The Dispatch

What does Giorgia Meloni’s victory mean for Catholics in Italy?

Giorgia Meloni, leader of the Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) holds a “Thank You Italy” sign during a press conference at the party electoral headquarters on Sept. 25, 2022 in Rome. / Photo by Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

Rome, Italy, Sep 29, 2022 / 11:00 am (CNA).

The victory of Giorgia Meloni and her “Fratelli d’Italia” (Brothers of Italy) party in Italy’s recent election made global headlines.

Meloni won with a platform that supports traditional families, national identity, and the country’s Christian roots. In a speech earlier this year, she said “no to the LGBT lobby, yes to sexual identity, no to gender ideology.”

As the leader of a party that originates from a postwar movement born from the ashes of fascism, Meloni can neither be called a post-fascist nor simply a far-right leader.

Her international position is Atlanticist, and she has supported Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, congratulating him on his election.

On European issues, Meloni is critical of how Europe runs the risk of imposing policies on nation-states, but she is not against the principle of a European Union.

In short, the reality of Meloni’s politics is much more nuanced than it may seem at first glance. This explains why Catholic hierarchies in Italy have shown a degree of openness toward the politician following her electoral victory.

Italian political background

Italy’s history plays an essential role in understanding this reality. After fascism, the Italian state was reconstituted with a powerful Catholic party, the Christian Democrats, which for decades was the undisputed leader in the elections. 

Catholics had been among the first opponents of fascism. 

The Italian Constitution was inspired by a group of Catholics who, in 1943, already toward the end of the war, had gathered in the monastery of Camaldoli in Tuscany to define the principles for a post-fascist state.

In the early 1990s, a widespread corruption scandal in Italian politics called Tangentopoli wiped out traditional parties, including the Christian Democrats.

New parties arose, and members of the Christian Democrats joined these or were part of varying political formations.

The current Italian Democratic Party, considered center-left, is made up of former members of the Christian Democrats as well as members of the old left parties.

The secretary, Enrico Letta, had a background with the Christian Democrats. Similarly, parties considered to be center-right in Italy, such as Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, include among their ranks heirs of the Christian Democrats but also former socialists and former members of the Italian Liberal Party, traditionally secular and in some respects even anti-clerical.

The Italian Church had initially supported the so-called center party, which was the first direct heir of the Christian Democrats. Soon, however, the policy of the Italian bishops became not to support political formations but rather the values ​​and themes promoted within the various parties — no longer, therefore, a Catholic party, but Catholics in politics.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Cardinal Camillo Ruini was the Italian Bishops’ Conference president. In the face of tremendous parliamentary battles, Ruini coined the expression “nonnegotiable values.”

By nonnegotiable values, ​​he first meant the importance ​​of life at a time when political actions promoted euthanasia, in-vitro-fertilization, and even abortion as a matter of personal conscience.

After the bishops’ conference presidency of Ruini and that of Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, the question of nonnegotiable values ​​has become more nuanced.

With Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, who became president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference in 2014, the Church in Italy has aimed more at a concrete look at the issues of poverty and the economy, arguably losing sight, somewhat, of the values platform.

It was a strategic choice dictated by the fact that Catholics in politics were increasingly marginalized and that the social doctrine of the Church took less and less space in the formation of the new ruling class. There were attempts to create new platforms of Catholic culture in the early 2010s. These were sidelined by an economic-institutional emergency that had led to economist Mario Monti leading the government.

To all this, it must be added that the culture in Italy has been strongly forged by leftist thinking. It should be remembered that Italy had the largest Communist Party beyond the Iron Curtain after the war.

The Communist Party strongly developed an anti-fascist resistance narrative. Yet, the communist partisans were also authors of heinous murders and systematic elimination of priests — for instance, the recently beatified seminarian Rolando Rivi.

The Catholic platform in Italy

The historical context explains how Catholic thought in Italy was forged, especially in the years following the Second Vatican Council. Then, Catholicism in Italy fluctuated between the need for identity and the narrative of a rupture, which wanted a Church more committed to social issues and less to the centers of power.

A case in point: The latest bill against homophobia, which could have introduced gender classes in schools, was strongly supported by the Italian Democratic Party, led by the former Christian Democrat Letta.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the Catholic vote in Italy has rewarded Giorgia Meloni. Lacking a political party of reference, the Catholic center looked to the party that most corresponded to specific values.

Meloni’s voters are likely people who attended Family Day events held in Italy in 2007 and 2016 to oppose two bills on the civil unions.

The organizer of the most recent Family Day, Massimo Gandolfini, said in 2019: “We recognize that Brothers of Italy and Giorgia Meloni are pursuing a policy to the advantage of the family, for the defense of life from conception to natural death, and the educational freedom of parents.”

On the other hand, Meloni has been met with skepticism and concerns over leading a party with a fascist legacy.

Much attention was paid to her meeting with Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect emeritus of the Congregation for Divine Worship. But there were other talks with Vatican figures. Rumors also speak of contact with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state.

Added to this is a meeting with Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference. In an interview with the Italian bishops’ newspaper Avvenire on Sept. 28, Zuppi made it clear that he knew Meloni well. He also described the Church in Italy as committed to collaborating with all parties.

To fully understand the context, it is worth remembering that Zuppi is an exponent of Sant’Egidio, a movement closer to the demands of the center-left than the center-right.

The Italian bishops’ position

In general, the Italian bishops do not endorse any particular political candidate, keep a low profile, and only issue statements regarding the bishops’ conference president or possibly the secretary of state.

Meloni also kept a low profile. Compared with others, her campaign did not exploit religious faith. While setting what is generally considered a conservative tone, Meloni’s rhetoric was political, not religious.

The president of the “Fratelli” is described by those who know her as someone “who considers herself part of the Church, very respectful of Pope Francis even when perhaps she does not understand or share certain [aspects] of his statements or acts.”

She was also present at the Communion and Liberation Meeting in Rimini, which takes place every August, and spoke about Catholic social teaching.

Brothers of Italy and the Italian Church

Cardinal Ruini, whose voice still carries weight, said in an interview with Corriere Della Sera on Sept. 28, “intellectuals are on the left, but the real country is on the right.” He acknowledged the reality of Meloni’s role and her party’s election.

In doing so, Ruini pointed out that the Catholic world in Italy has been closer to the so-called center-left rather than the center-right. In Italy, as elsewhere, there is a perception of a deep rift between those who stand up for nonnegotiable values and those who instead support a more pragmatic approach to dealing with contemporary challenges. But this is a perception, and reality is more nuanced.

Perhaps now is the time for a nuanced reconciliation of opposites for the Italian Catholic world. Giorgia Meloni is not a Catholic politician. The values ​​she espouses, however, also won over the Catholic electorate. This is a reality to be ignored at peril.

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News Briefs

7 things to know about Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s likely new Catholic prime minister

September 26, 2022 Catholic News Agency 8
Giorgia Meloni, leader of the Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), speaks at a press conference at the party electoral headquarters overnight on Sept. 26, 2022. in Rome. Italy’s national elections on Sept. 25 saw voters poised to elect Meloni, a Catholic mother, as the country’s first female prime minister. / Photo by Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

Washington D.C., Sep 26, 2022 / 18:00 pm (CNA).

Italy’s national elections on Sept. 25 ended with Giorgia Meloni, a Catholic mother, poised to become the country’s first female prime minister. 

In the snap elections — called after former prime minister Mario Draghi’s unity government collapsed due to economic and military tensions — Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party captured the most votes at around 26%, skyrocketing from a roughly 4% share four years ago. 

Before and amid her party’s electoral victory, Meloni’s views have been described in the media as “far-right” and even as “fascist.” Here’s what you need to know about her:

She’s not the prime minister yet

It’s worth noting that although Meloni’s party garnered the most votes in the recent election, it’s not yet certain that she will be Italy’s prime minister. 

It is up to Italian President Sergio Mattarella to nominate someone from the winning coalition as prime minister, a process that could take several weeks. The nominee is likely to be Meloni, who will then be tasked with assembling a majority in Parliament. Brothers of Italy was the leading party in a center-right coalition that now must form an alliance to govern. 

Meloni comes from a working-class Roman background. She worked various jobs, including as a waitress and as a nanny, before becoming a full-time politician. In 2008, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi appointed her the country’s minister for youth, the youngest person to be appointed to that position. 

She made her faith a major part of her campaign

Meloni has described herself in speeches as a Christian and has publicly expressed her admiration for Pope St. John Paul II. She keeps a photo of John Paul II and St. Teresa of Calcutta on her desk and has expressed a desire to meet Pope Francis in person — a virtual certainty when and if she becomes prime minister. 

“I am a woman, I am a mother, I am Italian, I am a Christian, and you can’t take that away from me,” Meloni said in a speech in 2019. 

Meloni — who was raised by a single mother in Rome — now has a daughter with her partner Andrea Giambruno, though the two have never married. 

She supports several pro-life and pro-family policies

In a speech to the Vox party in Spain earlier this year, Meloni summarized her pro-life and pro-family platform: “Yes to natural families, no to the LGBT lobby, yes to sexual identity, no to gender ideology, yes to the culture of life, no to the abyss of death.”

In Italy, abortion is legal through the first 90 days of pregnancy, with exceptions after that point for fetal anomalies and risks to the mother’s life. Access to legal abortions is limited, however, due to widespread opposition from Italian doctors — 68.4% as of 2017, according to the Italian Ministry of Health — who oppose performing abortions due to conscience objections. 

Meloni has not said she will attempt to change Italy’s abortion laws. She has, however, proposed pro-life and family policies to encourage motherhood, including free child-care services. She has cited Italy’s extremely low birth rate as a problem.

“I want our families to have children,” she said in a speech to supporters in Milan earlier this month. 

She has committed to opposing LGBTQ policies and gender ideology  

Meloni has made her views against same-sex unions widely known, referring to LGBTQ content as “woke ideology” and promising to continue opposing policies allowing homosexual couples to adopt or have children through surrogacy. 

Italy has legalized same-sex civil unions but it does not afford them the same legal protections as it does marriages. Surrogacy and in vitro fertilization (IVF) are banned for same-sex couples, for example, who must travel outside the country for such procedures. Meloni proposed an amendment in 2018 to extend the surrogacy ban to same-sex couples who seek it abroad, which was not approved.

The amendment called surrogacy an “example of the commercialization of the female body and of the very children who are born through such practices, who are treated like commodities.”

Meloni said earlier this year that her opposition to such policies is not because she is “homophobic” but that she believes every child has the right to have a mother and a father for “stability.” 

She cited her personal experience growing up in a single-parent home, saying, “I lived [in] a family condition that [made] me see this.”

Meloni is strongly against illegal immigration

Meloni has made it clear that she opposes the practice of migrants sailing from places such as North Africa to the Italian shore. In August, Meloni posted a video on social media saying she would introduce a naval blockade to patrol the Mediterranean and return migrants to their countries of origin, NPR reported. 

Meloni’s anti-immigration stance puts her somewhat at odds with Pope Francis, who has frequently spoken about the need to welcome migrants and refugees. 

Meloni is a Eurosceptic, and supports Ukraine in its war with Russia 

Meloni has been critical of the European Union (EU), saying her first priority is to defend Italy’s national interests.

“We want a different Italian attitude on the international stage, for example in dealing with the European Commission,” Meloni said in an interview with Reuters this month on her party’s Eurosceptic views.

Still, Meloni has taken pains to assure world leaders that Italy would not leave the EU. 

“This does not mean that we want to destroy Europe, that we want to leave Europe, that we want to do crazy things,” she said. “It simply means explaining that the defense of the national interest is important to us as it is for the French and for the Germans.”

Since Russia’s invasion in February, Meloni has come out as a strong defender of Ukraine, promising to continue supplying arms to the country.

Meloni has also taken a hardline stance against China and called on Italian athletes to boycott Beijing in the 2008 Olympics.

She has rejected the “fascist” and “far-right” labels often attributed to her 

Meloni has been branded as “far-right” and “fascist” by media outlets, pro-abortion and LGBTQ activists, and world leaders — a label she has rejected. 

“Everything that defines us is now an enemy for those who would no longer like us to have an identity,” Meloni said in a widely shared speech on Sept. 26. “Like it or not … we will defend God, country, and family.” 

