Returning to Italy to see family after a two-year hiatus made clear to me how far apart Europe and the United States have grown. In the summer of 2021, flying across the Atlantic not only demanded patience in complying with varying Covid testing requirements and distancing protocols; it also meant worrying about a virus (and its variants) that still wasn’t fully under control. But it’s not just the pandemic that has widened the gap. Italy and the United States are like two cousins struggling to recognize one another after a particularly painful separation, in this case a rupture with a clear and immediate cause: the Trump presidency. A longtime friend, the mayor of a city vital to the Italian tourism industry, told me, “Once it was clear that America would always be there for Italy and for Europe. Now, we don’t know.”

Italy, of course, was the first country in the West to face the full ravages of COVID-19. Recall the infection rates and death tolls of February and March of 2020, the images of a vacant St. Peter’s Square, exhausted health-care workers, and bodies awaiting burial. Just over eighteen months later, there are signs of recovery and revival. Consider the performance of Italian athletes at this summer’s Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics—the best in the country’s history, with more competitors than ever coming from different racial and cultural backgrounds, representing a country that still denies citizenship to kids born and raised in Italy by parents who are not Italian citizens. There was also Italy’s July victory over England in the European soccer championship game at Wembley Stadium in London. The Azzurri had won the European title only once before, in 1968. For Italians, the national soccer team’s successes are often linked to significant historical moments, regardless of the political regime. They become part of the collective narrative. Mussolini expertly exploited world championship victories in 1934 and 1938, as well as Italy’s gold-medal victory at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, turning them into symbols of Italy’s newfound international prestige. The 1968 European championship win represented a unifying moment for a country riven by deep political and generational divisions and helped rehabilitate the image of the tricolor national flag, which after long being associated with the nationalist rhetoric of the neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano party was waved in the streets and squares in widespread celebration. The World Cup victory over Germany in 1982 was seen as a turning of the page after a decade of political turmoil and domestic terrorism known as the “years of lead.” And because of Brexit, the summer’s vanquishing of England had wider political overtones; it seemed as if Italy, one of the founding nations of the European Union, was basically saying good riddance to the U.K. on behalf of the rest of its members. 

It’s not just sport that gives Italy hope. Last year it chaired the G20 (nineteen countries plus the EU, accounting for 90 percent of global GDP, 80 percent of global trade, and 66 percent of the world’s population); in October, it will host the summit of G20 leaders in Rome. And though it may a while before non-Europeans visit Italy again in large numbers, tourism is slowly coming back. 

But economic and political uncertainty remains. The seven-year term of President Sergio Mattarella expires in January 2022, and he says he will not serve a second (he just turned eighty, and in the history of the Italian Republic, no president has served two full terms). The Italian presidency is a position similar to that of a constitutional monarch, and in the recent past presidents have helped keep the Italian political system from succumbing completely to right-wing populism and, before that, Berlusconism. Queen Elizabeth II could not stop Brexit, but in May 2018, Mattarella stopped the populist government of the Five Star Movement from implementing policies leading towards an exit from the eurozone. He is also one of the last—if not the last—of the generation of Vatican II Catholic politicians. He has offered steady moral leadership during the pandemic, a time during which the sovereignty of Parliament, the rule of law, and the relationship between church and state have been tested in ways not seen since the 1970s, if not since World War II.

In early 2023, the term of the current Parliament expires, and even this far out many observers already believe the election could tilt to hard-right candidates.

In early 2023, the term of the current Parliament expires, and even this far out many observers already believe the election could tilt to hard-right candidates, with a new prime minister leading a coalition of parties focused on nationalism and immigration and animated by resentment toward the EU. If this bears out, it would be a case of déjà vu, ten years after the populist insurgency against the technocratic government then led by Mario Monti, an economist known for his role in the institutions overseeing the economic policies of the European Union. Since the beginning of this year, the government has been led by another well-known technocrat with an EU background, Mario Draghi, chairman of the European Central Bank from 2011 to 2019 and savior of the euro. Indeed, Draghi has a true globalist pedigree, having served as vice chairman and managing director for Goldman Sachs from 2002 to 2005 and boasting connections to Harvard, Princeton, and the Brookings Institution. (He’s also a graduate of a prestigious Jesuit high school in Rome.)

