ROME — The leader of his favorite political party and the leader of his faith had staked out such differing positions that Stefano Dente felt he had to choose. But for Dente, the decision wasn’t so hard. Even if the Catholic Church objected, he was voting for the far-right League party.
“Now, you should kick me out of church,” Dente, 48, joked to several priests he knew before going to the polls.
The votes cast by Dente, an energy company employee, and 9 million other Italians provided Matteo Salvini’s League with a soaring performance in Sunday’s European parliamentary elections. The League captured 34 percent of the vote, more than any other Italian party, continuing an ascent unequaled by other nationalist groups in Western Europe.
But the far right’s success was particularly noteworthy because it came in the backyard of the Roman Catholic Church, whose leader, Pope Francis, has offered near-weekly warnings about nationalism, closed-border sentiment and the forces propelling the far right.
Salvini, the Italian deputy prime minister and interior minister, did more than simply challenge Francis’s open-door advocacy. He also portrayed himself as a devout torchbearer for the faith — with an alternative message. On the campaign trail, he kissed his rosary beads. He referred to one saint after another. He called on the Immaculate Heart of Mary to “bring us to victory” and said he was upholding Francis’s predecessor Pope Benedict XVI’s vision of a Europe with Judeo-Christian roots. When Salvini, at a major rally in Milan, directly addressed Francis, the crowd let out some boos.
There have been other rare cases in modern Italy in which major political movements and the Catholic Church have been at odds, most notably when the Communist Party vied for power in the 1970s. But the League’s success stands out, because it has made its pitch to voters in starkly religious terms, offering a “different way of being believers,” said Paolo Pombeni, a professor emeritus of European political history at the University of Bologna.
Such a pitch has become possible only because the church itself has been battered by scandal and weakened by secularism. There is also fierce division over Francis. Though the Argentine pontiff has not changed official church teaching on issues such as homosexuality, he has pushed for a more welcoming church — one that traditionalists say has lost its moral bearings.
Marco Politi, a papal biographer and author of “The Loneliness of Francis,” said that Salvini is the first Italian leader in post-World War II Italy who has been “openly opposed to the social teaching of the pope.”
“Salvini has become in these last few years sort of an antipope,” Politi said. “In the last decades, he was never known as an especially engaged Catholic. But he has cleverly created an electoral bloc where there are believers and priests and even some undercover bishops” who are opposed to Francis’s migration teaching and favor the more socially conservative Catholicism espoused by Benedict.
Francis has not spoken directly about Salvini, and he has, as a rule, refrained from intervening in Italian politics. But he has opposed nationalism — and many of Salvini’s ideas — in general terms. Salvini has risen to prominence on a platform of closing Italian ports and strictly limiting migration. Francis, meanwhile, has spent much of his papacy arguing for the Catholic duty to welcome migrants and earlier this month said he was concerned about the “reemergence, somewhat throughout the world, of aggressive tendencies toward foreigners, types of migrants, as well as that growing nationalism that disregards the common good.”
As if on cue, Francis on Monday issued new remarks about migrants, saying that looking down on them, and considering them a source of society’s ills, is an “alarm bell” that warns of “moral decline.”
Some of Francis’s lieutenants have been more willing to take on Salvini directly. After Salvini mentioned Benedict, Pope John Paul II and traditionalist Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah at a political event earlier this month, one close Francis ally, the Rev. Antonio Spadaro, wrote on Twitter that the “exploitative use of religion seems to no longer know decency.”
The League’s success was powerful enough that some Italian political pundits have suggested Salvini could pull out of the current Italian coalition and force new elections, in a bid to become prime minister. But in the meantime, he is already the country’s dominant political personality — towering over Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. Salvini has spoken admiringly of President Trump, who won roughly 52 percent of the Catholic vote in the United States in 2016. Salvini has cribbed some from Trump’s political strategy, too, pledging to put “Italy First” and weaken the European Union. The Vatican for decades has argued in favor of European integration and multilateralism.
Some of Salvini’s supporters make pointed reference to Italian media reports that Francis has rebuffed a meeting with Salvini. But one of Francis’s high-profile dissenters, Cardinal Raymond Burke, met with Salvini last summer. At an antiabortion event in Rome earlier this month, Burke offered a more Salvini-aligned take on migration, calling nationalism a Christian virtue and saying it was “responsible” to resist “large-scale Muslim immigration.”
“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see what’s happened, for instance in Europe, in countries like France and Germany and also here in Italy, and it’s also happening in the United States,” Burke said, referring to a book that described certain areas of the United States that were considered “no-go zones.” In those places, Burke said, “Muslim immigrants have set up their own legal order.”
Early Monday morning, as Italy was counting its votes, the scale of the League’s victory was becoming clear. The League had doubled its share of votes from national elections a year earlier and had seen more than a fivefold increase in support from the previous European elections, in 2014.
Beginning a news conference that he live-streamed on Facebook, Salvini brandished a crucifix and gave it a kiss.
He thanked “the one who is up there” for the victory. He said he was entrusting the Immaculate Heart of Mary with “the future and destiny of a country and of a continent.”
Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.