ROME — The New York Times has lamented Pope Francis’ “retreat from culture-war politics,” suggesting that his alleged absence from political debates has led to Italian Catholics’ embrace of Matteo Salvini and his populist Lega party.
In a fascinating exercise in fact-flipping, Times writer Mattia Ferraresi made the assertion Thursday that, unlike his predecessors, Pope Francis has refrained from pronouncing on political issues, leaving a vacuum that contrary voices have filled.
Francis’ approach “represents a sharp break with the policies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who attempted to keep the church’s views relevant in societies, including Italy, that have grown increasingly secular,” Ferraresi declares in an article titled “How the Catholic Church Lost Italy to the Far Right.”
Mr. Ferraresi makes the incredible claim that Pope Francis has “embraced a new model” for the papacy, withdrawing from political engagement and limiting church action “to the pastoral dimension.”
The fact that “millions of Catholics are voting for Mr. Salvini,” making the League “the leading party among churchgoers,” Ferraresi proposes, stems from the fact that the Church under Francis has retreated from political debate.
As any Vatican watcher can attest, Pope Francis makes political statements on a nearly daily basis, focusing particularly in the issues of immigration, climate change, and economic justice. Vatican journalists share nearly unanimous awareness that for better or for worse Pope Francis is arguably the most political pope in recent memory.
Several simple examples will suffice to demonstrate Francis’ relentless political engagement.
Last January, the Vatican published a collection of the pope’s pronouncements and addresses on the topic of immigration. The sheer heft of the massive, 488-page volume attests to the significance of the immigration issue during Francis’ six-year pontificate, which the pope has dealt with on scores of occasions.
In April of this year, Francis sent a half million dollars to support migrant caravans seeking to enter the United States in an astonishingly political move, since the issue had already created an immense partisan divide within the U.S.
From his first visit to migrants in Lampedusa in 2013 to the launch of the Vatican’s “Share the Journey” pro-migration campaign in 2017; from his unqualified support for the U.N. Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) to his yearly Migrant Masses in the Vatican, the Francis papacy has been characterized by an uninterrupted string of declarations, speeches, gestures, and pronouncements on the immigration issue.
In the area of climate change, in 2015 Francis became the first pope in history to devote an entire encyclical letter to the topic of care for the environment, and since then he has never missed an occasion to promote United Nations’ efforts to persuade nations to take dramatic steps to curb carbon dioxide emissions.
Last May, the pope sketched a frightening picture of a global climate emergency, warning that we humans must “correct our path before it is too late.”
“Around the world, we are seeing heat waves, droughts, forest fires, floods and other extreme meteorological events, rising sea levels, the emergence of diseases and further problems that are only a dire premonition of things much worse to come, unless we act and act urgently,” the pope told a group of leaders assembled at the Vatican.
While often denouncing a “politics of fear” employed by unscrupulous scaremongers to move people to action, the pope himself has painted an apocalyptic vision of the world’s post-climate change future.
“Time is of the essence,” the pope told the group in May, which included the president of the General Assembly of the United Nations and the finance ministers of various nations. “You are here to help stop a crisis that is leading the world towards disaster.”
Last month, the pontiff went further, urging nations to adopt the very political measure of a carbon tax to discourage the use of fossil fuels through financial penalties.
“A carbon pricing policy is essential if humanity wants to use the resources of creation wisely,” he said. “The failure to manage carbon emissions has produced a huge debt that will now have to be repaid with interest from those who come after us.”
Along with specific political issues such as immigration and climate change, the pope has also dived directly into politics itself, repeatedly slamming populism, nationalism, and the pro-sovereignty movement, comparing them to Hitler, while likening Donald Trump’s border wall to East Germany’s Berlin Wall.
In 2017, Francis told European Union leaders that populism is “the fruit of an egotism that hems people in and prevents them from overcoming and ‘looking beyond’ their own narrow vision.”
“Today the European Union needs to recover the sense of being primarily a ‘community’ of persons and peoples, to realize that ‘the whole is greater than the part, but it is also greater than the sum of its parts,’” he said.
Last January, the pope told a group of Vatican diplomats that today’s emergence of populist and nationalist movements resembles the days of Nazi Germany.
During the period between the two world wars, he said, “populist and nationalistic propensities prevailed over the action of the League of Nations. The reappearance of such impulses today is progressively weakening the multilateral system, with the result of a general lack of confidence, a crisis of credibility of international politics and a progressive marginalization of the most vulnerable members of the family of nations.”
Despite the reams of evidence attesting to Francis’ political engagement, Ferraresi insists that Mr. Salvini has become exceedingly popular among Catholics because they “miss the days in which the church offered straightforward political guidance.”
Salvini’s success “is the consequence of a strategic error by the church,” Ferraresi states.
What has actually happened, of course, is completely different. Pope Francis has not, indeed, retreated from political engagement; in fact, he has increased it exponentially. Yet in so doing, he has adopted an overtly progressive agenda, taking an unbending liberal stance on contingent political issues that admit of multiple positions.
Mr. Ferraresi may be correct in saying that many Italian Catholics “have been attracted by a strongman who promised to defend the values that Francis’ church today hardly mentions.”
This is not because Pope Francis is not an astute political player, however. It is merely because his style of politics and his pet issues do not resonate with a growing number of engaged Catholics.