ROME — A coalition of right-wing nationalist groups from six countries met here Feb. 4 for a daylong conference that mixed clarion calls against the alleged “hegemonic progressivism” of the world’s multilateral institutions with occasional warnings about Pope Francis’ vision for the Catholic Church.
Among the speakers were the head of Italy’s most conservative political party, the well-known niece of the leader of France’s, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose anti-democratic reforms have led to him being called Europe’s most autocratic ruler.
In the ornate marbled and frescoed ballroom of the Grand Hotel Plaza, located about a half-hour walk east of the Vatican in Rome’s historic center, presenters focused most heavily on highlighting supposed parallels between today’s progressive movements and communist regimes of old.
Opening the event, U.S. author Rod Dreher warned that survivors of Europe’s former communist regimes were “trying to sound the alarm” about the rise of a “pink police state.”
Dreher, an Orthodox Christian who gained wide public notice for his 2017 book The Benedict Option, which proposed that Christians should widely withdraw from wider society, laced his talk with a number of catchphrases.
Social justice, he said, is “a utopian political cult.” An atmosphere of political correctness in the U.S., he added, makes it appear as if “the entire country is becoming a university campus.”
Another speaker was Roberto de Mattei, an Italian historian and traditionalist Catholic known for his frequent criticisms of Francis, who said the pontiff had “renounced being a spiritual leader” in order to focus more on political and social issues, such as global climate change.
“Pope Francis has become the political leader of the international left,” said de Mattei, making reference to Francis’ 2015 encyclical, “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home.”
The Feb. 4 conference carried the title “God, Honor, Country: President Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and the Freedom of Nations.” It was organized by National Conservatism, a project of the DC-based Edmund Burke Foundation, founded in 2019.
Among other sponsors: the U.K.’s Bow Group, the Netherlands’ Center for European Renewal, Hungary’s Danube Institute, Israel’s Herzl Institute, the United States’ International Reagan Thatcher Society, and Italy’s Nazione Futura.
Several prominent Catholic theologians criticized the event’s invocation of the name of the deceased Polish pope.
Massimo Faggioli, a historian and theologian at Villanova University, asked on Twitter: “I wonder how much electricity can be generated with John Paul II who turns in his grave seeing this nationalist cabal gathered and usurping [his] name.”
Stephen Schneck, a longtime politics professor at the Catholic University of America, said the ideology being proposed “directly contradicts” the church’s social teachings.
“Whether promoting racial and ethnic purity, hatred of migrants, or strongman demagoguery, this is a politics that is utterly opposite what the church calls us to be as Christians in the world,” Schneck, who now leads the Franciscan Action Network, told NCR.
Event organizers had told journalists they were expecting an overflow crowd for the conference and had denied accreditation to a number of outlets, including several major wire services, citing a lack of space. The ballroom, which is described online as being able to seat 400 people, was about three-quarters full.
The smaller-than-expected attendance might have been due to last-minute changes in the event program. Matteo Salvini, the controversial leader of Italy’s anti-migrant Lega Nord party and a former deputy prime minister, announced the day beforehand that he would not be able to give a keynote address as previously planned.
Giorgia Meloni, head of the Brothers of Italy, a smaller minority party that has advocated using the Italian navy to blockade migrant arrivals, spoke to participants in a session closed to the press the evening before the main event.
Organizers had also originally said that the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, Callista Gingrich, would be attending with her husband, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. A spokesperson for the U.S. embassy told NCR that the two “never agreed” to take part in the event and had requested their names be removed from the program.
Included among the attendees was Alexander Tschugguel, a traditionalist Catholic who gained notoriety last fall when he claimed to be the person who took wooden statues from a Rome-area church during the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon region and threw them in the Tiber River.
Tschugguel said he decided to come to Rome for the event because he wants to “connect Catholics who want to stand up and fight for traditional Catholic faith.” The young activist, however, did express some reservations.: “When I saw that there would be a conference on national conservativism, I was interested — even though for me as an Austrian as soon as I hear the word nationalism it always rings big bells,” he said. “As an Austrian traditionalist, I am very much against nationalism.”
[Joshua J. McElwee) – N.C.R.
I am not surprised that U.S. author, Rod Dreher, should be headlining the recent meeting in Rome that sought to discredit Pope Francis’ moves towards bringing the Roman Catholic Church into the 21st century.
Using the emotive notion of nationalism – together with a fundamentalist understanding of the Mission of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church – Dreher seeks to inspire fellow R.C. ‘traditionalists’ with a style of rhetoric similar to that of Donald Trump’s defence of right-wing nationalism in the USA.
It is surely significant that a younger Traditional Catholic activist, Alexander Tschugguel, should indicate his hesitation to go along with Dreher’s and others’ defence of militant Nationalism when comparing the preferred governance of the Church to a nation’s tendency towards isolationism (such as prompted the rise of the Third Reich in Austria and that nationalism now being promoted in the USA by President Trump).
There can be little doubt that Pope Francis’ insistence on Mercy above Judgement has riled the conservatives of the Roman Catholic Church. However, people like Rod Dreher and others who convened in Rome recently to voice their concern at the Pope’s vision for a Church mission based on the ‘Beatitudes’ of Christ in the Scriptures – rather than the more severe attitudes of the Scribes and the Pharisees – are hardly rallying people to their cause by vilifying the Pope who most represents the reforming zeal of Vatican II, as initiated by ‘Good Pope John XXIII’ and his fellow bishops concerned to reform and renew the Church with a New Pentecost that sought to change the way in which it had become entrenched in legalism and resistance to change.
Whether or not this meeting of dissatisfied ‘traditionalists’ will actually influence the trajectory of the reforms being put in place by the successor of Peter as Bishop of Rome has yet to be seen. However, the movement of the Spirit of God will not be contained by a blatant call to either militant nationalism or the dead hand of outdated traditions that do not serve the Mission of Jesus Christ in the modern world.
P.S. I found this helpful homily on today’s 3-minute Retreat with the Jesuits:
“The Beatitudes are like a self-portrait of Jesus. Throughout the Gospels, we see how Jesus had mercy on the sick, the outcast, and those who were in need. As followers of Jesus, we are called to do the same. We don’t need to look far to discover opportunities to show mercy: lending an ear to a co-worker who needs someone to talk to, offering a ride to someone without a car, sitting with a sick neighbor so his or her spouse gets a break. The promise Jesus makes is that the one who shows mercy will be shown mercy. It’s a win-win choice.”
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand.