The Pope against the Populists Part I

The Pope against the Populists Part I

The pope’s fight against xenophobia has brought him to the brink of right-wing populist leaders. But does he have the support of the Catholics?

  • Why do many people consider Pope Francis controversial?
  • What do the pope and the Italian government disagree on?
  • How is the Vatican affected by right-wing populism in Catholic countries?

The Catholic Church is the world’s largest denomination, with nearly 1.3 billion members – around 17.5 percent of the world’s population. The current head of the church is Pope Francis, an Argentine who was previously archbishop of Buenos Aires. He was elected pope in 2013, and heads the church from the Vatican City, a country located in Europe according to The Vatican is an independent state where the pope is also the head of state (see fact box).

In recent years, the number of Catholics has declined sharply in Europe because fewer and fewer modern Europeans believe in God. But in other parts of the world, there have been more followers of Catholicism, mainly because the population has increased. The Pope in Rome therefore still has an enormous influence, especially in Latin America, where 40 percent of the world’s Catholics live.

One of the reasons for the pope’s power is that the more than 5,000 bishops and 400,000 priests in the Catholic Church are strictly subject to the pope in all matters of faith. This means that the pope’s words are important for the individual Catholic in key life issues such as abortion, homosexuality, the use of contraception and women’s place in the church.

But the position of power is also about the fact that the last popes have had a strong social and political commitment and have been important voices in the world. This applies to issues such as differences between rich and poor, money and materialism, environmental and climate issues, and – not least – immigration. Far from everyone is excited about this commitment.

2: Surrounded by enemies

“No pope in modern times has been as hated as Francis,” writes Vatican expert Marco Politi in his new book, La solitudine di Francesco – “Francis’ Loneliness.” Pope Francis has attracted attention with his radial proposals and his reform policy, and he has made powerful enemies both inside and outside the Catholic Church.

Inside the Catholic Church, it is first and foremost the so-called curia , the Vatican government and administration, that look with unkind eyes at the pope’s reforms. The Curia is the heir to what is called “the papal court”, and it consists of highly qualified and very power-conscious clergy – most Italians. They have great power over the church and the Vatican City State, they are largely conservative, and many of them oppose, actively or passively, the pope’s efforts to create greater transparency, better control of monetary affairs and to increase the proportion of staff from other continents.

Opposition to the pope’s reforms is strong in other parts of the church as well. One of the major contentious issues is the pope’s decision to give communion to divorced people who remarry. Many are also very critical of the fact that the pope shows tolerance towards gay couples, that he talks so much about social justice and that he works to bring more women into important positions in the church.

The criticism is much harsher and more open than against previous popes. The attacks take place on websites, in appeals and declarations, where Pope Francis is denounced as a communist, populist and heretic (one who practices heresy). “There is a group of priests praying for me to die,” the pope was quoted as saying in the Police book.

The attacks also come from outside the church, primarily from political and economic leaders. Many of them strongly dislike the fact that the pope describes the current economic model in Italy as “greedy and characterized by lust for profit”, “without social considerations” and that it “increases the distinction between rich and poor”. It is also unpopular with many that Pope Francis has been heavily involved in the climate fight, and that he is thundering against “the new slavery” – millions of people being transported from one continent to another to be sexually exploited or used for almost unpaid work.

3: Italy’s populists

The parliamentary elections on 4 March 2018 were the biggest victory for the right wing in Italy since World War II. The election had two clear winners:

  • The Five Star Movement, a center-right populist party that primarily drew voters with its strong criticism of established parties and politicians.
  • The League (Lega), a right-wing populist party whose strongest card in the election campaign was the strong opposition to immigration in Italy.

Despite great political disagreement, the two parties managed to form a government, but only after the Italian president had intervened as a mediator and proposed the non-partisan lawyer Giuseppe Conte as prime minister. As expected, Conte has largely become a symbolic figure, while the leaders of the two governing parties, Luigi di Maio of the Five Star Movement and Matteo Salvini of the League, have the real power.

The large influx of migrants across the Mediterranean to Italy has proved to be worth its weight in gold for support on the right, not least because the other EU countries have failed in their commitments and left this challenge to the Italian authorities. The situation has made the League Italy’s most popular party, and as recently as the European Parliament elections in May 2019, the party received more than 30 percent of the Italian votes.

4: The role of the Pope in a new Italy

The Catholic Church has traditionally had a major influence in Italian politics. After World War II, there were close ties between the Vatican and the powerful Christian Democrats, who ruled Italy for most of the post-war period. But the church also had good relations with the Socialists and the other parties. Even when the controversial Silvio Berlusconi – who was not very pious in his way of life – came to power in 1994, there was good cooperation with his government as well.

But the parliamentary elections in March 2018 were a watershed. “The Pope lost the election” and “The Pope is in the minority in Italy”, were two of the newspaper headlines after the election. The bad relationship between the Pope and the Italian government is first and foremost about immigration, and it is mainly about the Liga party. With the party’s leader, Matteo Salvini, as interior minister, Italy has closed the ports to migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. For several years, Salvini has made statements that many believe are deeply racist, such as this: “We can not turn the other cheek on people who come to your home with a single goal: to cut your throat because they believe in another. God.”

The Pope 1

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