Benedict's headache with populist Catholicism

by John L. Allen Jr.

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Like everybody else in this hyper-political age, Catholics are conventionally divided into "liberals" and "conservatives." (Whenever that taxonomy is rolled out, I'm reminded of a line from G.K. Chesterton: A progressive is someone who keeps making the same mistake, while a conservative is someone who prevents a mistake from ever being corrected. Chesterton is a patron saint for those of us who don't recognize ourselves in either camp.)

However useful that distinction can sometimes be, it's hardly the only way to slice the pie. Another is what we might call the difference between "institutional" and "populist" Catholicism. In a nutshell, institutional types (however grudgingly) like to be on the same page with the pope and the bishops, while populists (however respectfully) think the powers that be are occasionally full of it, so other Catholics have to say and do the things that bishops, for political or bureaucratic reasons, can't or won't.

Americans are certainly familiar with populist Catholicism, both on the right (including pro-life groups that sometimes seem as mad at the bishops for their timidity as at Planned Parenthood for its ideology) and on the left (think Patrick Kennedy's insistence that disagreeing with the hierarchy doesn't make him any less Catholic). Among other things, this proves the point that populists of all stripes often have more in common with one another than with the institutional psychology against which they're reacting.

Recent events in Europe, however, illustrate the growing political punch of populist Catholicism on the global stage.

Last Sunday in Switzerland, voters approved a constitutional ban on the construction of minarets, the spires atop Islamic mosques where the call to prayer is issued five times a day. The result came over the explicit opposition of the country's Christian leaders, including the Swiss Catholic bishops, who issued a statement before the vote warning that "fear is a poor counselor." Afterwards, an official from the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Migrants as well as L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, called the outcome a blow to religious freedom.

Despite that, 56 percent of Swiss voters favored the minaret ban. I haven't seen any exit polls, but one has to imagine that a decisive bloc was formed by those Swiss most concerned with their country's Christian identity, which would include a cross-section of Catholics. Switzerland is 46 percent Catholic, so the measure could not have passed without substantial Catholic support.

Officials of the Council of Europe said this week that the Swiss measure may be reviewed by European courts as a potential violation of freedom of conscience and human rights protections.

In Italy, meanwhile, a recent proposal from the far-right Northern League to add a cross to the national flag is producing a similar split between institutional and populist Catholic sentiment.

The Northern League, which routinely draws between five and fifteen percent of the national vote, is part of Italy's ruling center-right coalition. Historically the party has been fairly anti-clerical, seeing the Vatican as an expression of Roman centralization against the interests of its base of support in the north. Recently, however, the party has repositioned itself as the voice of populist Catholic anxieties, directed against both the European Union and Islamic immigration.

Roberto Maroni of the Northern League, currently Italy's interior minister, says his party is committed to the defense of grassroots Catholic values, "not what the elites want" – a catchy way of saying that while the Northern League may be taking up the Catholic banner, it's not taking cues from the Italian bishops or the Vatican.

From a populist calculus, the proposal to put a cross on the flag is a potent political double play. It comes in the wake of a controversial decision from a European court which held that displaying crucifixes in Italian public school classrooms violates church/state separation, and it also makes a statement about the Christian identity of Italy in the teeth of the country's rising Muslim population.

How serious the idea may be in a country where the tricolore, the three-colored flag, is something of a national fetish remains to be seen. What it illustrates, however, is a growing political sophistication among populists about the manipulation of symbolism.

This arousal of populist Catholicism poses a real headache for Pope Benedict XVI.

In recent decades, the Vatican's highest priority for Europe has been recovery of the continent's Christian identity, and Benedict in particular has argued that Europe would be culturally incoherent if cut off from its Christian roots. Yet at the same time, Benedict also has no higher inter-faith priority than outreach to Islam, the defining expression of his transition from "inter-religious" to "inter-cultural" dialogue. In essence, Benedict sees Christians and Muslims as natural allies in the struggle against secularism.

Benedict also has to worry about the fate of Christianity not just in Europe, but also in the Middle East, Africa, and India – places where the intersection of nationalism and religious identity makes life difficult for Christian minorities. Many church leaders fear that provocative acts such as the Swiss vote could trigger anti-Christian backlash in other parts of the world. Italian essayist Massimo Franco recently described this as the Vatican's "geo-religious" perspective.

Looking down the line at the rest of the 21st century, declining fertility rates in the Middle East and North Africa suggest that the current high levels of Islamic immigration into Europe won't be sustained. Long term, therefore, the Vatican may be able to hope for a "demographic fix" to its headache, since immigration might no longer be such a volatile force in European politics.

In the meantime, however, Benedict XVI has to walk a tightrope. He doesn't want to discourage those forces in Europe most passionately committed to a defense of Christian identity, but somehow he also needs to prevent them from upsetting his geo-religious applecart.

So far, there's been no comment from the pope himself about either the Swiss vote or the proposal to put a cross on the Italian flag. The first test of Benedict's balancing act may come when, and if, this consummate European chooses to wade into these burning European debates.

[John Allen is NCR's senior correspondent. His e-mail is]

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