Draghi replaced Giuseppe Conte, an Italian law professor at the University of Florence nominated by the populist Five Star Movement. He came into the office in large part due to a consensus belief that a true coalition was needed to deal with the pandemic, and in fact, the Draghi government is supported in Parliament by the largest coalition ever: all parties, save for one—the right-wing Fratelli d’Italia, main heir of the Italian neo-fascist conservative movement and now rising in opinion polls. Draghi’s government has no long-term political project—its only aim is economic and financial stability—and in this sense it’s the epitome of a technocracy built on the personal reputation of the technocrat. Italian economic and political-establishment elites wanted Draghi, and Draghi has given them what they wanted, including better relations between Italy and the European Union and normalization of foreign policy after Conte and the Five Star Movement’s embrace of Trump and Putin. An added benefit: the selection of Draghi helped cut short the political life of Conte, who was seen as a potentially viable leader for Italian populism. It also illustrates something about the types of Catholicism in Italy: on one hand there is Conte’s provincial upbringing and Padre Pio devotionalism, and on the other is Draghi’s international stardom and his mix of Jesuit intellectual precision and Protestant ethic of capitalism, with a European flair. 

But it’s not clear whether Draghi’s cool charisma can match the rising Right, and it has yet to halt the ongoing collapse of the institutional systems that so far have kept Italy together and out of the hands of nationalists. The Democratic Party, for example—the most important political entity on the center-left—is recovering from the years of Matteo Renzi, who was the party’s national leader from 2013 to 2017 and prime minister from 2014 to 2016. After leaving government, Renzi founded his own personal party, Italia Viva, revealed his center-right inclinations, and is now cultivating a career as a consultant and public speaker for foreign potentates, including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (said by the U.S. government to have approved the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018), as well as for Saudi state-sponsored initiatives and think tanks. Like Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder, he has joined the jet-set of former politicians working for well-paying international clients. With little holding its various constituencies (moderate progressive, liberal and centrist Catholic, radical secular) together, the Democratic Party risks becoming a minor party, thus leaving Italian center-leftists without any politically viable representation.

Meanwhile, the populist web-based Five Star Movement, founded by comedian Beppe Grillo in 2009, is split between loyalty to Grillo and Conte. As an experiment in direct democracy, Five Star is a failure, unable to recruit politically serious people and attracting conspiracy theorists and amateurs with little grasp of the complexities of governing. Most of the votes that went to Five Star in 2013 and 2018 (when it took 32.7 percent of the tally and won 227 seats in Parliament) will likely not go to the Left in the next election, but to the Right.

Giorgia Meloni, 2018 (Presidenza della Repubblica/Wikimedia Commons)

Indeed, the real question is who will lead Italy once the right presumably recaptures power: Matteo Salvini’s League (formerly the Northern League), a local autonomist party that has adopted nationalism, or Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia, which gathers former fascists, nationalists, clericalists, small-business owners, and rentiers. Both Meloni and Salvini compete for the approval of figures like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and other neo-nationalist Europeans. Both are sympathetic to anti-vaxxers (a small minority in Italy) and have long stoked fears over immigration, Islam, and European elites. But Meloni is a more disciplined politician than Salvini, and if victorious would be Italy’s first female national leader. She cultivates the sympathies of Italian clericalists, but without Salvini’s crass displays of devotion (crucifixes, rosaries, and a well-publicized trip to Fatima in May 2021); she is also less coarse than Salvini in her criticism of Pope Francis’s position on immigration. Meloni’s platform can be summed up as “God, fatherland, family”: Italians-first nationalism and culture-war Catholicism, aligned not just with Orbán, but also with the anti-liberal parties in Poland and other European countries, the Likud in Israel, and Trumpism in the United States. She is more of a threat than Salvini to bring Italy into the global neo-nationalist community.

What all Italians seem to agree on is that the country needs to rethink its economy and address a host of pressing financial challenges, including a staggering national debt and the future of social security. It can no longer be so dependent on tourism—the pandemic proved that—and it must make wiser use of EU grants and subsidies. Far less clear is what the country should do in terms of foreign policy. In seeking to distance Italy from the EU, the Conte government made haphazard overtures to Russia and China, but its actual strategy (to the extent there was one) was never plain. Draghi has returned Italy to alignment with the EU and alliance with the United States, but the uncertainty of traditional American hegemony and questions over the mission of NATO still remain, even if after the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan Italy remains one of United States’ most reliable allies in Europe.

“Italy was one of the founders of the European Union ‘club,’ and this, in addition to an international situation different from the current one, guaranteed us respect that was greater than our economic, political, and military weight,” Mario Ricciardi, editor-in-chief of the journal of politics Il Mulino told me. “Today things have changed a lot, there are so many new members who no longer have any awe of older members, and this doesn’t always work to our advantage.”


Meanwhile, the Catholic Church in Italy continues to face uncertainty about its role in the nation’s political and everyday life. More than a year since the worst of the pandemic, its influence is questionable, the bishops’ conference has sunk further into irrelevance, and many Italians feel free to criticize it in ways that might have been unimaginable just a few years ago. And the Vatican itself seems less able to exert the kind of political influence on national politics than it once did.

Even though it’s the most important provider of social services in Italy, the Church has lost much of its cultural and political cachet.

