Italy’s upcoming elections could be the most consequential for the country in a very long time. They are likely to bring to office its first hard-right-wing prime minister, Giorgia Meloni—leader of the Fratelli d’Italia party, which combines disaffection from Republican institutions with a nostalgia for the fascism of Benito Mussolini. Given this, it’s almost of secondary importance that Meloni would also be the first woman at the head of government in Italian history.
The campaign has been vulgar and trashy, and all of the substantial issues—from the war in Ukraine to climate change—have been ignored. Facing rejection of the values informing Italy’s post-1945 constitutional system, the Vatican and the Catholic Church in Italy have been unusually cautious in their statements. Pope Francis has been particularly restrained: the pope who directly confronted Donald Trump’s promises to build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico has hardly been heard from, though the plans of Meloni and her ally, League leader Matteo Salvini, are no less cruel. But this is a different situation, and a different Pope Francis: he has limited the autonomy of the Vatican Secretariat of State not just on the finances of the Holy See, but also in taking positions on political issues. And at the same time, a traditionally important observer of Italian politics, the Jesuit-run and Vatican-vetted Civiltà Cattolica, has published nothing about what’s at stake in these elections—a departure from its coverage in 2018, or its coverage of the 2019 elections for European Parliament.
On September 21, just days before the election, the leadership of the Italian episcopate issued guidance for Italian voters with a three-page statement titled “Dare to Hope: An Appeal to the Women and Men of Our Country.” * The document encourages participation, reminds voters of the need to care for the marginalized, lists the many emergencies Italy is facing, and makes reference to Catholic social doctrine. There was also a statement in late August from bishops in rural and mountain areas opposing tax proposals that would widen the gap between the wealthy north and the poorer south. The overall impression is that Italian Catholic leaders, both the ecclesiastical hierarchy and lay organizations, are overwhelmed by the gap between the seriousness of the situation and the forces at their disposal, underscoring the growing political irrelevance of the Catholic Church in Italy. In this campaign, only right-wing parties are trying to win the votes of Catholics. The “political homelessness” of Italian Catholics can also be traced to the difficulty of communication between Francis and the Italian bishops.
The new president of the bishops’ conference, Bologna Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, is also a member of the Community of Sant’Egidio. Some community members are running for parliament on a slate connected with the center-left Democratic Party; this may be influencing how freely Zuppi (elected last spring by the bishops, but on the strong recommendation of the pope) feels he can speak during the campaign. Right-wingers, who have abandoned all pretenses of deference to the Catholic hierarchy, could raise the issue of a conflict of interest.