Italy Sees Rise of Left-Wing Catholic Party

News: World News
by Juliana Freitag  •  •  June 2, 2022   

'Demos': Fool's gold for the faithful

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A new left-wing party has recently established itself as the main Catholic alternative in the Italian political scene. 

Abp. Vincenzo Paglia

Demos (short for "Democracy of Solidarity") is a party founded by members of the Community of Sant'Egidio, a progressive lay Catholic association cofounded by Abp. Vincenzo Paglia that is dedicated to social service and known to have heavily influenced Pope Francis' pro-migrant policies.

Demos' first national assembly, which took place in mid-May, marked the party's transition "from a provisional to a more structured stage," settling the Community of Sant'Egidio as an important political agent in Italy.

Response to Salvini

Demos was created in 2018 as an association, reportedly as a response to the popularity of populist leader Matteo Salvini, known for his vigorous stance against illegal immigration.

As a minister of the interior, Salvini managed to keep Italy's ports closed to NGO rescue boats, temporarily tackling the migrant crisis in 2018 and 2019, and consequently causing a decrease in the number of deaths in the Mediterranean Sea.

In Italy, the majority of practicing Catholics voted for 'League.'

In the 2018 general election, official data showed that an overwhelming majority of practicing Catholics voted for "League," the party led by Matteo Salvini. As reported by Il Fatto Quotidiano: 

In Italy, the majority of practicing Catholics voted for League. Note: not the majority of overall Catholics, namely those who declare to be part of the Roman Church. ... But the majority of practicing Catholics, an adjective that mustn't be omitted — those who every Sunday, at least, fill the pews of Italian churches.

Community of Sant'Egidio Ties to the Italian Democratic Party 

Demos' leadership is a mix of members of the Italian Democratic Party ("Partito Democratico" or "PD") and the Community of Sant'Egidio. The party was formed with the "blessing" of Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Community of Sant'Egidio, and Paolo Gentiloni, former Italian prime minister and once-president of the Italian Democratic Party. Demos' first national assembly was opened by PD's Roberto Gualtieri, mayor of Rome, and counted with the participation of Enrico Letta, PD's national secretary. Catholic professor and author Stefano Fontana characterized Demos as an embodiment of "progressive Catholicism in favor of PD."

Andrea Riccardi and Roberto Gualtieri

The ties of Demos to the Community of Sant'Egidio go beyond the support of the community's founder Andrea Riccardi (currently a minister without portfolio for international cooperation and integration). The party's national secretary is Paolo Ciani, who's been in the Community of Sant'Egidio since he was 14. An expert in "intercultural dialogue," he has been dealing with immigration matters inside the community for decades, and he's also served as secretary of the Diocesan Council of Lay Aggregations and Confraternities for the diocese of Rome.

Ciani was elected as a regional councilor for the region of Lazio in 2018, Demos' first major victor; and he was also considered as a candidate for the center-left coalition in the dispute for mayor of Rome in 2021. During his speech in the party's assembly, Ciani explained how Demos is ready to contribute to Italian politics: "We have begun our participation in politics in local administrative elections, electing first city and regional councilors, and today we transition to a representative democracy with our chromosomes, which are the fight against inequality and closeness to the most fragile. This is how we could help the entire country."

Matteo Renzi and Paolo Gentiloni

Demos' national president is Mario Giro, currently responsible for foreign relations in the Community of Sant'Egidio. He also acted as vice minister of foreign affairs under the governments of Matteo Renzi and Paolo Gentiloni (both from the Italian Democratic Party). Giro has been in the Community of Sant'Egidio since 1975. He has been involved in several initiatives for the negotiation of peace, one of the community's strongest attributes. Mario Giro has negotiated peace in Algeria, Kosovo, Liberia and Ivory Coast, among others.

