ROME – Journalists and pundits alike are fond of contemplating how the moderate, socially engaged emphasis of Pope Francis might translate into secular politics. As it happens, one answer is already out there, and his name is Matteo Renzi.
The Italian premier took over his center-left Democratic party nine months after Pope Francis took over the Catholic Church, and despite obvious contrasts between the two men in both age and style, Renzi appears to want to position himself as Francis’ political analogue – a younger, hipper version of the maverick reformer, clad in a leather jacket rather than a cassock.
Francis still enjoys wide popularity, and at the moment Renzi is riding fairly high himself. He emerged as the big winner in last weekend’s elections for the European parliament when his party captured more than 40 percent of the vote, bucking a trend elsewhere toward right-wing populists. Italy is set to take over the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, and the London Guardian two days ago speculated that Renzi may be the man to “save Europe’s soul.”
Certainly the Catholic credentials of the youngest prime minister in Italian history are not in any doubt.
He’s a regular Mass-goer, he was active in a Catholic branch of the Scouts, one of his closest advisors coauthored a 2007 book with an Opus Dei priest defending the Church from the “Da Vinci Code”, and Renzi counts bishops and priests among his friends. His wife, Agnese, has a brother who is a priest and several relatives in the Neocatechumenal Way, a Catholic movement born in Spain, and she taught catechism in their Florence parish while her husband was mayor.
Yet Renzi is also a man of the left, who has occasionally taken positions that haven’t gone down well in church circles.
He’s in favor of civil unions for same-sex couples, which is one potential looming conflict with a pope who last Sunday ominously warned that “the devil wants to destroy” the family. Renzi’s government is also backing a bill to speed up divorce that has been criticized by the Italian bishops.
Despite those flashpoints, much of Renzi’s appeal is that he comes off as a progressive, but not an ideologue. In 2009, for instance, when the city of Florence awarded honorary citizenship to the father of a comatose woman who died after being removed from life support following a lengthy court battle, Renzi opposed the move, saying it would only “radicalize” the conflict over euthanasia.
Nobody would confuse Renzi with José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the former leftist Spanish premier who waged war with the Church on virtually every front, and whose name became shorthand in Catholic circles for secular hostility to the faith.
At a personal level, Renzi spurns pretense, often going around tieless and insisting on using the colloquial “tu” in conversation rather than the formal “Lei”. He called on politicians to embrace simpler lifestyles, among other things, selling off a fleet of luxury cars used to transport heads of state. Politically, he opposes the stern fiscal austerity measures associated with Germany’s Merkel government, arguing that the state has a responsibility to help workers and the poor. He also called for liberalized immigration laws, saying earlier this month that Europe must not “close in fences and lose sight of the fundamental value of openness in the world.”
Any of that sound familiar?
On Tuesday, veteran political commentator Ernesto Galli della Loggia asserted that Renzi has the “Catholicism of a Boy Scout,” is rooted more in sentiment than any grand intellectual theory, focused on concrete challenges, “efficient and compassionate,” “open to the ideas of others,” and “kind and simple.”
“Today, in the epoch of Francis,” Galli della Loggia wrote, “this may be the only kind of Catholicism capable of being translated into politics” and getting anything done.
Unsurprisingly, Renzi is an unabashed Francis fan. He’s told Famiglia Cristianamagazine that “he believes a great deal” in the pope’s reforms, and admires him “for putting at the center of everything the relationship of a pastor with his people.”
It’s too early to know if Renzi will succeed, and the short shelf life of other recent Italian governments suggests caution. Moreover, he’s not the only political translation of Pope Francis one can imagine. Perhaps a center-right figure, closer to traditional Catholic views on the “life issues” but equally committed to social justice, might actually be closer to the mark.
Nonetheless, Galli della Loggia may be on to something. Whether or not Renzi is the right man, he seems to have come along at the right time for his center-left brand of Catholicism to draw energy, rather than skepticism, from Rome’s other center of power across the Tiber River.
John L. Allen Jr. is a Globe associate editor, covering global Catholicism. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JohnLAllenJr and on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/JohnLAllenJr.