(ANALYSIS) While Pope Francis has spent this week in Canada on an apology tour making amends for past injustices the church committed against Indigenous peoples, the situation back home in Italy hasn’t been great.
The country — in the midst of massive inflation, a heat wave, wildfires and rising COVID-19 numbers — added political crisis to that long list of problems this summer. Italy’s government collapsed after Prime Minister Mario Draghi resigned, a move that triggered snap national elections scheduled for Sept. 25.
Draghi, an economist and Italy’s fifth prime minister in just eight years, had been in charge for only 18 months after a previous months-long political crisis saw Giuseppe Conte’s left-wing parliamentary coalition collapse.
Pope Francis, along with the European Union and Italy’s left-wing voters, face a major headache since a coalition of right-wing parties could emerge victorious. Italy’s center-right is led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Forza Italia, Matteo Salvini of the anti-immigration party known as the League, and Giorgia Meloni of Brothers of Italy. All three parties have been at odds with the Vatican over several issues, above all immigration, meaning that the next eight weeks could get testy.
This pope has been openly anti-populist, but the Italian people seem open to it now that the situation has gotten more dire. With two months to go before Italians go to the ballot box, it remains to been seen how involved Francis will get. The pope has been good about staying away from the morass of Italian politics, leaving it to his bishops to exert influence and make public statements.
As Vatican observer John Allen Jr. pointed out, the man who could become a political focal point this summer is 66-year-old Cardinal Matteo Zuppi of Bologna, new president of the Italian bishops conference who is widely seen as a possible successor to Francis. Since Zuppi, who was elected in May, is such a close ally of this pope, whatever he does could have some impact in Italy and beyond. Allen wrote the following in Crux:
“Italian polls currently suggest the most likely outcome in September is a victory for a center-right coalition, which would not be a dream scenario for the Pope Francis agenda. Among other things, the Italian right likely would move to significantly tighten immigration policies, which could set the stage for significant church/state battles. One center-right leader recently vowed that if they prevail in September, there will be ‘zero illegal immigration’ in Italy.”
Allen called Zuppi “the conscience of the nation” and that the outcome of the election is “a deeply interesting Catholic development, no matter who ends up running Italy.”
Over the past few months, Zuppi had said positive things about Draghi’s centrist coalition. Zuppi issued a statement just last week saying the following:
“In the post-war period, we’ve never experienced such a complex conjuncture due to rising inflation and inequality, public debt that’s reached enormous levels, the return of conflict between global blocs that’s absorbing enormous energies and impeding development, the climactic and environmental emergency, problems in the world of labor, and a seeming condemnation to insecurity and fluidity.”
The church certainly wants to exert some influence on future policy decisions, especially as the bad economy hurts the country’s poorest most.