Pope Francis brings new era of relations between Vatican and Italy

By Christopher Lamb | Contributor
Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Pope Francis greets children who rode in the popemobile during his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican May 15, 2019. Eight immigrant children who arrived recently from Libya rode with the pope through the square. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

VATICAN CITY — For centuries, the papacy has exerted significant political influence over Italy. From 754 to 1870, the papal states gave popes direct control over large tracts of the country before the 1929 Lateran Treaty brought the creation of the Vatican City State.

Now, under Pope Francis, a new era of relations between the Holy See and Italy is emerging.

First, some context. With that 1929 treaty, the handkerchief of land that is the Vatican was recognized as sovereign Holy See territory by the Italian government then led by fascist leader Benito Mussolini, who also agreed to pay compensation for the loss of the papal states.

In the decades afterward, the papacy still played a major role in Italian politics, particularly through Cardinal Camillo Ruini, vicar general of the Diocese of Rome from 1991 to 2008 and a leading force of the church in Italy under John Paul II and Benedict XVI. With Benedict XVI he led the charge to stop the 2005 proposals that would loosen Italy’s fertility laws. Two years later he played a pivotal role in keeping legislation for same-sex unions from passing in the Italian parliament.

The first Latin American pope, however, has stayed clear of Italian politics, and is on something of a collision course with the most powerful political force in the country: Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister and leader of the right-wing Northern League. Having spent just 17 full days behind his desk this year, Salvini has been touring the country with an anti-migrant, anti-Islam and “Italy first” message.

At a recent rally in Milan, Salvini kissed his rosary, invoked the six patron saints of Europe and promised the Immaculate Heart of Mary would bring victory in the forthcoming European parliamentary elections. Such language is a concern for the Holy See.

“I believe partisan politics divides, but God belongs to everyone. Invoking God for oneself is always very dangerous,” Cardinal Pietro Parolin said the day after the Salvini stunt.

Salvini’s rhetoric contrasts with Francis’ tireless efforts to welcome refugees, to reject the politics of self-interest and to build bridges with Islam. To underline this point, the pope arrived for his general audience last Wednesday with eight migrant children alongside him in the popemobile. Coming from places such as Syria, Nigeria and Congo, they had arrived in Italy with their families from Libya via a humanitarian corridor on April 29.

On May 19, a day after Salvini kissed his rosary, the pope pointed out that Jesus’ love “enables us to overcome the barriers of our own weaknesses and prejudices, it creates bridges, it teaches new ways, it triggers the dynamism of fraternity.”

Tensions between Francis and Salvini increased after the pope’s almoner, Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, shimmied down a manhole to reconnect the electricity in a building near Rome’s Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem. The 420 residents, including 98 children, had been cut off from power for days because of $334,787 in unpaid bills. The occupants are some of the poorest in the city, including migrants and those who have lost their homes. (See story on page 7 about role of almoner.)

Salvini criticized the actions of the Cardinal Krajewski, who is Francis’ personal charity officer, but the cardinal said he committed the act of civil disobedience because of the presence of children in the building. He pledged to pay the electricity bills and any fines. This is not the first time the cardinal has helped the needy: In 2018, his office paid $3.9 million in bills and medicines for struggling families.

What all this means is that the pope is becoming a thorn in the side of the populist nationalist movement on his doorstep. He has no links with Italian politicians and studiously avoids becoming embroiled in domestic-policy questions.

What we are seeing under Francis is a recasting of the relationship between Italy and the Holy See and the creation of a healthy distance between the church and the Italian state. This ensures the papacy avoids becoming mixed up in short-term political interests and can strike a more statesmanlike pose.

While Francis is not popular with the country’s interior minister, he has found an ally in the president of Italy, Sergio Mattarella. The 77-year-old president last week gave a rare interview to Vatican News praising the pope’s attempts to dialogue with Islam, and stressing how much Italians appreciate Francis’ ministry.

As Europe and Italy drift further to the populist right, two elder statesmen in the county are reminding people that there is a better way.


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