Even good popes make bad politicians

Recent clashes between former Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini and supporters of Pope Francis are a sort of microcosm for the divisions that turn the faithful against each other around the world.

Writing in the August 30 issue of Foreign Policy, Mattia Ferraresi opines:

It is a tale of two Catholic churches. One is focused on social justice, welcoming migrants, helping the poor, protecting the environment, defending the virtues of the European Union, and building bridges rather than walls…

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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The other Catholic Church stresses the importance of tradition and defending the so-called Judeo-Christian West from mass immigration, pledges to protect the traditional family, and fights permissive laws on abortion and LGBT rights.

Revealingly, Ferraresi declares that “among the weekly churchgoers, 33 percent voted for Salvini’s League, which was the most popular party among believers, followed by the Democratic Party (27 percent).”

And how could it not be? Against public opposition and catcalls in parliament, Salvini brandishes the Rosary and invokes the Immaculate Heart of Mary. In response, Pope Francis has darkly warned that Salvini’s speeches and those of other immigration restrictionists remind him of Nazi diatribes circa 1934.

For many Italians, the Holy Father’s evocation of long-dead dictatorships rings hollow in the face of his Secretariat of State’s tacit (and perhaps witless) collaboration with the communist Chinese government in further oppressing the Underground Church in that country, which has already suffered so much for its fidelity to the Holy See.

Moreover. Salvini’s apparent piety and devotion stand in stark contrast to the collection of perverts and white-collar criminals who appear to perch in such profusion at the Vatican these days. Although Salvini’s recent bid for a new election has been squelched, he and his cohorts might well come roaring back shortly—quite literally, with a vengeance.

On the surface, this tussle seems pretty straightforward to the orthodox Catholic onlooker. Once again, the liberalizing clericalist regime of Pope Francis is assaulting orthodox laypeople, whose only crime is refusing to reduce Catholicism to a sort of party line, which may be changed at the whim of its leaders. There’s some truth to that reading, but the whole reality is far more complex.

For one thing, gratifying though his invocations of Catholicism may be, Salvini’s status as a champion of Catholic morality is a bit problematic. Once married and divorced, once civilly partnered and then broken-up, Salvini has a child by each woman. When the latter relationship fell apart, he got engaged to a third lady, broke up with her, and is now on to yet another fiancée.

As far as the other side goes, Francis’s Vatican may seem ideologically innovative, but it’s following an old papal tradition: high (indeed, sometimes sublime) ideals married to often-disastrous political incompetence—ideals for which the laity must, sooner or later, pay the price.

In earlier days, when the papacy was at the fulcrum of European power politics, these measures were often inspired by a desire to maintain papal independence. The great fear of successive pontiffs was that, if any single Catholic power dominated Europe, the Pope would become a domestic chaplain to the dominant monarch—the same fate that befell the patriarchs of Constantinople and Moscow. Several pontiffs had a taste of that life when the papacy temporarily relocated itself to Avignon, and they wanted no more of it.

So it was that, during the Thirty Years’ War, Pope Urban VIII backed the King of Sweden—a Lutheran—against the Holy Roman Emperor. As the great Church historian Fr. Fernand Mourret recounted,

members of the Roman court and the people of Rome were murmuring. They said: “The King of Sweden has more zeal for his Lutheranism than our Holy Father has for the Catholic Church, which alone can save us.” Cardinal Borgia came before the Pope to express a solemn protest. Urban merely replied that the war against the Habsburgs was not a war of religion.

In response, the Emperor declared himself “the champion of the Church in spite of the Pope.” He wasn’t the first Catholic ruler to claim that mantle, nor would he be the last.

Four decades later, the situation was reversed. The Papacy was allied with the Holy Roman Empire against the French in the War of the Grand Alliance, called “King William’s War” in North America. As our local moniker reveals, the Dutch ruler-turned-British usurper was an ally of the Emperor against France’s Louis XIV—and, so, an ally of the Pope. William defeated Louis’s ally King James II at the Battle of the Boyne, ushering in 240 years of Protestant supremacy in Ireland; Pope Alexander VIII chanted the Te Deum in Rome.

Not a high point in Papal diplomacy.

Indeed, out of many episodes of (shall we say) subpar papal political performance, France has had more than her share.

Pius VII was keen to sign the 1801 Concordat with Napoleon, ending the strife which had caused the Church to effectively cease functioning in France. Many of the most devout French laymen, priests, and bishops had lost loved ones and suffered themselves in defending the Church’s rights and properties. They refused to accept a treaty that simply signed both away for the sake of expediency… and so were excommunicated. It was all to no purpose, since in the end Pius was exiled and imprisoned by Napoleon, which he heroically endured. Nevertheless, the Concordat became the gold standard for Church-State relations in France.

French Catholics remained skeptical of the new republican regime and kept faith in the deposed monarchy well into the 19th century. In the 1880s and 1890s, however, Leo XIII began calling on the faithful of France to “rally to the republic.” He hoped to make the French state more amenable to Catholic social teaching by reforming it from within. Called upon either to betray their King and Country at the command of the Pope, or else defy the Head of the Church for the sake of patriotism, the activist elements of the French Church split. This made it impossible for either side to preserve the Concordat, which the French government dissolved in 1905.

Just as when Pius XI ordered Mexico’s Cristeros to lay down their arms, blood was shed as a result of Leo’s diplomatic incompetence. Yet no one could argue with the greatness of both pontiffs’ political and social teachings—most notably their encyclicals Rerun Novarum, Immortale Dei, Quas Primas, and Quadragesimo Anno.

What lesson may we draw from all of this, apart from the fact that papal infallibility manifestly does not apply to a pope’s political decisions? Simply put, history allows no one the luxury of being smug. We have a consistent body of papal social teaching, beginning with the writings of Gregory XVI; but Catholics may differ (sometimes violently) in how best to apply those teachings to the Fallen world in which we live. From pope to peasant, we all ought to try to treat our brother Catholics with whom we differ with as much charity as we ourselves would want to be treated. After all, if popes can be tragically mistaken, who can’t be?


  • Charles Coulombe

    Charles A. Coulombe is a contributing editor at Crisis and the magazine’s European correspondent. He previously served as a columnist for the Catholic Herald of London and a film critic for the National Catholic Register. A celebrated historian, his books include Puritan’s Empire and Star-Spangled Crown. He resides in Vienna, Austria and Los Angeles, California.

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