ROME — In a small church in central Italy, a priest told his congregation one recent Sunday morning that the motto of Italy’s highest-profile politician — “Italians First” — was antithetical to Christianity itself. Farther north, another parish priest said that supporters of the country’s new governing hard-line anti-migrant party “cannot call themselves Christian.” On the island of Sicily, an archbishop speaking in a public square took an even broader swipe, criticizing politicians who drive “their own miserable success” by exploiting fear about migrants.
“The church can’t stay silent,” the archbishop of Palermo, Corrado Lorefice, said during that speech, which marked a local holiday. “I can’t stay silent.”
As Italy’s migration politics swing to the right, the Catholic Church is responding with an oppositional roar.
Pope Francis, during the five years of his papacy, has spoken about the humanity and rights of migrants, cautioning about the anti-immigrant sentiment taking hold in parts of the developed world. But those warnings only recently turned into a clarion in the very backyard of the Roman Catholic Church, where one of the world’s most Catholic nations has ushered in a populist government that pledges to “stop the invasion” and narrow its doors.
In recent weeks, church leaders of all kinds — figures close to Francis and priests speaking on quiet Sundays — have struck back against what they describe as a xenophobic and fear-driven response to the wave of refugees and economic migrants who have reached Italian shores. Their voices have stood in relief against a political landscape where few others, even in Italian opposition parties, are delivering that message.
“It’s really unprecedented that the official voices of the Catholic Church are so squarely opposed” to an Italian government, said Massimo Faggioli, a Villanova University professor who studies Catholicism and European politics. “That hasn’t happened before. The Catholic Church is the opposition, basically.”
But some of those outspoken church leaders also describe a jolt of alarm, and say that the rise of anti-migrant movements here and in several other predominantly Catholic countries, including Poland and Austria, shows sharp divisions within the faith over how welcoming to be. The dominant figure in Italy’s new government is Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who swears by the Gospel, sometimes brandishes rosary beads and describes undocumented immigrants as a “tide of delinquents” whom he wants to send home.
“With all possible respect for the pastor of souls, instead of helping Africa’s poor come to Europe, my duty in the government is to first think of the millions of Italian poor,” Salvini recently wrote on Facebook, in a post responding to the archbishop’s speech in Palermo. “Am I wrong?”
Francis has not spoken explicitly about the shift in Italian politics, but this month he held a special Mass for migrants, and two weeks later, in front of 25,000 people in St. Peter’s Square, asked nations to act “decisively and immediately” to prevent the “tragedy” of migrant deaths at sea. Francis and new Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte have not had a formal meeting, but Salvini has already met with a high-
level church figure, Cardinal Raymond Burke, who is perhaps the highest-profile Vatican critic of the pope, and who has vowed to resist liberal changes.
In country after country, new nationalistic immigration policies have tested Catholic officials — and they have responded in different ways. Catholic leaders in the United States have been critical of President Trump on migration, and the U.S. organizing body of bishops last month described as “immoral” the practice of separating children from their parents at the border. In Poland, which has refused to accept a European-mandated quota of refugees, Catholic leaders have been more restrained, offering occasional criticism of the government’s refugee refusal, but also supporting a massive gathering last year of Catholics along the country’s border — an event that was seen by some as having anti-Islam overtones.
In Italy, where more than 650,000 people have arrived by sea since 2014, resentment toward migrants has grown steadily, particularly as other European countries resisted plans to more equitably share the burden of hosting migrants and processing their asylum claims. Salvini announced last month that he was closing Italian ports to humanitarian vessels, a move that has added to the chaos in the Mediterranean. He has since frequently said he is turning campaign promises into “action.” Polls suggest his party, the League, has become Italy’s most popular.
Some Catholic leaders take that as a sign that their messages haven’t come through.
“If there are Christians that feel an ease in saying no to reception, the church must ask itself a question,” Bishop Nunzio Galantino, the secretary general of the Italian Bishops’ Conference and a prelate who is close to Francis, said in an interview. “This means we have spoken about Jesus — performed ceremonies and done liturgies — but we surely haven’t created a mentality according to the Gospel.”
A priest in the town of Teramo, 100 miles northeast of Rome, decided one Sunday morning this month that it was time to address some of those issues. What bothered him most was Salvini’s motto, Italians First, which the priest felt contradicted Catholic teachings about charity and equality.
“My intention is not to lead people to vote,” the priest, Federico Pompei, said in an interview, “but to reflect on the word of God. The Gospel’s motto would be: Mankind first.”
A phrase like Italians First, Pompei said, should “not come from the mouth of Christians.”
When he mentioned Salvini during his homily, most congregants continued to listen. But three people stood up and left.
“My explanation is that plenty of Salvini’s voters are practicing Christians,” he said.
Catholics in Italy have long played a key role in helping migrants, with aid groups offering food and medical assistance and a handful of parishes opening their doors for lodging. The Italian Bishops’ Conference helps to resettle refugees in Italy.
Some Catholic groups are now also trying to play a more active role in softening attitudes toward migrants or calling attention to government policies. One missionary priest, Alex Zanotelli, organized a hunger strike that included sit-ins near Italy’s Parliament, where he said that Francis’s message is “having a hard time reaching the church’s grass roots.” In June, Caritas, a major Catholic charitable group, organized shared meals in dozens of countries, including Italy, where people could meet with migrants and refugees. The pope said he hoped such encounters could help nurture feelings of “fraternity.”
One of the most notable statements about migration came from the powerful Italian Bishops’ Conference, which this month released a five-paragraph statement, illustrated on its website with the photo of a weak migrant who had been clinging to flotsam in the Mediterranean before her rescue. The statement didn’t specifically mention the Italian government, but it spoke of the need to “save our own humanity from vulgarity and barbarization” by saving lives, “beginning with the most exposed, humiliated and trampled upon.”
Then, on Wednesday, a mainstream Catholic weekly magazine, Famiglia Cristiana, released the cover illustration of its upcoming issue — featuring a photo of Salvini and a Latin phrase associated with repelling the evil of Satan. The magazine’s headline said its opposition was “nothing personal,” just based on the Gospel. Still, Salvini felt compelled to respond, and he released a statement saying that he didn’t think the comparison was fair.
“I am the least of the good Christians,” he said. “But I don’t think I deserve as much. I am reassured by the fact I receive on a daily basis the support of so many women and men of the church.”