Public clashes between successive Italian governments and the Church are par for the course on the Italian political scene, but the latest dispute over immigration possibly points to something more sinister than the standard, rough and tumble politics. 

Matters came to a head last week when the Italian Catholic weekly Famiglia Cristiana placed on its cover a silhouetted pope, his hand extended towards the face of Italy’s deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, with the words: “Be gone Salvini” — a veiled reference taken from the rite of exorcism, “Be gone Satan!” 

The magazine said it was reacting to Salvini’s “aggressive tone” on immigration; Salvini himself dismissed the cover as “bad taste.” He was “not a perfect Christian,” he said, but added: “I don’t think I deserved that.” Inside, the magazine contained a number of excerpts from Italian prelates criticizing the government’s policy against unchecked mass migration — the latest in a barrage of negative comment against the ruling government of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte from Church leaders and institutions. 

The rhetoric began worsening in June when Salvini, who also serves as Italy’s Interior Minister, ordered that ports be closed to migrant ships. He defends the policy by arguing it is aimed at recovering control of Italy’s borders. He says he no longer wants Italy to bear the brunt of the problem, becoming what he calls the EU’s “refugee camp” while other countries take no one. 

Salvini further argues that not only does preventing illegal immigration benefit an Italy struggling to cope with the problem, but it also deters the migrants themselves from risking the dangerous journey (many lose their lives crossing the Mediterranean every year) as well as reducing the scourge of human trafficking. 

The majority of Italians support the coalition’s approach to immigration (a survey in June put the overall figure at 72% of voters, and even 46% among supporters of the center-left Democratic Party), but last month Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, criticized the port closing policy, saying it is “certainly not the solution.” His view was echoed by Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, president of the Italian bishops’ conference, who urged the government to follow the “logic of Christianity” and do as Pope Francis preaches: to “welcome, accompany, integrate,” and imitate the example of the Good Samaritan.  

Other Catholic publications besides Famiglia Cristiana have also weighed in against the government, including the bishops’ newspaper Avvenire and the semi-official Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano. Criticism has also gone beyond immigration with Avvenire frequently publishing articles critical of Salvini. 

Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, editor of the influential Jesuit periodical La Civilta Cattolica and a close adviser to Pope Francis, also entered the fray by recently slamming the current government for introducing a bill requiring a crucifix to be displayed in all public spaces and institutions. The cross, Father Spadaro argued, was being politicized, and inferred it was being used against migrants, many of whom are Muslims.

But the breadth and strength of the criticism against the current government has not only resulted in anger from Salvini’s growing number of supporters (his Lega party won 17% of the vote at the election in March and is now around 30%), but it has also led some to question whether immigration really is the main motive for the vehement opposition of the Italian Church establishment. 

In a July 29 article in the Italian daily, La Verita, Carlo Cambi suggests that Salvini is a prime target because among his duties as Interior Minister is taking care of State relations with the Catholic Church — a responsibility that gives him access to sensitive information. 

Cambi alleges Salvini has in his hands a “dossier” containing evidence of financial corruption in the Church, primarily linked to APSA, the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See, the body responsible for administering Vatican assets and real estate, as well as details of some 200 clerical pedophile cases currently pending trial. 

 

Financial Corruption

One of a number of financial cases known to the Italian government is that of Cardinal Domenico Calcagno, until recently the head of APSA, who is facing charges of embezzlement from his time as Bishop of Savona. According to Cambi, the cardinal had been, and continues to be, protected by the extra-territorial privileges of Vatican City State, despite the Italian authorities appealing to international bodies to investigate the case.

This and other such information has been well known to the Italian government for years but successive administrations have chosen to leave the problems alone, partly because of the Church’s influence and the fact that it owns vast amount of real estate and investments in Italy. What is different this time, Cambi points out, is that Salvini, riding a wave of populist approval, “seems unwilling to follow the soft line of all previous governments.”

As The Register reported in March, APSA is used as a “parallel bank” by some individuals (many if not most of them Italian residents) to “create layers of protection,” placing what appear to be “donations” in a sophisticated network of remote offshore, ciphered accounts in Switzerland. The corrupt practice first came to light in 2007.  

The sums in question run into millions of euros which should have been taxed in Italy, already burdened by a crippling national debt and often pursuing the average Italian citizen for small discrepancies on their tax returns. In a July 26 article for the Italian finance website Finanza & Lambrusco, Paolo Barnard estimated the Vatican manages “investment vehicles” of 6 billion euros and according to the Council of Europe, in 2012 alone APSA handled some 680 million euros. 

Whatever the exact figures, Italians — especially a burgeoning number of supporters of the ruling coalition government — are in no mood to let themselves be lectured to by Church leaders who allow such corruption to continue at their own expense. Nor do they like the fact that the Pope and Italian Church leaders are constantly urging the country to accept more migrants but are taking none themselves into Vatican City.

One particularly sensitive point for the Italian Church is its revenue from “Otto per mille” —  0.8% of income tax that Italian taxpayers can give to an organized religion, or not allocate at all, in which case it returns to the state’s coffers. Cambi alleges that the Church in Italy has a “crazy fear” that the ruling government could allow that to “run dry.” The Italian State could also leverage many other other vulnerable areas against the Church, if the authorities so wanted. 

Could it therefore be the case that some in the Italian Church are nervous of what the current populist government might do with all this sensitive information, and so are going on the offensive to try to topple it? 

It’s difficult to know for sure, but there’s a suspicious sense that certain leaders in the Italian Church doth protest too much.