Contentious Neocatholics going political: the Italian perspective

A pro-life billboard on the way to Venegono. The graffitto reads "C.L. [i.e. Communion & Liberation] = Mafia."

Organized in Verona in March 2019, the XIII World Congress of Families (WCF) marks the endpoint of a cycle of mobilization that began, in Italy, between 2012 and 2013. This cycle first started in the ranks of the dissident movement for life gathered around the March for Life (Italian version); it further developed with the establishment of a new association, La Manif Pour Tous Italia (later to become Generazione Famiglia), and eventually turned out to be decisive for the planning of the ‘anti-gender’ mobilization.

The last of a series of conferences on life, family or 'gender ideology' held in Verona, the XIII WCF is supported by a city (co-organizer of the event) where it could find the official endorsement of the local, the provincial and the regional government, alongside that of the vice-president of the Council and Minister of the Interior, Matteo Salvini, and the Minister for Family and Disability, Lorenzo Fontana, all representatives of the League party.

A new Catholic political entrepreneurship 

What is interesting to note, however, is that both the mainstream pro-life movements closest to the Church (such as the Movement for Life) and the more marginal ones (such as the European Movement for the Defence of Life and Human Dignity, MEVD, or Family Tomorrow, promoters of the March for Life) are absent from the Italian organization of the WCF. In fact, both are 'too' Catholic to carry on a 'secular' battle against the 'anthropological revolution' generated by the spread of ‘the-theory-of-gender' or 'gender ideology'. The last years of the anti-gender mobilization, organized around the two central moments of the Family Day demonstrations of 2015 and 2016 against the civil unions, the law on homophobia and transphobia, and the gender education bill, were led by the Committee for the Defence of Our Children (CDNF), whose foundation is the fruit of the work of a new entrepreneurial group of Italian Catholic activism.

Under the leadership of Massimo Gandolfini, the Committee has in fact brought together the main demands, groups and associations of what we could define as an contentious extra-ecclesiastical and extra-Catholic Catholicism, i.e. an activism based on the rejection of political compromise (contentious), on the autonomy from the ecclesiastical framework (extra-ecclesiastical) and on a secularized mobilization discourse (extra-Catholic), which uses (in a distorted way) the conceptual tools of scientific knowledge. The Italian cartel promoting the WCF is therefore not representative of Italian Catholics or of Italian Catholic associations, and even less of the Church, but is rather an expression of a new Catholic movement characterized by a dual extra-ecclesiastical and extra-Catholic dimension.

What the scientific literature and the media call the 'anti-gender movement' is actually the position that certain entrepreneurs in this new Catholic cause (pro-life, anti-gender and pro-family) have assumed with respect to the Church, with respect to pre-existing Catholic dissenting movements and with respect to politics. In other words, it is a position that is placed at the intersection of three fields – religious, militant and political – from which visions, ideas, projects, proposals, protests, demonstrations and mobilizations on the subject of gender, sexuality, life and family emerge.

The political uses of religion

The relationship between religion and politics tends to be studied from the point of view of the political instrumentalization of religion. That is to say, especially in recent years, the appropriation of religion by so-called populist forces that use and abuse it as a useful tool to collect votes and steer categories of the electorate, turning religion into a political tool.

The question that remains unresolved, however, does not concern the modalities through which religion is appropriated, but rather those that make religion (politically) available. In religious spaces, in the militant field and in the political arena, how is religion instrumented so that it can become a politically useful instrument? In order to answer this question, it is necessary to switch the perspective from the instrumentalization to the political instrumentation of religion, that is, to focus the attention on the dynamics and the operations carried out by the new Catholic political entrepreneurship – gathered around the activist brand of the Family Day – currently hegemonic, which makes religion politically available, allowing for its political use.

The dynamic of political instrumentation of religion was particularly visible at the XIII WCF in Verona, during Matteo Salvini's speech. On the stage of the WCF, the leader of the League could easily appropriate the religious theme, because at a lower level the new Catholic movement metabolized it by secularizing it, decatholicizing it and rewriting it in an 'anthropological' version, that is, translating it into a political language.

Salvini declares:

“I thank you because you are that vanguard, that nucleus, that breach that keeps alive the flame of what is 99.9% of the community that the good Lord both for believers and for non-believers has sent to this earth. And therefore as a minister, as a man, as a father [...] I fight and will fight so that Italy, so that Europe may return to place the woman, the man, the child at the center, and so that there may be a future in this continent [...]”.

And he closes triumphantly:

“Count on me to defend the right to life, the right to freedom of choice, freedom of treatment, freedom of education... I count on you, long live the family, long live mothers, fathers and children, and hands off the children. Thank you. Long live Verona, good luck and good life... and thank the good Lord”.

Salvini's intervention ends with a political performance of him wearing a La Manif Pour Tous t-shirt which represents the transition of the new Catholic entrepreneurial project from the movement to politics. The words 'family', 'mother', 'father', 'community', 'Italy', 'life', 'good Lord' echo the semantics of the pro-life, anti-gender and pro-family cause and allow Salvini to address a specific Catholic world, the one that identifies not much in mainstream Catholicism, but rather in an extra-ecclesiastic and extra-Catholic Catholicism, an anthropological Catholicism, which I would call a Neocatholic Catholicism.

A counter-democratic paradigm

Through the work of political instrumentation of religion, the Neocatholic movements propose a change of paradigm from a democratic one, based on rights, to an extra-democratic one: anchored in the institutional structures of democracy, but based on the 'natural' values of the tradition that challenge the 'anti-natural' values of civil rights. A paradigm that for this reason is also counter-democratic, concurrent and dissident with respect to the democracy paradigm of civil and equal rights. 

The Neocatholic project is certainly that of a 'counter-revolution'1, but it is certainly not that of a return to the origins, a restoration or a simple Catholic reaction. The so-called backlash2, which can be traced back to a precise political moment, roughly between the late 1990s and early 2000s, and then again at the beginning of 2010, is one of the logics upon which the recent emergence of a new wave of Catholic activism lies, but not the only one. In order to understand the political evolution of anti-gender movements, i.e. the specific modalities of participation in public debate and conflict, and the capacity to implement a party-movement exchange, it is necessary to observe their productive, proactive and programmatic dimension.

The Neocatholic movement is in fact the instrument that a new entrepreneurial class of Catholic activism has strategically designed, in Italy, to face the challenge posed by the democratic paradigm to an ex-politicized and de-politicized religion. The politics of Neocatholic movements claims an ability to act within democracy, to challenge democracy itself and thus establish a new counter-democratic, perhaps even anti-democratic, paradigm.

English translation from Italian by Francesco Barilà Ciocca.

 1 Yann Raison du Cleuziou, Une contre-révolution catholique. Aux origines de la Manif pour tous, Paris, Le Seuil, 2019. 

 2 David Paternotte, Backlash: A Misleading Narrative, Engenderings, 2020.