Italy’s rosary-wielding populists

Italy’s rosary-wielding populists

My much younger Italian wife, Carla, mother of our six small children, is a Catholic fundamentalist. She showed no signs of this when I met her 20 years ago but – so I joke – in order to cope with me she had no alternative.

At Italy’s last elections, on March 4, she stood as a candidate for the Popolo della Famiglia, a tiny new Catholic party. Her party, which has virtually no money, got less than one per cent of the vote.

Among the party’s beliefs are that both abortion and turning off life support machines are murder, that surrogate pregnancy is a terrible sin, as is homosexual sex, and that the promotion especially in schools of gender politics is satanic.

I keep telling her that a Catholic political party is a waste of time. The only thing to do is to join one of the big parties broadly sympathetic to core Catholic values and push the Catholic agenda that way. Even that, of course, is probably doomed to failure given the times we live in.

And yet Italians are Catholics and the church where we go to Mass near Ravenna, the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe – a staggering example of 6th-century Byzantine mosaic art – is very well attended. And even if they are not practising Catholics, or their faith is feeble, the Italians are cultural Catholics. The big political parties know this only too well. Even left-wing ones.

When the Italian Communist Party, for example, was the largest in Europe outside the Soviet Bloc (until the fall of the Berlin Wall), for example, there existed a powerful force within it of what in Italian is called cattocomunismo (Catho-communism). And here’s an interesting fact: in Italy seven out of 10 gynaecologists are against abortion, according to ministry of health statistics, and as conscientious objectors do not perform them. That compares with 1 in 10 in Britain and 0 in 10 in Scandinavia.

All this ought to be immensely fruitful territory for Catholics with political ambition. And yet …

The elections in March were inconclusive, with no party or coalition getting the 40 per cent required to win a majority of seats in parliament. The party that got the most votes was the alt-left Five Star Movement (32 per cent), which is invariably defined by the media as a protest or anti-establishment party. Meanwhile the coalition of the Right (the Lega, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the post-fascist Fratelli d’Italia) got 37 per cent.

Talks between these two sworn enemies to form a coalition government began. The Lega, invariably defined by the media as a far-right or anti-immigration party, which got the most votes in the coalition (17 per cent), represented the right.

This month, 88 days after the elections, Five Star and the Lega minus its coalition allies finally formed the first populist government in Western Europe and the first populist government anywhere comprising both left and right-wing populists. It reminds me in a way of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact between the Nazis and the communists in 1939. To explain it to a bemused world, experts say imagine Bernie Saunders and Donald Trump teaming up in America, or Jeremy Corbyn and Ukip in Britain, or Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen in France.

Of these two populist parties, it’s the hard-right (I prefer this phrase) Lega that most practising Catholics will have voted for, because at least the Lega is against gay marriage and gay adoption and the teaching of gender politics in schools. However, the Lega is also determined to repatriate the 500,000 illegal migrants known to be in Italy, and Pope Francis has always preached tolerance for refugees.

The Lega has nothing against refugees either, but the trouble is that the vast majority of the migrants who arrive in Italy by sea from Libya are not refugees but young men seeking a new life, as even the ultra-politically correct United Nations admits. Italy spends €5 billion a year on hostels which house about 200,000 of them who want to apply for asylum – the rest just disappear.

During the election campaign Matteo Salvini, the 45-year-old leader of the Lega and now Italy’s interior minister, brandished a rosary and swore on the Gospels and the constitution as he addressed a huge party rally in front of the Duomo in Milan. “I swear to be faithful to my people, 60 million Italians, I swear with honesty and courage to apply the Italian constitution … respecting the teachings contained in these Holy Gospels. Will you swear together with me?”

Salvini is a Catholic and goes to Mass, but he cannot receive Communion as he is divorced and has two children by two different women, one out of wedlock, and now lives with a third.

The Minister for the Family in the new populist government is the Lega’s Lorenzo Fontana, who is a committed Catholic and, as he is still married to the mother of his children, can take Communion. In a letter to the Rome daily Il Tempo he repeated his pledge to defend the traditional family: mother, father and children. “A country in order to grow needs to produce children, and mum is called mum (and not parent 1) and dad is called dad (and not parent 2),” he wrote. “I’m not afraid to confront the dictatorship of il pensiero unico [a term similar in meaning to political correctness] – let’s move forward with determination. We have so many projects to activate … Never before as now has fighting for normality become a heroic act.”

My wife’s take on all this? Yes, great, but the Lega is “all mouth and no trousers” and “they plan to reopen state-controlled brothels”. True. But these case di tolleranza had existed in Italy until 1958. And without them Italy’s roads, even in the middle of nowhere, are lined with prostitutes touting for trade.

So much for my Carla’s view of the hard-right populist Lega. What about the alt-left populist Five Star then, darling? “Satanists.”

Five Star, though not easy to define, is liberal-left mainstream on social issues – what Catholics call non-negotiable values. So that puts it on a collision course not just with my wife but also with the Lega, its partner in the government.

A couple of months ago in Rome, where Five Star has been in control of the city council since 2016, a pro-life group put up a huge anti-abortion poster. It was a photograph of a baby inside a womb with the words: “You were like this at 11 weeks … Now you are here because your mum did not abort you.” Within 48 hours, the Five Star mayor Virginia Raggi had ordered the poster to be taken down on the grounds that it was “damaging to the respect of individual rights and liberties”.

Raggi and Five Star’s mayor of Turin have also permitted – in defiance of Italian law – the parents of newborn children to be entered on the official registry as “two mothers” or “two fathers”.

At the end of May Five Star and Lega, after tortuous negotiations, drew up a contract of government in which they spelt out what legislation they were able to agree on. But as Sebastiano Caputo, an Italian journalist who works for Catholic NGOs in the Middle East, told me: “Not surprisingly the themes of a social nature that Catholics call non-negotiable values, such as civil unions and adoption by parents of the same sex, were shelved because they were divisive and not regarded as major priorities for the country.”

So what, then, of Italy’s existential demographic crisis and the new family minister’s statement that to grow a country “needs to produce children”? Italy has the lowest fertility rate in the world more or less at 1.39 children per fertile woman and therefore, as demonstrated by research I myself was involved in compiling, Italy’s population (without immigration) is destined to collapse from 60 million to 20 million by the end of this century. Personally, I’ve done my best but obviously it will make no difference to the bigger picture.

As far as I can tell the Italian state (unlike the French state) does nothing financially to encourage Italians to produce more children or to support those who have lots of children. If it does, I’ve never received a single cent. The fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, on the other hand, imposed a bachelor tax and awarded medals and big cash prizes to prolific mothers. Carla’s Catholic party proposes a state-paid wage to stay-at-home mothers.

But neither Five Star nor the Lega, as far as I can tell, propose anything that will make a blind bit of difference financially to people who want, or who have, lots of children.

As my wife says, it’s a government of “phoney Catholics” and “Satanists”. So what do you expect?

Nicholas Farrell is a British writer based in Italy. His books include Mussolini: A New Life (Weidenfeld/Orion, 2003, 2004).