Under Francis, the Vatican has been more transparent on a number of issues, including its own finances. But this has also opened an ugly chapter in the history of the “temporal” justice administered in the name of the pope, who is the absolute sovereign of Vatican City State. In July, the Vatican trial of ten people involved in a money-losing investment in a controversial London real-estate deal began. Among those being tried is Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu, who is the first cardinal ever to be indicted by Vatican criminal prosecutors, and whom Francis stripped of the rights and duties of the cardinalate in September 2020. Becciu was not just the prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Saints, but also, as the sostituto (or Number 2) to the Secretariat of State between 2011 and 2018, a key figure in navigating relations between the Vatican and Italy. It is hard to say what the consequences of his trial will be for the Vatican, the Italian Church, and Pope Francis.

The Church also faces challenges over how to deal with the Zan bill, anti-homophobia legislation sponsored by LGBT activist Alessandro Zan, who was elected to Parliament with the Democratic Party. Debate over the bill has led to a level of tension between Church and state not seen in years. In June, the Vatican Secretariat of State sent a diplomatic note to Italy’s ambassador to the Holy See raising concerns that the bill, if approved in its present form, could limit freedom of expression of Catholics and Catholic institutions and thus breach guarantees granted to the Church in Italy in the revised Concordat of 1984. Despite clarifying that the Vatican’s goal is not to stop the bill but to reformulate some passages, this rare diplomatic step raised alarms among progressives in Italy over the secularity (laicità) of the Republic. The majority of Italians seem to support the bill, but Catholics are divided—not on the need for a law protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination and violence, but on the possibility that it would introduce American-style “culture wars.” In its present form, the bill contains sometimes moralistic phrasing not just defining what would be illegal, but also what would be socially acceptable to say.

There’s also the issue of how the Church can be involved in Italy’s continued recovery from the pandemic. As the crisis ebbs and restrictions are lifted, Italy may be poised for a level of economic growth not seen in decades. The question is whether it will benefit all of Italian society: economically, there is a huge gap between rich and poor, and between the north and the south. The social safety net provided by the Catholic Church remains strong, but even though it’s the most important provider of social services in Italy, the Church has lost much of its cultural and political cachet, and the ability of Italian Catholics to win over legislators and entrepreneurs with the wisdom of the Catholic social doctrine has weakened. Criticizing the hierarchy has become the norm across the political spectrum: the left on gay rights, the right on immigration, the populists on the very idea of religious institutions. Old-time Italian secularism was nothing compared to the rise of new media and social-media influencers, some of them turned politicians, many turned political mischief-makers. Given this reality, it makes less sense than it ever did to envision some sort of intellectually elite grounding for a new Catholic party: it would have no electoral viability. Almost thirty years after the dissolution of the Democrazia Cristiana, very few Italian Catholics (and even fewer non-Catholics) seek a new Catholic party; even Francis himself says that he does not believe in confessional political parties.

But what this really demonstrates is the practical disappearance of the Catholic laity from political life. Lay associations (Catholic Action, Catholic boy and girls scouts, the new ecclesial movements) have lost their clout not just because of secularization, but also because of the clericalist policies of the Italian bishops during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The bishops conference under the leadership of Cardinal Camillo Ruini (1991–2007) became something like a political action committee. The result has been a disaster both politically and ecclesially—the dissolution of the tradition of independence of lay Catholics in the public square. Try as he might, Francis has not been able to revive the Italian laity.

Or, at least not yet. The best thing the Catholic Church in Italy could do to address these challenges would be to hold a national synod. The most recent comparable event was in 1976. While the Italian bishops refused Francis’s 2015 invitation to begin the synodal process, they gave in after his more forceful request earlier this year. Finally, preparations are underway, in conjunction with the global Catholic synodal process taking place between now and 2023. And yet it is hard not to think we have entered the declining phase of this pontificate. Francis, who invested so heavily in shaping the social and political role of the Church, lacks allies and partners both inside and beyond Italy. And if there remains the belief that Catholicism in Italy still has something to say (and a way to act) on immigration, poverty, and marginalization, there is no common movement or organizational energy to realize it. As the authors of a new book on the Italian Church and the pandemic (Il gregge smarrito, or The Lost Flock) put it: the Church “speaks but is not able to count, and when it acts it is not able to speak.” Francis’s pontificate liberated Italian Catholicism from the right-wing, culture-war inclinations of the clerical elites in the early 2000s, but it has not generated anything new in its wake. A national synod could lead to a movement that would benefit the Church and Italy both, even if it might not be as big a unifying event as beating England on penalty kicks.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is The Oxford Handbook of Vatican II, co-edited with Catherine Clifford (Oxford UP). Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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Published in the October 2021 issue: View Contents
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