselves explicitly as formations organized by Catholics.”

The main campaign issues were immigration – an issue of major concern to Pope Francis, who nevertheless stayed out of the mix, leaving electoral politics to the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI) – tax reform, and how to relate to the European Union. All those are issues on which there is a good deal of legitimate disagreement, even if two of them – immigration and the EU – are both dear to Pope Francis and intricately intertwined.

Italy has borne the brunt of the trans-Mediterranean immigration traffic throughout the ongoing migration crisis and has received far less help than it is due from the EU. The country is generous and hospitable. It is also spread thin. The Euro-sceptic and populist Five Star Movement was the biggest single winner, a fact likely not to thrill EU leaders in Brussels who are still negotiating Brexit. The centre-right coalition, including the right-wing League party, the post-post-fascist Brothers of Italy, and Forza Italia headed by Silvio Berlusconi, took first place in the polls.

What, if anything, do the results tell us about the Catholic Church’s political clout in Italy?

Candidates were anxious to court Catholics, notably The League’s Matteo Salvini, who concluded his campaign with a mock oath-taking, holding in his hands the Italian constitution and a small book of the Gospels, and saying, “I commit myself and swear to be faithful to my people — to 60 million Italians — I promise to serve you with honesty and courage, and to apply the Italian constitution, which many do not know [or pretend to ignore], [while] respecting the teachings contained in this holy Gospel.” If the theatrics didn’t help, they didn’t hurt, either.

The Italian bishops, moreover, were arguably less concerned with seeing a Catholic candidate or list perform well, than to see the country not go to extremists. Ahead of the March 4 election, CEI president Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti said, “If I go to vote on Sunday morning, it’s because I am convinced that there exists a common good that regards us all. We are a ‘we’ for which we have to account.” He also said, “[A body politic stricken by voter apathy] is like a body stricken by paralysis.” Solid voter turnout spread across the spectrum but concentrated with the more mainstream parties was probably the best they could have hoped for, and pretty much what they got.