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Italy In Decline

Families declining, faith expiring, economic growth paralyzed -- and now Italy's most popular politician is fighting with the Pope

You guys know how much I love Italy and Italians, so you can imagine how painful it was to read this. Gerard Baker of the Wall Street Journal writes from his summer in Tuscany about Italy as the site of a civilizational tragedy. It’s behind the paywall, but I can quote some of it to you (I was able to read it all accessing it through Twitter.) Last week’s collapse of the Italian government prompted some extremely melancholy thoughts from Baker. But first, he expresses his love of and admiration for Italy:

You can make a solid case that the small swath of hilly terrain between Florence and Rome has had more impact on our civilization than any other territory anywhere on Earth.

He’s talking about Roman law and literature, the Latin language, the Italian Renaissance, and Catholicism. More:

But what of it all now? The condition of modern Italy evinces the biblical lamentation for another lost civilization: Quomodo sedet sola civitas. How lonely the city stands.

You can see here a metaphor for the contemporary condition of the West. In Rome this week, they have just about finished putting together Italy’s 62nd (I think) government in 75 years. … Italy has had no real economic growth for almost 20 years. Its accumulated public debt is almost 1 1/2 times the value of its GDP. Just about all the ambitious Italians I meet want their children to be educated in the US or UK.

The country was among the first in the West to enter a demographic death spiral. The Italian birthrate is below replacement. The single-child family is almost standard, so millions of Italians have no siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins. The extended family, that natural community of love and support, is going extinct.

The traditional centerpieces of life — family, workplace, community — have been eroded to the bone. Religious observance has collapsed. In the beautiful Tuscan churches I visited, there were probably more priceless works of Renaissance art than there were worshipers. A Caravaggio for every communicant.

Baker says that Matteo Salvini, who brought the government down last week, and who now appears to have been outfoxed, won’t likely stay out of government for long. That’s because his arguments for stronger borders, lower taxes, and less government appeal to people in this  “decaying economic and social landscape.” More:

We tend to look at modern Italy and see an outlier, an extraordinary place whose past will far outlive its future. But maybe we should see it not as an exception but as a kind of pioneer of Western decline.

Meanwhile, journalist Mattia Ferraresi has a really good piece in Foreign Policy magazine, on what he calls “Italy’s Great Schism” — the conflict between Pope Francis and Matteo Salvini. He begins by referring to a sharp political exchange in Parliament among leading politicians, all of whom appealed to the Gospel:

The display of religious rhetoric in a political setting was unusual even for Italy, a country deeply shaped by the Roman Catholic faith that in the postwar era was ruled for almost five decades by Christian Democracy, a big-tent party that included different Catholic sensibilities and was closely entwined with the Vatican hierarchy. Salvini’s quasi-papal attitude in the name of an ethnonationalist interpretation of the faith, in stark contrast with Pope Francis’s vision, has been under scrutiny for months, but the government crisis prompted a full-on holy war.

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.

It proudly sports a cosmopolitan identity and talks about diversity and inclusion. It firmly opposes leaders like Salvini and U.S. President Donald Trump, whose ideology is one “that always ends badly—it leads to war,” as Pope Francis said in a recent interview with the daily La Stampa, adding that he’s concerned “because we hear speeches that resemble those of Hitler in 1934.” The poster child of this Catholic Church is Greta Thunberg, the Swedish environmental activist whose initiatives have been blessed by the pope.

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. It is skeptical of a bureaucratic, highly secularized EU and believes that Christianity thrives in a world organized around nation-states as opposed to supranational organizations. This faction fears that the current Vatican leadership may eventually turn the church into a progressive NGO.

In this highly polarized ecosystem, both sides claim to represent the true faith. And both sides are struggling to find a political home.

In the not too distant past, there was an unofficial partnership between the Church hierarchy and center-right governments. The current Italian political scene has destroyed that. The Church, Ferraresi writes, is being drawn into the populist vs. progressive struggle. More:

[Francis adviser and Jesuit priest Antonio] Spadaro also mentioned Bannon’s influence, citing his ties with Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, an American conservative prelate who was sidelined by Francis. In the last few years, several clergymen who didn’t fall in line with Francis have been accused of being in league with a vast, quasi-conspiratorial network of forces that works side by side with right-wing populists to weaken the pope. The United States is often cited as the epicenter of this alliance.

Not surprisingly, Bannon disagrees. He blames Pope Francis for politicizing Christianity. “Salvini is not politicizing religion, he’s just representing the voice of the working-class Catholics in Italy,” said Bannon, who has been involved with populist movements throughout Europe. “On the contrary, Pope Francis and the radical cadre of Jesuits around him are the ones who politicized religion, originally instigating a campaign against Trump over immigration that now is erupting on a global scale,” he told FP.

Read it all. I find this stuff incredibly interesting. It sounds pretty familiar to Americans, where churchgoing is a pretty good indication of how one votes politically, but Italians aren’t used to this. Here’s a link to a short Bloomberg video capturing the parliamentary exchange in which a rival politician chastised Salvini for bringing religion to politics, and Salvini responded by kissing his rosary — exquisite trolling!

That’s all from me for the day. I’m about to board a plane for Munich. I’ll be speaking at a Catholic parish in Lustenau, in far western Austria, on Monday night (info here — you’re invited). I’ll be speaking at a Catholic parish in Nitra, Slovakia, on the evening of September 4, then in Bratislava on September 5. (I’ll post details on the blog when I have them.) Off to Budapest the next morning, where I’ll be speaking at an invitation-only conference, and then spending a few days interviewing Hungarians for my next book.

I’ll post as often as I can. Please be patient about how slow I’ll be to approve comments. Gotta say I’m really looking forward to meeting Austrians — I’ve never been to that country — and to seeing old friends in Slovakia and Hungary.

UPDATE: Hello from the Admirals Club at DFW. What a miserable day! We boarded the plane about an hour late, sat at the gate for an hour waiting for the rain to pass, went to the tarmac, got ready to take off … and then had to return to the gate for maintenance. We sat there for two hours before American finally said the plane was being taken out of service. They unloaded all of us. Now they’re trying to find a new plane and a new flight crew. They say we’re supposed to leave for Munich just after 10. I have to go to the new gate now, but I dunno, man, I dunno.

Here’s what I know. I’ve been in DFW Airport for coming up on 12 hours. By the time my back-pain-having butt lands in Bavaria, I’m going to need me a big glass of cold German beer!



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