Italian politics and the Church today: why Salvini’s use of religious symbolism should not remind us of the Christian Democrats

Matteo Salvini’s uses — and abuses — of religious symbols haven’t failed to attract attention. Some consider them comparable to the politicised Evangelicalism found in the US, while others see them as merely a populist ploy to appeal to the masses.

The reality is that more than Salvini’s own efforts, what allows for this electoral exploitation of religion is an Italian Church ever less interested in its pastoral mission and more intent on staying close to epicentres of power.

If anything it’s the Italian Church that opens itself up to Salvini’s politics, so fearful as it is now, more than ever, of losing control and happy with being used.

The nature of the Church’s relations to politics in Italy is now largely one of an ancilla: interested and keen to aid politics wherever and whenever needed, and in whatever way it is permitted to do so.

Salvini’s flaunting of the rosary, his vicinity to parish priests in both North and South, and the pledges of support that have come from many figures from deep within the institutions of Italian Catholicism are all fruits of a shift in the relationship between the Church and politics.

Salvini offers the Church an opening, possibly the only means to escape irrelevance.

Between the 1940s and the early 1990s, Italy saw a Church at times forced to interfere in politics at moments of grave moral concern, such as the referendum on divorce in 1974. 

However, alongside this more broadly national role, the Italian Church also offered a vast web of parishes and lay communities which would act as loci of moral guidance and training.

“Italy’s many perishes would act as schools or preparation for entry into political life, whatever form that would take”, says Filippo di Giacomo, a noted religious journalist and priest.

The Church would create “engaged Catholics”, says di Giacomo, either in the form of Catholic Action — a lay-based Italian Catholic movement largely influential throughout the 20th century — or in a less overtly political form through the oratories and parishes in which the youth would regularly meet and take part in projects with members of their neighbourhood community.

“The Italian Church had a sense of its pastoral mission”, di Giacomo laments, “which was to provide a space for engagement”.

We now, however, have a very different picture.

A report of the Italian National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT) has shown that between 2006 and 2016, the proportion of Italians that considers itself Catholic shrunk from 87.8% to 71.1%.

Similarly, save for a few exceptions, the community life of Italian parishes has seen a sudden nose dive.

Members of the youth pastoral at the Church of the Visitation in Turin, a city many consider an historic hub of Italian Catholic engagement, told me that the youngest generations see “no relevance” of the parish in their daily life.

“I grew up in this parish, my friends are from this parish, my political beliefs were formed in this parish”, one of the leaders of the youth group told Novena.

“Now all I see are people, both the youth and their parents, completely disinterested in us, and in the Church at large”, the youth pastoral leaders added.

“And we know that this is not their fault, not even that of their phones. We as a Church failed”, the youth leader stressed.

What has produced this perception regarding the Italian Church are two broad changes: firstly, starting at the end of the 1980s, a poor Church found itself suddenly rich; and secondly, Italy was no longer the country that produced Popes, consigning the country to a marginal role in what some call the “world politics” of Catholicism.

With the introduction of the famed eight per thousand tax in 1986, whereby 0.8% of every annual tax payment would go to the Church, an Italian Bishops Conference that had previously struggled to pay its bills fell into possession of a significant amount of wealth.

Led by now-cardinal Camillo Ruini from 1991 to 2007, the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI) began acquiring more property, increasing its stakes in companies, and opening new forms of social and financial investments.

“This is the point at which the financial murkiness of the Church deepens”, di Giacomo told Novena.

However, along with the loss of its political relevance, the Italian Church — newly wealthy and economically powerful thanks to Ruini — found itself in need of a new earthly mission.

“At this point, we see the Church forget its pastoral mission, dispense of its engaged Catholics, and start churning out professional Catholics”, di Giacomo says.

What is meant by “professional Catholics” is a set of people interested in administering Church institutions, intent on keeping control over its finances, and accessing whatever political opportunity is offered to them.

It is within this framework that Salvini’s uses and abuses of the church come in.

Many have told Novena that on an institutional level, Salvini has both friends and foes within the Church.

However, the type of “professional Catholic” di Giacomo speaks of — which can come in the form of parish priests, curial functionaries, of CEI secretaries and presidents — see in Salvini a way of accessing power. That is, of leaving behind their position of political irrelevance.

In November 2019, Cardinal Ruini himself declared that Salvini could “no longer be ignored” and that it would be necessary for the Church to dialogue with him and his Lega party.

Lest we forget, Ruini was president of the CEI during the time in which Paul Marcinkus, Vatican bank chief, was found to be embroiled in the Holy See’s financial scandals.

Though it cannot be discounted that many see in Salvini’s use of religious symbolism yet another populist ploy — and this is surely in part the case — this alone is not significant to explain his overt vicinity to many within the Italian Church.

To have a better picture of why this populist leader has garnered such attention on behalf of members of the Italian ecclesiastical elites, we have to turn to the Church itself.

And if we do this, we find ourselves staring at a Church afraid of its own irrelevance, with an ever diminishing number of churchgoers, and an average priest age of seventy years.

During our conversation, di Giacomo asked Novena: “If the average priest is seventy, what will be of us in ten years? This scares me, I can only imagine what it does to those thirsting for control”.

Next on Novena:

What does the Vatican think of the anti-Salvini ‘Sardines’?

Vatican Secretary of State backs grassroots anti-Salvini movement

Cardinal Ruini cosies up to Salvini in thinly-veiled challenge to Pope

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

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

Italian Bishops’ President pleads with politicians to find “solution” to Salvini stunt

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

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


Daniele Palmer is a freelance journalist. He studied history in London and is preparing to do a PhD at Cambridge on French Political Thought. He currently works from Rome as the Vatican correspondent for Where Peter Is: