An Italian cardinal has cosied up to controversial far-right politician Matteo Salvini in a thinly-veiled challenge to Pope Francis.

Driving the news

“I do not share the completely negative image of Salvini that is proposed in some environments. I think he has great prospects ahead of him, even if he needs to mature in various aspects”, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the powerful President of the Italian Bishops’ Conference between 1991 and 2007, told Italian paper Corriere della Sera.

“Dialogue with him therefore seems to me to be a duty, even if I do not know him personally and therefore my speech remains a bit abstract”, continued Ruini, who also served as Vicar General of the Diocese of Rome from 1991 to 2008 and is now resident in the Vatican.

Though the cardinal said “the word of the Gospel on love of neighbour” applies equally to Salvini “as it does to each one of us”, he also said it was important not to underestimate “the problems that migration entails today”.


Cardinal Bassetti, to Salvini: “Help those in need, Italians or foreigners”

The big picture

Salvini, who was Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister from June 2018 to September 2019, has been in the headlines on innumerable occasions for his hard-line Euroscepticism and uncompromising rejection of migrants and Roma people.

On uncountable occasions during his mandate Salvini was responsible for turning back migrant rescue boats in the Mediterranean.

For his policies of that type, not a few Church figures and outside observers have portrayed him as a political “opponent” of the Pope.

Francis never tires of warning about exactly the kind of populism, sovereignism and xenophobia represented by Salvini and his League party.

But Salvini has also attracted attention for his frequent flaunting of religious symbols in political rallies.

That’s a trait for which the League leader has been criticised by bishops and others, but Ruini said Salvini’s flashing of rosaries and holy cards and kissing of crucifixes doesn’t bother him so much.

“The gesture can certainly appear instrumental and hurt our sensitivity”, the cardinal explained.

“I would not be sure, however, that it is only an exploitation [of religious symbols]. It can also be a reaction to the ‘politically correct’, and a way, although not very fortunate, of affirming the role of faith in public space”.

Ruini’s reading of Salvini’s ostentatious displays of religious symbols contrasts with that of Vatican ‘Culture Minister’ Gianfranco Ravasi, for example.

Ravasi reminded Salvini last June that “brandishing the Gospel, showing the rosary [and] kissing the crucifix does not necessarily make you a believer”.

Don’t miss:

Maltese bishop says it “hurts” to see Salvini rosary shows

Go deeper

Another bishop who has criticised Salvini for his flashy piety has been Bishop of Mazara del Vallo, Domenico Mogavero.

Last August, Mogavero accused Salvini of “unspeakable behaviour” and of “exploiting devotion and the purest popular feelings for base electoral interests”.

Mogavero re-emerged in his own interview with Corriere a few hours after the paper’s interview with Ruini to challenge the cardinal’s cosying-up to Salvini.

“I don’t think it is easy to dialogue with [Salvini]”, Mogavero admitted, explaining that for the League leader, it seems “you’re either with him or against him”, and there’s no room for negotiation.

Salvini “professes to be Catholic, but he is not”, Mogavero warned, citing the League politician’s opposition to migrants and to other religions as reasons why he has put himself outside the Church.

“It is not enough to wield rosaries and crosses to call yourself a Catholic”, the bishop insisted.

Mogavero denounced that Salvini’s flaunting of religious symbols seemed to him to be a “strategic choice” calculated for maximum political benefit but “which is not so much in line… with the Gospel that speaks of welcome and open doors”.

“I would like to know which Gospel he [Salvini] uses”, Mogavero said.

“Where he finds it written: “Let’s send them home”, “Let’s help the ones here”, the Italians first. I don’t find these things. I always find the defence of the last”.

See also:

Bishop blasts Salvini for “indecent” political “exploitation” of Catholic symbols

Why it matters

In his interview with Corriere, Cardinal Ruini didn’t just throw down the gauntlet to the Pope on politics, however.

He also directly challenged Francis on a key recommendation of the bishops gathered at the Amazon Synod: that of abolishing compulsory celibacy for priests.

“In the Amazon, and also in other parts of the world, there is a serious shortage of priests, and Christian communities are often deprived of the Mass”, the cardinal admitted.

“It is understandable that there is a push to ordain married deacons priests, and in this sense the Synod has decided by majority.

“In my opinion, however, this is a wrong choice. And I hope and pray that the Pope, in the upcoming Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, will not confirm it”, Ruini warned.

Next on Novena:

Ecological “sin”, married priests, women deacons… The Amazon Synod final document in seven key ideas