Populist Crusade against Pope Francis

It is true that many in Europe have stumbled upon a state of insecurity, xenophobia and skepticism as an offshoot of mass immigration, refuge issues and multiculturalism which have agitated European minds about the realty of multiculturalism. The loophole created by European doubt about their own continent dwells in state crisis has eventually paved the path for rightwing populist agendas to spread across Europe as a gigantic wave. The anti-immigrant, anti-refugee slogans have become more conspicuous in political stages in Europe as a new tendency. In particular, the rhetorical quibbles invoked by the brigade of right wing populists in Europe prior to EU elections were much focused on agitating European public sentiments about preserving their cultural identity rooted in Christianity from outsiders and excluding those who come to Europe as invaders of the Christian civilization. As an example, Hungarian prime minister Victor Orban has emerged as a champion of European populism as he vehemently critiqued the multi culturalism in Europe and how would it dilute European values.

The populism targeting the European pubic seems to have been much successful in its campaign so far. Yet, the deeds and words stem from one man stands strong amidst this chaotic order as a dissenting opinion. It is none other than the present bearer of fisherman ring Pope Francis and his audacity to speak for the wellbeing of the refugees have become a notable factor in European socio political arena in two ways.

Firstly, many of the progressive political participants within Europe who are gutted by the new waves of Pan European right wing ideologies have taken the progressive attitude of Pope Francis towards refuges and migrants as a changing gesture of Vatican from its orthodox outlook since Lateran treaty with Italian Government in 1929. It was a conspicuous factor that Vatican established a good rapport with Christian Democrats in Italy as allies against rise of leftwing forces and this tradition was intensified and upheld during the papacies of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI. This affinity between Vatican and Rome was seen by many alternatives political parties in Italy and across the Europe as a confederation of power politics and the blatant reflection of Vatican’s apathy over alternative politics.

Nevertheless, the rapid change of Vatican under Pope Francis has changed the perception of progressive political activists and participants towards Catholic Church. In particular, this change was galvanized after Pope Francis’s statement at St. Peter’s square on 29th of September after conducting the holy mass on the 105th World Day of Migrants and Refugees where Pope openly denounced the “The Globalization of Indifference “and stated “As Christians we cannot be indifferent to the tragedy of old and new forms of poverty, to the bleak isolation, contempt and discrimination experienced by those do not belong to our group. We cannot remain insensitive, our hearts deadened, before the misery of so many innocent people.  We must not fail to weep. We must not fail to respond “The event held at St. Peter’s square was culminated by unveiling a sculpture at the square that depicts 140 refugees from different historical periods and different cultures. As a matter of fact, Pope’s concern about migrants has not risen out of the blue as his initiatives towards protecting refugees date back to the first few months in his papacy. After becoming the pontiff in 2013 his first visit outside Rome happened to be visiting a tiny Sicilian island called Lampedusa which remains the biggest entry point for refugees to enter Europe.

However, there is a second group in Europe who are primarily driven by jingoistic European sentiments mainly consisted of ultra-nationalistic political parties and that group has been clearly agitated by the revolutionary steps taken by pope Francis. In examining the reaction from Italian politics towards Pope’s concern about immigrants and refugees, the recent rise of right wing populism in Italy under its former deputy prime minister Matteo Salvin’s League Party have clearly shown the tendency of using anti-immigrant and anti-refugee slogans in Italian politics. Especially prior to his downfall from power after the clash with coalition government in last September, his attitude towards Pope Francis was based on disdain as Pope’s open policy towards refugees was not compatible with Salvini’s League party. In the ghastly emptiness of Italian politics, the real rival Salvini encountered is the pope himself. Few years ago he was known for his disinclination towards Pope Francis by wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Benedict is my Pope “referring to Pope Benedict XVI who is still popular among the conservative Catholics. A number of theories have suggested that Pope Francis is being targeted by right wing pacts in Europe as the most serious threat against their populist propagandas.

The role of Steve Benon who happened to be the former White House chief strategist to president Trump behind the forces against Pope Francis is another notable factor as it has been alleged that Benon himself actively involved in boosting the populist movements in Europe. Especially, the meetings between Salvini and Steve Benon in last April in Rome has given a sign of some possible camaraderie for ultra nationalist Pan-European movement that would lead to strike Pope Francis and his policies. The movement focusing to sabotage and disfigure Pope Francis has been escalated by the rise of populist movement in Europe, also, it’s important to understand that there has been a wave of sharp criticism of Pope Francis and his approaches to taboo issues like homo sexuality within the walls of Vatican. As an example ultraconservative American Cardinal Raymond Burke always has been the de facto leader of forces against Francis within Catholic church. His remarks about controlling Muslims migrants from entering Europe raised wide attention as it reflects some sort of islamophobia.

The situation looms before migrant crisis in Europe today has essentially impacted upon the internal politics in Vatican. Yet, throughout its most turbulent history neither Catholic church nor its pontiff are strangers for turmoil. However, present trend arising against Pope Francis and his progressive actions towards migrants have been driven mainly by seeing him as an obstacle to the populist project in Europe. In particular, pope’s own way of his hobnobbing with many popular movements expanding from environmental NGO’s to pro refugee groups have depicted Vatican and NGO’s as an antidote for the rising populist movements across Europe. Nevertheless, juxtaposition of populism as a decisive factor in shaping European socio political map and most audacities role of Pope Francis as the champion to advocate for protecting refugee rights are likely to arise a blooming conflict between temporal politics and spiritual order in Europe.

Punsara Amarasinghe
Punsara Amarasinghe
Punsara Amarasinghe is a PhD candidate at Institute of Law and Politics at Scuola Superiore Sant Anna, Pisa Italy. He held a research fellowship at Faculty of Law, Higher School of Economics in Moscow and obtained his Masters from International Law at South Asian University, New Delhi. He served as a visiting lecturer at Faculty of Arts, University of Colombo Sri Lanka and author can be reached at punsaraprint10[at]gmail.com