In Sunday’s New York Times, the paper’s Vatican-beat reporter Jason Horowitz brought his usual caffeinated anti-conservative labeling habit to a story sketching out a clash over migrants in Italy pitting “far-right...ultra-conservative” Catholics like Cardinal Raymond Burke against the liberal views of Pope Francis: “As the Pope Champions Migrants, Some Cardinals Court the Far Right.” Count all the “ultraconservative” labels (four in all), then wonder if the paper calls anyone “ultraliberal.” (Hint: “ultraconservative” shows up a lot more often.)
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.
Such loaded labeling is an ideological tic for Horowitz, especially when it comes to the matter of immigration.
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.”
Horowitz tilted the tone in other ways; these are not just mere “migrants,” but every one of them are “desperate migrants.” Horowitz is clearly a fan of the Pope’s liberal stance on immigration and refugees.
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.
Horowitz changed it up a bit, citing the “far right” and their “hard-line” views on migration, while sparing those clerics with liberal views on refugees with the "liberal" label.
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.
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.”)
The hostile label-stamping was relentless.
Pope Francis with migrants in Vatican City in 2018. Even as Francis has emerged as a leading champion for refugees, anti-immigration politicians have found increasing support among once-powerful conservative Catholic figures.
But ostracized conservative cardinals came to Mr. Salvini’s defense.
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.