Steve Bannon may be on the way to getting his electoral Dream Team in Italy, a coalition of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the anti-immigrant League. That is no cause for celebration among Catholic Church leaders, who are somberly facing up to the fact that the faithful have helped elect a governing coalition united by opposition to immigrants, whose welfare is one of Pope Francis’s greatest concerns.
Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio, was more blunt than most about it. “In addition to defeating the Democratic Party, I speak in some way of defeat of the church,” he said in an interview with L’Espresso. “There is a Catholic vote that went to the League or M5S,” the acronym for the Five Star Movement. “I do not say that they should be excommunicated, but the church's message did not have relevance to them.” The League, he added, “was more reassuring” for these voters than the church was. (Polls showed that Catholics who go to Mass weekly voted in substantial numbers for the League or the Five Star Movement, but were less likely than the overall electorate to do so.)
The Sant’Egidio community, a lay movement based in Rome, has played an important role in promoting Pope Francis’s work in behalf of immigrants. But I had the sense in a visit to Rome over the past three weeks that the Italian bishops were playing catch-up following the results of the March 4 election. Still, there was an immediate recognition among them as a group that the church has a problem if practicing Catholics are voting based on antipathy for immigrants. The collective reaction from U.S. bishops to the election of an anti-immigrant president and Congress was more mixed.
At a March 21 meeting, the Permanent Council of the Italian bishops’ conference decided to send a letter about welcoming immigrants to be read in all parishes “to help communities pass from fear to encounter, from encounter to relationship, from relationship to interaction and integration.”
In responding to reporters’ questions afterward, the secretary-general of the bishops’ conference appeared to offer his own take on the remarks Riccardi had made earlier, which were headlined in L’Espresso: “If Catholics voted for M5S and the League, it means the church has lost.” Bishop Nunzio Galantino told reporters that since he wasn’t a candidate, he wasn’t defeated. “The church was not defeated” in the election, he added, because Pope Francis’s talk of welcoming immigrants is based on the Bible and evangelization—in other words, not on politics.
Nonetheless, Galantino acknowledged that “the bishops have had to take note of an insufficient preparation and even political sensitivity that has been revealed.” This will require a return to emphasizing religious formation, he said.