ROME (ChurchMilitant.com) - In Italy, suspicion is growing that Pope Francis is trying to "neutralize" Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, preventing him from strengthening his hold on power.
Earlier this week, various media outlets speculated that Vatican officials are engineering a "white coup" aimed at blocking Salvini's Lega party from becoming the country's lone governing faction.
The speculation stems from Salvini's call for snap elections earlier this month and his announcement that he intends to decouple Lega from the Five Star Movement, an anti-establishment coalition partner whose popularity among voters is waning.
Buoyed by the deputy prime minister's resolute opposition to mass Muslim migration, Lega has been surging in the polls in recent months, and a new election could propel it across the 40% threshold to become Italy's lone governing party.
Currently, the party stands at 38% — a commanding lead over its rivals, but still short of the coveted 40% mark.
The theory being floated in the Italian press is that Francis has charged Vatican Secretary of State Cdl. Pietro Parolin with encouraging rival parties to challenge Salvini by uniting to form a new coalition government.
Italian media are also suggesting that Parolin, working through the Vatican diplomatic corps, is cobbling together a deal with Germany and France to increase funding to Italy to help manage the hundreds of thousands of migrants that have streamed into the country in recent years. Reportedly, the deal is conditional on Salvini not taking power in the next elections.
"Is any of this true? Is the Vatican really running an anti-Salvini campaign?" John Allen Jr. of Crux asked on Monday. "Were you to ask that question of an official Vatican spokesperson, the answer almost certainly would be 'definitely not.'"
"Yet in the virtual reality universe of the early 21st century, it doesn't matter whether the speculation is really correct," Allen continued. "What matters is that people believe it, which means that many Italians will assume a vote for Salvini is a vote against the pope, or that standing with the pope means standing against Salvini."
In fact, many Salvini supporters suggest that Pope Francis and his like-minded allies among the Italian hierarchy have — for some time — been actively campaigning against the deputy prime minister and his anti-mass migration platform.
In an Aug. 9 interview with La Stampa, the pontiff slammed Salvini's "Italians first" platform, comparing his populist rhetoric to that of the Nazi regime: "I am concerned because we hear speeches that resemble those of Hitler in 1934. 'Us first. We … We …' These are frightening thoughts."
In June, Francis compared Salvini to Cain, the Old Testament figure who murdered his brother Abel.
In May, after Salvini publicly entrusted Italy to the Immaculate Heart of Mary at a rally in Milan, Cdl. Parolin chided the deputy prime minister: "I believe partisan politics divides, but God belongs to everyone. Invoking God for oneself is always very dangerous."
In March, reports in the Italian press indicated that Pope Francis refuses to meet with Salvini, owing to his stance on migration.
In July 2018, Famiglia Cristiana, Italy's largest Catholic publication, ran a cover story comparing Salvini to Satan.
That same month, during a homily inside the crypt of St. Peter's Basilica, Italian priest Fr. Alex Zanotelli declared the deputy prime minister to be "the Antichrist."