Thursday the New York Times ran an opinion piece explaining “How the Catholic Church lost Italy to the Far Right”.

Novena has the analysis.

Mattia Ferraresi, Italian journalist and Harvard fellow, writes:

“On paper, Italy’s deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, is a dubious poster child for Catholicism. Mr. Salvini is divorced. He has two children by two women and is in a relationship with a third. But that hasn’t stopped him from reinventing himself as Italy’s Catholic-in-chief. “I am the last of the good Christians,” Mr. Salvini, 46, said recently, during an appearance on the popular TV show ‘Non è l’Arena’.”

Novena responds:

Matteo Salvini is not a Catholic, and shouldn’t be regarded as such.

Even Ferraresi admits that:

“The League’s [Salvini’s party] embrace of Christianity is a recent addition… In the years following its founding in the 1990s, the party was often in tension with the Vatican hierarchy: It largely took up a libertarian outlook on issues like family, abortion, end-of-life questions and religious freedom, rarely putting them at the core of its agenda”.

Ferraresi also recalls:

  • That Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican ‘Prime Minister’, criticised Salvini’s pretentious displays of Catholic symbols and said “it is always dangerous to invoke God for your own self”.
  • That Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, described Salvini as a “torchbearer of a Catholicism of his own, very distant from the teaching of the Pope and the Church”.

Examples of Catholic leaders’ criticism of Salvini are manifold. On Novena we’ve seen a few:

Archbishop, cardinal stand up to Salvini over stranded refugees

Cardinal blasts far-right Salvini: “Brandishing a rosary doesn’t make you a believer”

German bishop compares Sea Watch captain Carola Rackete to Christ

Pope to hold Mass for migrants; bishops condemn “unacceptable” Sea Watch arrest

But to the crux of Ferraresi’s article:

“If millions of Catholics are voting for Mr. Salvini — polls show 33 percent of the practicing Catholics voted for the League, making it the leading party among churchgoers — it may also be because he is filling a vacuum in Italian politics left by the church’s own retreat, under Francis, from political debate”.

Novena responds:

If practising Catholics vote for Salvini, this is a consequence of Italian Church leaders refusing to put into practice the teachings of the Church at the Second Vatican Council, as the theologian Massimo Faggioli so astutely observes.

Salvini’s base is actually stronger among non-practising Catholics, as Milan-based journalist Anna Momigliano pointed out:

“Among those who attend church regularly, the League scores below its national average of 34 percent, and the same goes for those who don’t attend church at all. But 38.5 percent of those who go to church sporadically vote enthusiastically for Salvini, according to data collected by [pollster Lorenzo] Pregliasco’s agency, Quorum”.

It is not correct to say, then, as Ferraresi does, that “Pope Francis’ retreat from culture-war politics has left a void that politicians have been all too eager to fill”.

Ferraresi even admits that:

“Some critics… have argued that the church under Francis has not so much retreated from politics as embraced a different sort of politics — that despite its protests, Francis’ church didn’t dismiss the bishop-pilots, but rather ordered them to subtly pilot the Catholic people in a different, more progressive direction”.

Momigliano explains further:

“Salvini’s displays of faith stem from three motivations…

“First, it’s a reaction to Francis’s attacks, said Dario Tuorto… ‘He cannot fight the pope directly, when he attacks him on the social aspect of Catholicism, so he diverts the attention toward the traditional aspect.’

“Secondly, argued Tuorto, he is trying to ‘soften his image’ to appeal to the moderate, older centrist-conservative voters… ‘His cattivismo [bad boy image] is scaring them off, so to compensate for it he’s resorting to something familiar, like religion.’

“Third, Salvini is also dog-whistling to hardcore reactionaries and identitarians, who are ‘not that numerous but not statistically insignificant, either,’ Tuorto said”.

Momigliano says:

“There are two ways to look at the surge of far-right parties across Europe. Some view it as a battle between pro-Enlightenment and anti-Enlightenment forces.

“Others see it as a battle between Christianity and barbarity: On one side, the church professes values of respect for the other and civility; on the other side lies the unapologetic rejection of foreigners and basic human rights”.

Momigliano comes down for the second way, but Novena believes the two battles are actually one and the same. The battle is none other than the “dialectic of Enlightenment” that marks the modern world, as philosopher Jason Josephson Storm explains:

“To risk a broad overview for the uninitiated, Horkheimer and Adorno construct their text [the Dialectic of Enlightenment] around the unfolding dialectical opposition between ‘enlightenment’ (Aufklärung) and ‘myth’ (Mythos). The roots of this antagonism can be found in a dilemma that could as easily be psychological as historical.

“Humans, who see nature as outside of ourselves, are presented with a choice: either we can elect to submit to a mysterious, mythological world full of magic and frighteningly capricious spirits; or we can elect to subdue nature. By choosing the second option and turning nature into an object to control, humanity was caught in its own trap. Chasing the domination of nature, humans began to dominate each other.

“Rather than being liberated into a new kind of autonomy as they had hoped, people were instead turned into objects or, more properly, into abstractions, mere numbers and statistics, leading to a new backlash of irrational forces.

“As Horkheimer and Adorno summarised it, ‘enlightenment reverts to mythology’. The objectification of nature had directly led toward the objectification of humanity; the concentration camps and Gulag followed”.

Unpacking this idea will have to wait for another article, but for now it is enough to stop calling Matteo Salvini Catholic. The Church, and Europe, will be better off.