As I predicted back in March, we are in for a long period of Church and State conflict in Italy. The voters have elected an anti-immigration government, despite the Church’s admonition that they should in fact welcome migrants. The Church for its part was never quite clear as to whether this welcome was to be extended just to refugees, or to all migrants. And now, as this magazine reports, Italy’s largest circulation magazine, Famiglia Cristiana, which is published by the Pauline order, has likened Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League, and the minister of the Interior, to Satan, at which he is understandably annoyed. This represents a quite astonishing personal attack, especially as the Church has been nothing but nice to some politicians noted for their anti-life stance, like Emma Bonino, for example. No one on either side has thought to dial down the rhetoric and try to find a modus vivendi, it seems.
Mr Salvini, for his part, has reacted to the criticism of the Church by pointing out that lots of ordinary Catholics support him, and he is certainly not wrong about this. Thus we have a dangerous situation: a church hierarchy pulling in one direction, but lots of laity (and possibly some priests and even bishops too, who, for the moment are keeping quiet) pulling in the other. Needless to say the Church should be counter-cultural, and should never be an uncritical friend of any government, but the current situation is hardly desirable, particularly as there does not seem to be any dialogue between Church and State right now that is worthy of the name.
Meanwhile, Mr Salvini is embarked in fulfilling another pledge, namely getting rid of illegal Gypsy encampments on the outskirts of Rome. This, despite what people outside Italy may think, and what many in Italy will say, will be popular. After all, as Salvini can point out, he is merely fulfilling the law. Moreover, talk of having a census of Gypsies is in keeping with Italy’s draconian and complex rules to do with residence, which are, however, almost never enforced. (I speak from experience: I lived in Italy for eight years, most of them without a permesso di soggiorno, the hard-to-get residence permit demanded even of EU citizens.)
It may well be that the editors of Famiglia Cristiana and others think that Mr Salvini and his allies will last as long as the average Italian government. That may well be so, but the anger which brought Salvini to power will not necessarily abate once the government is gone. The Church and everyone else should surely realise that this is not about personalities, but about a deep malaise in Italy. Mr Salvini’s prominence is a symptom of what is wrong not its cause.
In Italy what the Vatican says, and what publications like Famiglia Cristiana say, are taken very seriously. If the Church has a Salvini problem, it follows too that Salvini has a Church problem. The Church has so far not shown the same level of hostility to the Five Star Movement, Salvini’s allies, and it may be trying to drive a wedge between the coalition partners, hoping that the less confrontational Luigi di Maio may eventually emerge as Prime Minister. If so, this sort of political intervention will only give ammunition to Italy’s secularists, who will be watching this developing Church-State war from the sidelines with great interest and barely concealed glee.
For the good of Italians, and to frustrate people like Emma Bonino, the Church urgently needs to build bridges with the Italian government. That an important Catholic publication (usually assumed to be a Vatican mouthpiece) calls the Minister of the interior Satan, does not help. Indeed, it is irresponsible.