Simmering tensions between the Church and the Italian Right over immigration spilled out over the weekend after the Italian bishops joined UN criticism of the way international ships recently left 73 Africans on a raft to die of dehydration, ignoring their pleas for help. Only five survived.
The bishops connected that tragedy to abhorrent new Italian legislation passed by the right-wing Berlusconi government and its Northern League partner which makes unofficial immigration a criminal, rather than an administrative, offence. Why rescue criminals from the sea?
Rocco Buttiglione, president of the opposition Christian Democrat Union (UDC), and probably Europe's leading Catholic politician, has strongly criticized the new law, which, he says, "threatens people who would like to integrate into society and who are not criminals, pushing them into the clutches of the very criminals we are trying to combat." Archbishop Agostino Marchetto describes it as an "original sin in the legislation on migration".
Avvenire, the mass-circulation Italian daily owned by the Italian bishops, editorialised on Friday: "No policy of controlling immigration can justify the international community abandoning a boatload of shipwrecked immigrants to their deaths". That was echoed by Archbishop Antonio Maria Veglio, president of the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Itinerant People. "Our so-called civilized societies have in reality developed an attitude of rejection of foreigners, resulting not only from ignorance but selfishness and refusal to share what one has with others," he told Vatican Radio. "Every migrant is a human person, who as such possesses fundamental and inalienable rights which must be respected by everyone and in every circumstance," he added, quoting Caritas in Veritate.
"Why doesn't the Vatican open its doors to them?" sneered Umberto Bossi, leader of the xenophobic (and powerful) Northern League over the weekend. The architect of the new immigration law passed on 8 August, Roberto Maroni, also belongs to the Northern League; Bossi was saying what the Government would have liked to.
This clash is almost an exact repeat of the row over draconian immigration laws this time last year between another mass-circulation Italian Catholic publication, Famiglia Cristiana, and the Berlusconi government, which I blogged on here.
Famiglia Cristiana last August compared the fingerprinting of Roma children in Italian Gypsy camps to the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis before and during the Second World War. Avvenire on Friday said the shunning of the migrants at sea was akin to ignoring the deportation of Jews during the second world war. "Then it was terror and totalitarianism which shut their eyes," it wrote. "Today it is quiet indifference, if not irritated distaste."
For anyone familiar with the scapegoat theories of Rene Girard, the analogy between Jews in pre-1940s Europe and undocumented migrants in today's Europe is compelling. And for those who know how Italy's politics have often been the trend-setters for the rest of Europe, the re-emergence of scapegoating as a tool of unification is a sinister development. Scapegoating -- the singling out of a minority, and blaming them for the ills of the moment -- is a powerful tool for uniting societies. A common tactic is to characterize an entire group of individuals according to the unethical or immoral conduct of a small number of individuals belonging to that group.
The Berlusconi government, under pressure from its Northern League partner, does this all the time, accusing undocumented migrants of being murderers and drug-traffickers, and trying to make illegal immigration synonymous with crime -- exploiting links in the popular imagination.
There are now even "citizen patrols" -- vigilantes -- to crack down on migrants, which the Government is using to calm people's fears on crime.
The Church sees where this is going, and is speaking out. They've seen this before, and they know where it can go. This is a wakening monster, and the Church will be judged in future generations by how energetically it sought to slay it.