Catholic Populists Have to Respect the Pope, but They Love Trump

How will they square their religious obligations with their political desires as the U.S. president visits the Vatican?

A nun takes a picture of a drawing of Pope Francis depicting him as a superhero on a wall near the Vatican.
A nun takes a picture of a drawing of Pope Francis depicting him as a superhero on a wall near the Vatican. (Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters)

Pope Francis is pretty clear about where he stands on immigration. Welcoming refugees and migrant workers is a “moral imperative,” he said last February. You can’t call yourself a Catholic and be anti-refugee at the same time, he said last October. To the pontiff, keeping borders open to those fleeing wars and poverty is a duty stemming from the Christian virtue of “caritas,” compassion toward fellow humans.

As populism shapes the global immigration debate, Pope Francis has so often spoken out in support of migrants and urged Europe’s parishes to take in refugees that some say the Catholic Church has, under his leadership, emerged as one of “the most influential opponents of immigration crackdowns backed by right-wing populists in the United States and Europe.” The pontiff has even called populism “evil.”

Right-wing populists seem, at times, no fonder of Pope Francis than he is of them. President Trump, who will visit the pope at the Vatican on Wednesday, is arguably one such populist. After the pontiff suggested last year that Trump was “not a Christian” because of his plan for a Mexican border wall, Trump called him “disgraceful.”

Despite the pope’s stances, some Catholics have been embracing right-wing populism. In Italy, the mainstream Catholic press—especially the prestigious newspaper Avvenire and the widely popular magazine Famiglia Cristiana—has remained skeptical of Trump, and has so far been relatively subdued about the upcoming visit. But Tempi, the magazine of choice for conservative Catholics, toward which some populists also gravitate, has praised the U.S. president and even features a satirical column mocking those who criticize him; dubbed “Trump che rovina cose,” or “Trump spoiling things,” it includes jokes such as “It’s raining, because of Trump” or “Trump scares children.”

Ultra-conservative Catholic bloggers have gone further: Mario Adinolfi said he had “a very high opinion” of Trump, while Costanza Miriano defended Trump against the accusation of misogyny. Paired with their open nostalgia for Benedict XVI, the more conservative pope who resigned in 2013, one may well wonder whether these Catholics like Trump more than they like their current pope.

Analysts have been pointing out the emergence of a so-called “Catholic populism” for years. It’s not just that some Catholics are embracing the populists’ anti-immigrant stances, but also that some of them are beginning to feel that the Church’s leadership is out of touch with them on this and other issues. (The perception that leaders are out of touch with common people is, arguably, the main ingredient of populism.) Some may also feel, as John Allen has suggested, that the leadership is bound by political correctness, “so other Catholics have to say and do the things that bishops, for political or bureaucratic reasons, can’t or won’t.”

Catholics in the U.S. were supportive of Trump, who eschews political correctness, during the presidential elections: As much as 52 percent of Catholics and 60 percent of white Catholics opted for the Republican candidate over Hillary Clinton. In France’s elections, the far-right National Front party performed well in the first round of voting, in part by presenting itself as a defender of the country’s Catholic identity, even as it accused the Vatican of trying to interfere with its immigration policy.

In Italy, where as much as 71 percent of the population identifies as Catholic, this phenomenon is even more blatant. All the country’s major populist forces have tried to court the Catholic vote at some point. Beppe Grillo, the leader of the Five Star Movement, an anti-establishment party that is left-leaning on economics but right-wing on immigration, recently praised the pope in an interview and participated in a pilgrimage to Assisi, the birthplace of Saint Francis. The anti-immigration Northern League has rallied around Catholic traditions—by, for instance, defending the practice of setting Nativity scenes in public schools—but it has also criticized the pontiff for siding with asylum seekers.

Meanwhile, some hardcore Catholic groups operating at the fringes of the political spectrum, such as “Forza Nuova” and “Militia Christi,” try to reconcile far-right xenophobia with their faith.

Matteo Cavallaro, a political scientist at the University Paris 13, argues that there are two separate strands here worth picking apart. “On one hand, anti-immigrant movements are trying to exploit Catholic themes to appeal to voters. On the other hand, there are conservatives inside the Church who are feeling at odds with the pope’s friendliness toward immigrants, and especially Muslim immigrants,” he said.

The major difference between these two groups, according to Cavallaro, is that secular populists can afford to “be either pro-pope or anti-pope, depending on what suits them at the moment,” while conservative Catholics who oppose immigration are struggling to reconcile their political views with their faith. As an example, he pointed to “Comunione e Liberazione” (or CL, Communion and Liberation), Italy’s largest conservative Catholic movement.

After having sided for decades with former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s brand of right-wing populism, CL is currently torn on immigration: The movement’s new leader, Giorgio Vittadini, has embraced Pope Francis’s stances, while part of its base has remained faithful to the movement’s right-wing tradition.

The extent to which right-wing populism can gain a foothold with a religious group whose leader openly preaches against populism may all come down to what we mean by “Catholics.”

“Practicing Catholics can hardly embrace xenophobia, and Catholics in name only don’t care about religious issues at all,” said Jacopo Tondelli, a political analyst who edits the popular blog Stati Generali. “In between, there’s a large group of people who feel strongly about their Catholic identity but don’t feel obliged to listen to everything that the pope says, especially if it doesn’t suit them. You know, people who fight to keep the crucifix in every classroom, but don’t attend Mass.” It’s among these Catholics that anti-immigrant sentiment can spread, Tondelli argues.

Although it may seem paradoxical for Catholics to oppose immigration even as their pope embraces it, those who run in conservative Catholic circles claim this is only an apparent contradiction. Their publications reflect this view: Tempi, for instance, has both campaigned against open borders and praised Pope Francis.

What’s happening, Tempi’s chief editor Alessandro Giuli told me, is that politically conservative Catholics are separating abstract values from what they believe is actually feasible: “When he preaches about welcoming migrants, the pope is doing his job. He is spreading the Catholic doctrine, which implies the indiscriminate acceptance [of foreigners].”

Even for practicing Catholics, however, real-world policies are a different matter: “Policies are based on what is sustainable, not just on ideals, and many Catholics are realizing that with fewer jobs around, it’s harder to integrate new immigrants,” Giuli said.

Both in Italy and in the U.S., Trump’s popularity among conservative Catholics, a group whose values he does not seem to share, isn’t so bizarre if one thinks of the precedents. In Italy, some Catholics supported Berlusconi for decades despite his sex scandals, because of his conservative-oriented family policies. Similarly, in the U.S., Trump, a twice-divorced unapologetic womanizer, was able to win the evangelical vote partly because of his efforts to curb access to abortion and family planning. Although some saw evangelicals’ support for Trump as being in contradiction with their stated religious values, evangelicals themselves seemed willing to turn a blind eye to his poor personal record on “family values” out of a pragmatic regard for the policies he’d enact as president. As one religious Trump supporter famously said on CNN, “God could use Trump like he used harlots in the Bible.”

Most importantly, as Sarah Posner has noted in the New Republic, right-wing American Christians view Trump as a protector of their traditional way of life. Similarly, Italian Catholic populists are nostalgic for a time when Europe had a strong Christian identity that served as an unquestioned moral compass—a time when borders were clear and indisputable, when women used to be women and men used to be men. They see Trump as a defender of a cherished order, which they believe is threatened by immigration and changing gender roles.

Given these premises, it is perhaps not so surprising that they see Trump as a torchbearer for their cause—and may see themselves reflected more in the American president than in their own pope.