With elections looming in a number of countries this month, including all 28 European Union member states, a key issue will be whether right-wing and nationalist parties can maintain their surge in support. In many of these countries, that question also involves the role of the Catholic Church.
Depending on the country, the Catholic Church’s decision on whether to reject associations with nationalists has varied, often depending on how under siege it is over global rise in church-related scandals.
In Italy, Pope Francis has repeatedly and indirectly condemned stances held by the right-wing populist Lega Nord. Meanwhile, in Poland, a Catholic Church troubled by child sexual abuse allegations has thrown its lot in with the right-wing nationalist governing party that campaigns against migrants and has tried to undermine some democratic values in the country. In Australia, a church beset by scandals and dealing with an almost catastrophic drop in attendance has thrown itself into battles over identity and LGBTQ issues to raise its profile.
Italy, Poland, and to some extent Australia can be seen as case studies for three very different approaches by the Catholic Church to retain supporters and could become promising models for the future or risky, misplaced bets.
Italy: Confront right-wing populists
The Vatican’s approach to Italy’s right-wing populist Lega Nord party, which is currently part of government, is best explained with a recent anecdote. When Vatican Cardinal Konrad Krajewski noticed that about 350 homeless adults and 100 children were left without electricity in a squatted building owned by the state because of unpaid bills, he climbed into a utility manhole to switch the power back on.
The incident triggered fierce criticism from Lega Nord top official Matteo Salvini, who is also Italy’s deputy prime minister, and demanded that Krajewski pay the outstanding electricity bills, which he claimed came to $340,000.
It wasn’t the first time that Salvini lashed out against the Vatican over what representatives there considered to be gestures of humanity. Francis has urged nationalist governments across the world to open their borders to refugees, with Italy being a particularly pressing case.
Earlier this year, the pope urged Europeans to withstand the “temptation to erect new curtains.”
Salvini has repeatedly rejected such calls from the Vatican, in one case asking: “How many refugees are there in the Vatican?”
Ahead of European elections next week, members of far-right parties in Italy have openly rallied against the pope over his pro-refugee stance.
Poland: Seek closer ties to right-wing populists
Farther north, Poland’s right-wing populist government has adopted many of the same policies pursued by Salvini and his allies in Italy. Poland’s Law and Justice party is at least as opposed to refugees and immigration — but curiously, those positions have not stood in the way of closer ties to the Catholic Church.
In a country where nearly 9 in 10 people identify as Catholic, Law and Justice is hoping that its increasingly cozy relationship to the church will preserve its electoral majority. The Catholic Church in Poland, for its part, has seen the party as a welcome ally as it struggles with a surge of child sex abuse accusations against Polish priests.
With the ruling Law and Justice party openly strengthening its ties to the clergy, some liberal opposition members are hoping that putting curbs on the church’s powers will become a campaign issue during the next general election this November or in European elections this month. Polls show that even though Poland is a staunchly Catholic nation on paper, many Poles support a separation between church and state and fewer citizens regularly attend church service.
Recently, a black comedy called “Kler” (Polish for “Clergy”) became a surprise blockbuster hit in Poland, drawing more than 4 million people to cinemas and becoming the third-most successful film here since the end of communism. The movie’s focus on sexual abuse by priests would have been unthinkable only years ago, but the church’s growing association with right-wing populists has opened the powerful institution up to partisan criticism from left-wing parties that would have found that too risky not long ago.
Human rights advocates say the government is coming to the church’s rescue and clamping down on such criticism. Earlier this month, liberal Polish protesters took to the streets after a human rights activist was detained over posters depicting Virgin Mary with LGBTQ rainbow halos.
Australia: Wade into identity politics
Australia’s general elections do not usually tend to center on religious questions. But this year is somewhat different, with party candidates having to clarify their position about who goes to hell.
Controversial Australian rugby player and devout Christian Israel Folau was recently found to have violated conduct rules for posting a picture, implying that “hell awaits” gays, as well as atheists, thieves, adulterers and others. Rugby sponsor ASICS, a sports-equipment brand, dropped Folau and the rugby sports administration terminated his contract.
In a rare move, nine Australian church leaders appeared to side with Folau even though they did not name him in a letter that criticized what they said were mounting moves against freedom of speech and religious practice.
While Folau is perceived critically among some Catholics and most signatories were associated with other Christian denominations, Sydney’s Catholic Archdiocese also lashed out at the sports body that terminated Folau: “It not only highlights the influence a major corporate sponsor can have on the decisions of sporting codes, but shows the pressure on businesses to take social and moral positions unrelated to their core business,” it said, according to the Australian newspaper.
While Catholicism was never as overwhelmingly dominant in Australia as Poland and Italy, it was a force in society — until recently. Church attendance has declined precipitously, going from 74 percent of Catholics attending Mass weekly in the 1950s to just 12 percent in 2011.
Wading in on LGBTQ issues could be a way to remind the country’s conservatives of its long-standing role as family values flag bearer.
The debate soon reached national politics and gained momentum after Prime Minister Scott Morrison — a former Catholic turned Anglican Christian who had previously opposed same-sex marriage — refused to answer a question over whether gays belong in hell.
On Tuesday, however, Morrison and the leader of the Labor opposition party, Bill Shorten, both clarified: No, gays in fact do not belong in hell.
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