Matteo Renzi, Italian Populists & the Church

Less than one hour after the polls closed in Italy’s referendum on constitutional reform, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had interpreted its resounding rejection as a no-confidence vote against his government. He resigned on live television even before meeting with the president of the republic. The result augurs an unclear future for Italy, a country crucial to the political stability of the European Union.

Renzi, a young and energetic politician trying to be his nation’s Tony Blair, brought defeat on himself. In April, the parliament approved a constitutional reform he and his closest allies had pushed, which dominated the political debate since. The prime minister had framed the referendum as a referendum on himself, and he lost by a 59 percent to 41 percent margin. In only three of Italy’s twenty regions did “yes” votes amount to a majority. The reform that Italians were being asked to approve or reject was a very complex one (and, in my opinion as a voting Italian, amounting to a confused redesign of the Constitution approved in 1947): it would reshape the senate as a chamber with regional representatives, differentiate between the now-identical functions of the house and senate, and strengthen the role of the prime minister relative to the power of the parliament, the regions, and the president. But the details of the reform clearly took a backseat during the endless campaign; it was the prime minister himself who was really on the ballot.

Does defeat of the referendum signal another victory for populism in Europe after Brexit (and prior to elections in France and Germany next year)? That would be an oversimplification.

Among those who voted against Renzi’s constitutional reform there was Silvio Berlusconi, along with many political survivors of the Berlusconi era, as well as former Prime Minister Mario Monti (the technocrat par excellence in Italy’s recent history). These were joined by many constitutional and legal thinkers, and a majority of the kind of leftist and younger voters who in the United States wanted to see Bernie Sanders on the ballot on November 8. The Italian progressive elites who voted for Renzi did so only out of fear of the political alternative, refraining even from passing positive judgement on the proposed reform or on Renzi’s government. One of these was the most successful prime minister since the end of the Cold War, Romano Prodi. But his brother Paolo Prodi, an important and well-known historian, voted against it. Renzi’s political party itself was split in two.

If Italy goes to the polls in 2017, it is likely that the winner will be the populist Five Star party, led by comedian Beppe Grillo. It’s a party built entirely from the Internet in 2009: anti-vaccination activism, conspiracy theories, and xenophobia are its bread-and-butter. The Five Star movement now controls a few important cities in Italy, including Rome. The problem is that Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi barely knows what the mayor of a difficult city like Rome should do; it’s basically without an administration now.

In some ways the label of “populist” could have applied to Renzi as well. Coming from the cadre of the old centrist Catholic elites of Democrazia Cristiana, he built, as mayor of Florence, a career on a populist message equating to “professional politicians are old and corrupt, but I am young and new.” The fact is that Renzi in his life never had a job other than politics. He was a populist against the European Union, which he used as a foil for those who see a German-led Europe as bureaucratic, technocratic, and concerned only with financial stability and a balanced budget. Renzi was a populist also in his leadership of the Democratic Party, which he conquered in a hostile takeover and ran in contempt of its governing elements and of the cultural and sociological basis of its old elites. (There are some parallels between what Renzi did to the leadership of his own party and what Donald Trump did to the establishment elements of the Republican Party.) That the pivotal center-left Democratic Party as it was once known no longer exists presents a political problem. Renzi is still its leader, but it’s unclear what’s left to lead. A few million had already left silently; how many who openly challenged and defeated Renzi will remain?  Renzi saw his Democratic Party like the Democratic Party in the United States or the Labour Party in the U.K., centered on leadership at the top with much less energy devoted to debate in parliament, thus changing radically the Italian/European model of political parties. In an age calling for charismatic leaders who decide and act quickly, he embraced the populism of those who see political parties as the epitome of corruption and inaction.

Italy’s other populist is in the Vatican. Politically, Francis is not a populist, despite what Ross Douthat and his Italian critics might say. Rather, his populism is theological, centered on the sensus fidei of the people of God. Francis has actually said something Benedict XVI was reluctant to say, that is, that the political vocation is a noble one. In a sense, Benedict XVI was perhaps more a political populist: “Success can also be seductive and thus can open up the path towards the falsification of what is right, towards the destruction of justice. ‘Without justice what else is the State but a great band of robbers?’ as Saint Augustine once said.”

These different populisms—Berlusconi, Renzi, Grillo, and Francis—have little in common. The political crisis in Italy now puts the Vatican and the Catholic Church in a difficult position, that is, without somebody to talk to: Berlusconi, Grillo, Renzi, or Renzi’s successors from the Democratic Party have no ear for the Church and its concerns. Berlusconi is totally discredited and now looks for somebody who could be his heir. Grillo represents an anti-clerical, anti-religious, and morally illiterate political ethos bordering on Fascism that appeals to (almost) nobody in the echelons of the Church. Catholic politicians coming from the Christian-Democratic elites are now split between the Democratic Party and the center-right parties, and they do not represent Italian Catholicism; this is one of the effects of the programmatic demolition of Italian political parties and workers’ unions begun by Berlusconi and continued by Renzi.

The Vatican, faithful to Francis’s style of not interfering with Italian politics, took no position on the constitutional referendum; it would prefer not to go through a long phase of political and financial instability, but there was never a real connection between Renzi and his entourage on one side and the Vatican and the Italian Catholic Church on the other. It is absurd for the small and isolated groups of anti-LGBT Italian Catholics (the organizers of the “Family Day”) to frame the vote against Renzi as payback against the recently passed law on same-sex marriage. But it is true that a Catholic like Renzi struck many Italian Catholics (both clergy and lay) as arrogant, culturally shallow, self-centered, and ignorant of the role of Church in a system that constitutionally is still of an established Catholicism. The Italian bishops’ conference, stuck in their agnosticism on everything that’s not about “non-negotiable values,” barely acknowledged the fact that Italians were going to vote, and forgot that the referendum was on a constitution that the best of Catholic constitutional thinkers produced after World War II. Italian Catholics in general were divided about Renzi and the referendum. La Civiltà Cattolica, whose legal writer, Fr. Francesco Occhetta, was much more pro-reform than the journal itself, symbolized the dilemma of many Italian Catholics: support a confused reform of the Constitution meant to last decades, or vote for no reform at all and trigger potentially dangerous instability after Renzi’s fall.

Now, Italians, going through a political crisis, look to the president of the republic, Sergio Mattarella, elected almost two years ago thanks to a stroke of political genius from Matteo Renzi who on this occasion worked as a unifier of different political forces. Mattarella is a Sicilian, old-style, and soft-spoken Vatican II Catholic, culturally and generationally much closer to Pope Francis than the young Catholic Matteo Renzi. His idea of politics was shaped also by the mafia assassination of his brother, a professional politician, in 1980.

The leadership of the Catholic Church in Italy fears the idea of the Five Star Movement in charge of the national government. It will be a difficult transition, and it’s a little reminiscent of February 2013, when Italians voted for the new parliament: Benedict XVI had just announced his resignation, so in Rome there was neither a government nor a pope. But at least time there is Francis.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is Catholicism and Citizenship. Political Cultures of the Church in the Twenty-First Century (Liturgical Press, 2017). He is a contributing writer for Commonweal. Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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