Demos has managed to elect politicians in the European Parliament, a few mayors in Italy and several city and regional councilors around the country. Its most famous member of the European Parliament is Pietro Bartolo, a doctor famous for being in charge of medical checks for refugees who disembarked in the Italian port of Lampedusa, one of the main arrival points of migrants in Europe.

Leftist Catholics 

Defining itself as "center-left," Demos' manifesto claims that its "roots go deep in democratic and progressive Catholicism, and also in a lay culture that's civic, solidary and anti-fascist." According to its official website: 

[Demos'] proposition is communal, and it opposes all disintegrating phenomena of our society. We need to make an effort together towards a communal pact for the future, in order to awaken the passion for the common good. ... We want a country capable of valuing its excellences, actively involved in the protection of the environment and of natural resources, of culture and of its citizens around the world.

Matteo Salvini

Italian daily Il Messagero once defined Demos as the "moderate, Catholic alternative" to "welfarism culture," stating that the presence of the Community of Sant'Egidio presented the party as the answer to the "xenophobic, anti-European politics" of our times. Leftist newspaper La Repubblica praised Demos in 2018 as "the small part of Italy which still resists" for representing that part of the Italian Catholic electorate that doesn't identify with Matteo Salvini's views. Catholic movements that have publicly supported Demos include Azione Cattolica's trade union, ACLI (Association of Italian Christian workers), the Exodus Community (a net of therapeutic communities for the recovery of addicts) and the Pope John XXIII Community (an association involved with the care of persons in social hardship).

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Professor Stefano Fontana, in an editorial in The Daily Compass, weighed on Demos' recent step-up in politics:

The fact that Demos has entered the field, its inspirations and its clear political placement, force us to ask ourselves: Do Italian Catholic politicians know how to do anything other than support the Democratic Party? ... There are no Catholics in Parliament besides those of the Democratic Party. In the last six years, our Parliament has promulgated several laws against the family and the dignity of those who are helpless, all of them voted by the Catholics of PD or those gravitating around them. ... If we don't believe that the Catholic faith is able to generate civilization, if we understand it simply as auxiliary to the secular political culture ... we'll always end up with simple positions of support to whoever manages to show some convergence with the Catholic faith in a few human values. It's a humanistic trap.

Leading Papabile From the Community of Sant'Egidio

Cdl. Matteo Zuppi

One of Community of Sant'Egidio's most illustrious members is Cdl. Matteo Zuppi, archbishop of Bologna, known in Italy as "the Italian Bergoglio." Cardinal Zuppi has often expressed his support for the Italian Democratic Party's agenda, even writing a book that has been described by the press as an "anti-Salvini manifesto."

In 2017, Zuppi penned the preface for the Italian edition of Fr. James Martin's book Building a Bridge.

While in the Community of Sant'Egidio, Cdl. Zuppi's most notable work was his involvement with peace activism, particularly brokering peace during the Mozambique civil war. He is a leading papabile, and, as of May 2022, is also the new president of the Italian Bishops' Conference, as predicted in 2020 by Vatican insider Edward Pentin in his book The Next Pope: The Leading Cardinal Candidates.

In his profile of Cdl. Zuppi, Pentin confirms the archbishop of Bologna's ties to the political Left and describes some of Sant'Egidio's problems:

When Vincenzo Paglia was the community's ecclesiastical assistant, reports of serious moral, liturgical and sacramental problems within the community began to emerge. ... In 2011, Cdl. Francis George of Chicago warned the Vatican about the community's willingness to compromise on the nonnegotiable values of life and marriage. One year later, the Community of Sant'Egidio came under fire from Cdl. Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, who accused the community of taking a submissive stance toward communist China –– a position that does not appear to have changed. Former cardinal Theodore McCarrick also had a long relationship with the Community of Sant'Egidio and was a featured speaker at their conferences, particularly from 2008 to 2010. Criticism has also been levelled against the community for their involvement in politics in Italy and abroad, and they have entertained controversial figures at their "Spirit of Assisi" meetings, including speakers such as population-control advocate Jeffrey Sachs.

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