In an interview with Reuters last month, she dismissed any suggestion that her party was nostalgic for the fascist era and distanced herself from comments she made in 1996, as a teenager, which some critics took as a praising Benito Mussolini. 

Meloni has received a warm welcome from other conservative European leaders, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who shares her traditional family views and immigration policy.

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News Briefs

Pope Francis urges Sicily’s Catholic priests to be moral guides — but to drop the lace

June 9, 2022 Catholic News Agency 27
Pope Francis meets the bishops and priests of the churches of Sicily, Italy, in the Vatican’s Clementine Hall on June 9, 2022. / Vatican Media.

Vatican City, Jun 9, 2022 / 09:00 am (CNA).

Pope Francis told priests and bishops from the Italian island of Sicily on Thursday to be strong moral guides, and to update their art and vestments in conformity with Church reforms.

“In Sicily, people still look to priests as spiritual and moral guides, people who can also help to improve the civil and social life of the island, to support the family, and to be a reference for growing young people. High and demanding is the Sicilian people’s expectation of priests,” the pope said during a June 9 meeting at the Vatican.

In improvised comments during his speech, Francis also addressed a topic that he said “worries” him: the progress of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, particularly relating to the liturgy.

“I don’t know, because I don’t go to Mass in Sicily and I don’t know how the Sicilian priests preach, whether they preach as was suggested in [the 2013 apostolic exhortation] Evangelii gaudium or whether they preach in such a way that people go out for a cigarette and then come back,” the pope said.

He suggested that after eight minutes of a homily, most people’s attention begins to wane.

Noting that he had seen photos from Masses in Sicily, Francis appeared also to comment on the use of lace on the vestments priests wear while celebrating Mass.

“Where are we 60 years after the Council,” he said. “Some updating even in liturgical art, in liturgical ‘fashion.’”

“Yes, sometimes bringing some of grandma’s lace is appropriate, sometimes. It’s to pay homage to grandma, right?” he continued. “It’s good to honor grandma, but it’s better to celebrate the mother, Holy Mother Church, and how Mother Church wants to be celebrated. So that insularity does not prevent the true liturgical reform that the Council sent out.”

Sicily, a southern Italian island region, has a population of 5 million people. The Catholic Church in the region is divided into 18 dioceses.

Around 300 of the island’s 2,078 priests, and 20 bishops, are in Rome for a pilgrimage and meeting with Pope Francis to mark the 30th anniversary of the Church in Sicily’s Regional Marian Priests’ Day.

Sicily, like the rest of Italy, is facing a decline in vocations to the priesthood, with 30% fewer seminarians compared with a decade ago.

In his speech in the Apostolic Palace, Pope Francis reflected on the changing times, including the decline in vocations.

The 85-year-old pope, who has made public appearances in a wheelchair since May 5 due to knee pain, said that priests and bishops needed to make courageous choices, with the discernment of the Holy Spirit, about how to share the Gospel of Christ today.

“We witness in Sicily behaviors and gestures marked by great virtues as well as cruel heinousness,” he said. “As well, alongside masterpieces of extraordinary artistic beauty we see scenes of mortifying neglect.”

He noted the declining social situation, including the fall in population due to a low birthrate and the exodus of young people looking for work.

“We need to understand how and in what direction Sicily is experiencing the change of age and what paths it could take, in order to proclaim, in the fractures and joints of this change, the Gospel of Christ,” he said.

“This task, while entrusted to the entire people of God, asks of us priests and bishops full, total, and exclusive service,” Pope Francis commented.

“Please, do not stand in the middle of the road,” he urged. “Faced with the awareness of our weaknesses, we know that the will of Christ places us in the heart of this challenge.”

“The key to everything is in his call,” he underlined, “on which we lean to take to the sea and cast our nets again. We do not even know ourselves, but if we return to the call, we cannot ignore that Face who has met us and drawn us behind Himself, even united us to himself, as our tradition teaches when it states that in the liturgy we even act ‘in persona Christi.’”

“This full unity, this identification, we cannot limit it to the celebration, but rather we must live it fully in every moment of life, mindful of the Apostle Paul’s words: ‘No longer do I live, but Christ lives in me,’” he said.

[…]