What I would do to get a hold of the diplomatic exchanges between the Vatican Secretariat of State and the nuncio in Washington. I’m sure they’re saying a lot about the intersection of the Vatican, the U.S. Catholic Church and bishops’ conference, and American politics at the dawn of the Trump presidency. But unless Pope Francis eases the rules on declassification, the documents will remain in the Vatican secret archives for at least two or three generations.
On a recent visit with my family to Rome and my hometown of Ferrara, Italy, I was struck by what seemed like the resurgence of an old Italian (and Italian Catholic) tradition—anti-Americanism—but in a new variety, tied to the rise of Donald Trump. Over the past century, there have been three main strains of Italian (indeed, European) anti-Americanism. There was the form bred in the period of fascism and authoritarianism between the 1920s and World War II and carried on by smaller neo-fascist parties in the post-war era. There was the variety associated with Communism and pro-Soviet parties in Western Europe. And there was a form associated with Catholicism, which shared some overlap with the fascist and communist varieties and which prior to Vatican II was most concerned theologically about ideas of religious liberty and democratic values.
Fascism and communism have pretty much disappeared along with the cultural infrastructure (political parties, workers’ unions, party-affiliated newspapers, publishing houses, and magazines) that channeled and shaped their movements. But Catholicism is still here, in some way functioning as the most visible antagonist of American internationalism. As Italian journalist Massimo Franco wrote in his insightful book almost a decade ago (updated and republished in Italy a few months ago), the Catholic Church and the United States are two “parallel empires.”
Since the end of the Cold War, Catholicism in Italy has become one of the ways through which the ideological, political anti-Americanism of the twentieth century is still expressed. The fact is that for many Catholics—in Italy and elsewhere in Europe–the United States remains “the American empire” despite what appears to be its weakening role in global leadership. Trump thus comes as both antidote to and punishment for American hubris. Never mind, they say, that he is right on some things (international trade agreements, the Iran nuclear deal); he is payback for Obama’s use of American power.
A prominent expression of this Catholic anti-Americanism is evident in a recent column from Italian journalist Fulvio Scaglione, an associate editor of the widely read Catholic magazine Famiglia Cristiana from 2000 to 2016. He blasted Obama’s foreign policy and wrote that “we have to root for Trump” because he could be the one able to dismantle “the system that governed the [United States] in the last few decades.” Scaglione also accused Obama of waging against Trump “a violent campaign without precedents in American history” through the tactical leak of unverified dossiers, in an attempt to prepare an early impeachment of the new president.
I believe Scaglione and those he speaks for will be disappointed by a Trump presidency as a corrective to American imperialism, just as they were disappointed by the Obama presidency, which they naively expected to steer the foreign policy of the United States in a different direction. But what most disturbs me, a cradle Catholic who moved from Italy to the United States during the 2008 presidential campaign, is the almost total lack of attention paid by Italians to Trump’s racial messaging—even progressive Italian Catholics. Since the very beginning of the post-war period in Italy the opposition to NATO coming from the Communist Party and many in the Christian-Democratic party has always been accompanied by their blindness to the racial issue in America, which is now expressed in the inability to understand the meaning of Trump’s election for many Americans.
There are other reasons behind the Italian Catholic attraction to Trump. These include the sentiment among the fringes of anti-Francis Catholics, who see in his “alliance” with Putin (and possibly Marine Le Pen) a reversal of the culture that supports gay rights and addresses gender issues. There is also a general, neo-nationalist sense that Trump, in ridding the world of “political correctness,” will ensure the return of “traditional” values friendlier to Christianity and Catholicism. But the most telling reactions come from Catholics who are much more in the mainstream and have no particular admiration for Putin, Le Pen, and other voices of today’s anti-globalization agenda. Their problem is not with Obama’s foreign policy (which in European Catholic quarters is being judged more severely than in America). Their problem is with America they have known since World War II. For some of my fellow Italian Catholics, Trump’s attack against the intelligence community is a plus, given what they see as seventy years of its meddling in Europe—beginning with the first elections in Italy after World War II, continuing through the entire Cold War, and on up through the post-9/11 period and “war on terror.”
Catholics who think that with Trump the United States is getting what it deserves are not tightly allied in any particular group, nor do they represent a significant opposition to the foreign policy of the Vatican and how it might deal with Trump and Putin. But they do say something about the complicated role of the Catholic Church in the current global situation. It’s clear the Vatican diplomats hoped for the election of Hillary Clinton. That Francis and Trump hold opposite worldviews is not a secret. It is not a secret either that the Vatican of Francis and the U.S. bishops have different views about Obama, Clinton, and Trump. But it is more complicated than that. There is little question that a Trump presidency will reposition the Vatican on some issues. There was a long phase in Francis’s pontificate when the Vatican was counting on Vladimir Putin, not Barack Obama, to deal with the war in Syria. It culminated in Putin’s audiences with Francis November 2013 and June 2015; this visible link between the Vatican and Putin’s plan for the Middle East changed after Russia intervened in Syria in September 2015 and because of the war in Ukraine. But some Catholic intellectuals and prelates in Italy and the Vatican still see Putin as the only world leader with a vision, and they thus think a Trump presidency could actually bring more stability and peace to the world.
The new presidency will also reframe Francis’s relationship with the United States, where some have accused him of anti-Americanism (just google “Breitbart Francis anti-American”; Politico and The Independent also took up the issue). The pope may be a critic of the free-market ideology, consumerism, and cultural colonization of rich countries. But he clearly does not view the election of Trump as a sign of God’s wrath against imperial America. Seeing the big picture of Catholicism certainly requires examining its relationship to Americanism. But the response among Catholics in Italy and Europe to Trump’s election tells us their worldview is still shaped ideologically and culturally by the long 20th century, and that “Catholic Trumpism” is not just an American phenomenon.