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As Pope Francis Champions Migrants, Some Cardinals Court the Far Right

VATICAN CITY — When the far-right Italian politician Matteo Salvini rose to testify that he hoped to be a better Christian despite being a divorced and first-class “sinner,” one of the ultraconservative cardinals most critical of the pope smiled and clapped on the dais behind him.

“In my own little way, with my professional activity, I try to do my best to help the 60 million Italians with what doesn’t depend on us alone,” Mr. Salvini, Italy’s anti-migrant, nationalist interior minister, said in October at a pontifical university next to the Vatican.

But even as Cardinal Raymond Burke, the de facto leader of the conservative opposition to Pope Francis in the Roman Catholic Church, warmly applauded for Mr. Salvini, the pope himself has been less impressed with Mr. Salvini’s “professional activities.”

Those actions have included blocking ships full of desperate migrants from entering Italy and working to destabilize the European Union by flouting its rules and potentially undercutting its currency. On the day after Mr. Salvini’s thumping victory in elections for the European Parliament, Francis warned, as he had for months, that fearmongers had made people “intolerant, closed and perhaps even, without realizing it, racist.”

While the pope has emerged as a leading champion for refugees and migrants around the world, anti-immigration politicians with a populist appeal have found increasing support among once-powerful conservative Catholic figures who have been sidelined within the church by Francis.

Cardinal Burke and his fellow ultraconservative prelates are working to extend ecclesiastical cover to nationalist politicians by hailing them as champions for Western Christianity and traditional values in the face of what they suggest is a Muslim migrant invasion. In the process, the cardinals’ support has helped inoculate the populists from criticism by the pope’s allies and has facilitated their political appeal to conservative Catholic voters.

Catholic bishops in sync with Francis’ inclusive vision of the church have criticized nationalist leaders in Poland, Hungary and the United States for their hard-line views on migration, but those politicians have also enjoyed the support of a small but vocal group of conservative clerics. Perhaps nowhere is that dynamic as stark as in the pope’s own backyard.

Mr. Salvini, whose party in Italy began as secessionist and worshipful of the pagan powers of the Po River, has spent years cultivating a relationship with Cardinal Burke.

“Salvini doesn’t seek an accord with the church; he looks for an accord with those elements within the church that are favorable to him,” said Andrea Riccardi, the founder of the Sant’Egidio Community, a Catholic group close to Francis.

Francis will speak only generally about his concerns on the rise of nationalist and populist politics, and he tends to coyly avoid direct questions about Mr. Salvini in particular.

“I confess I am ignorant of this and I do not understand Italian politics,” he said on the flight back from Romania this month when asked about Mr. Salvini’s use of Catholic symbols while campaigning.

But clerics close to Francis have expressed disdain for what they consider Mr. Salvini’s exploitation of rosary beads and crucifixes, and for his prayers for electoral victory to the immaculate Mother Mary. They howl when he quotes John Paul II and Francis’ predecessor, the conservative Benedict XVI, to show that his views on Europe are in line with the church.

And they disliked the way he defended his hard-line position on migration at a rally in Milan by featuring an image of Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea, who has been isolated by Francis and has written critically of migration. (Mr. Salvini described him as “An African cardinal and thus an expert of the things we are talking about.”)

Mr. Salvini prompted more consternation in the Vatican when he celebrated his European election victory before a bookcase holding an icon of Jesus, a “Make America Great Again” hat and history books including “Himmler’s Crusade,” about an infamous Nazi exploration in Tibet.

But ostracized conservative cardinals came to Mr. Salvini’s defense.

“There are countries that want to de-Christianize Italy and Europe, while Salvini has gone back to the patron saints of the European Union, to its Christian roots,” Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller told The Corriere della Sera this month. Francis fired Cardinal Müller in 2017 as the top doctrinal watchdog in the Roman Catholic Church, removing a powerful ideological opponent.

Cardinal Willem Eijk, the archbishop of Utrecht in the Netherlands and a conservative close to Cardinal Burke, received an award from Mr. Salvini at the university event in October. In an interview, he said he hoped the church was “inspiring” to Mr. Salvini and that Mr. Salvini would, in turn, bring its teachings into the public sphere. He had no problem with Mr. Salvini’s nationalism.

“Well, I sat next to him,” he said with a smile, “and I don’t find him a very scary person.”

Soon after Francis’ election in 2013, the pope denounced the “globalization of indifference” during his watermark visit to the Mediterranean migrant hub of Lampedusa. Mr. Salvini wrote at the time that the pope should be concerned with the “globalization of clandestine” immigration.

In September 2016, Mr. Salvini walked around the Northern League’s annual festival and spotted what he exclaimed was “this incredible T-shirt!” It featured a bewildered Pope Francis, his hands slapped on his cheeks like the distressed child in the “Home Alone” poster, above the words “My Pope Is Benedict.”

“I like everybody, but the pope is Benedict,” Mr. Salvini said. Pointing at the supporters around him, he added, “Pope Benedict had very clear ideas on Islam and people living together. I don’t like those who invite the imams in church.”

By then, Mr. Salvini was already years into cultivating Cardinal Burke. In February 2017, the Italian news media reported that Mr. Salvini had met for more that an hour with the cardinal in the prelate’s apartment just outside the Vatican walls.

Cardinal Burke said the next month at a church in Virginia that he had had a meeting with “a very prominent Italian politician and a very good man,” whom he had known “ pastorally for a number of years.”

He added: “This politician said to me at one point — he suffers; he is divorced from his wife, and he said to me at one point: ‘Your eminence, I am a sinner and I need you to tell me what is my sin and not to tell me that everything I’m doing is just fine. Because it isn’t.’ ”

While he privately wooed the Vatican conservatives, Mr. Salvini delighted his base by criticizing Francis, whom the hard right ridiculed as a globalist liberal wolf in shepherd’s clothing. But Mr. Salvini also denied that he was doing any such thing, and even suggested that he and Francis had a shared vision.

After the event in October, when asked if he had more in common with Cardinal Burke, given Pope Francis’ strong rejection of nationalism, Mr. Salvini said, “On immigration, Pope Francis says there is the need to respect limits and rules — exactly my principle.”

In the meantime, Cardinal Burke kept vouching for Mr. Salvini. Asked at a Rome event in May about an assertion by the pope’s almoner that anti-Muslim politicians should be refused a papal blessing, Cardinal Burke said, “To resist large-scale Muslim immigration, in my judgment, is to be responsible.”

He added, “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see what’s happened” in Europe and the United States, and characterized Muslim immigrants as belonging to a faith that sought to conquer the world.

The next day, Mr. Salvini headlined a rally of European populists in Milan. He held up a rosary, said he trusted Italy, and his victory, to the “immaculate heart of Maria,” and rebutted Francis’ assertion that the Mediterranean Sea was being transformed “into a cemetery.”

“I say it also to Pope Francis,” he said to boos at the mention of the pope’s name, “the government is eliminating the dead in the Mediterranean with pride and a Christian spirit.

“We are saving lives. Say it with pride tomorrow going to Mass to the few who unfortunately preach politics from the pulpit.”

Source: NYT > World

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