Catholic clerics in four northern European countries have taken the unprecedented step of urging their congregations to back pro-European Union parties in continent-wide elections later this month.
The Catholic bishops from France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg have put themselves squarely in opposition to nationalist populists. Praising the principle of solidarity and collaboration among nations, they warn that the EU is under threat.
The bishops urged Europeans to vote in the May 23-26 elections for the 751-seat EU parliament in a show of support for European unity and to promote "dialogue and integration between peoples."
Analysts say this month's election is possibly the most consequential since 1979, when Europeans first began casting ballots for a European parliament. The continent's new breed of nationalist populists is eschewing pocketbook issues in campaigning and focusing on issues of national identity.
The bishops' statement added, "The EU is threatened today by various economic, political, demographic and ideological crises — but we are convinced it has tools to overcome them." The Church leaders said, "Some seek to oppose the EU and resort back to independent nations. We are certain solidarity and collaboration between nations is the most fruitful response we can offer."
Signatories to the appeal include Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, president of the Brussels-based Commission of the Bishops' Conferences of the European Community, and a dozen other prelates. Hollerich told a German Catholic news agency, "Brexit, populism and nationalism" pose a threat to Europe.?
The appeal has drawn the ire of nationalist populists who accuse Church leaders of meddling in politics. It has become the latest flashpoint in a rhetorical battle between populists and church hierarchies in several European states.
Church leaders say they felt compelled to issue the appeal because of a surge in support for anti-establishment populists.
Populist parties, especially in Italy, Poland, Hungary and France, expect to make major gains in the elections. Pollsters are predicting euroskeptic populists will capture a third of the European parliament's seats.
Pope Francis has spoken frequently against some aspects of the current surge in nationalist populism and recommenced instead a Christian populism. During an outdoor Mass last month, he told a crowd of 100,000 that "the only possible populism" is a Christian one that "listens to and serves the people without shouting, accusing, stirring up quarrels."
'At war' over migrants
The editor of L'Avvenire, the daily newspaper of the Italian Bishops Conference, has accused Matteo Salvini, the firebrand leader of Italy's far-right Lega party, of being "at war" with the Catholic Church over the treatment of migrants.
Marco Tarquinio's accusation followed a new anti-migrant law that aims to deny undocumented migrants access to shelters. The law also doubles the time undocumented migrants can be detained, and eliminates humanitarian grounds for granting asylum to migrants unless they're specifically fleeing political persecution or war.
"In Italy, the war against solidarity networks, large and small, is becoming more bitter and aggressive each day," Tarquinio wrote in the editorial, in which he condemned what he called the Italian government's "hostility" toward charitable organizations.
On Monday, a close aide to Pope Francis drew Salvini's ire by climbing through a manhole to reconnect the electricity supply to an abandoned government-owned building occupied by hundreds of homeless people, including migrants and children. Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, who distributes the Pope's charity funds, broke a police seal to re-connect the electrical circuit.
Rome's left-leaning Ia Repubblica newspaper dubbed Krajewski "The Pope's Robin Hood." The building had been without power since May 6, when the circuits were cut because of more than $300,000 in unpaid bills.
"Defending illegality is never a good sign," Salvini told reporters. "There are many Italians and even legal immigrants who pay their bills, even if with difficulty. People can do what they please, but as interior minister, I guarantee the rules."
Nationalist populists do have supporters among prelates, especially in central Europe. A former Polish secretary-general of the Commission of the Bishops' Conferences of the European Community, Msgr. Piotr Mazurkiewicz, told the Catholic News Service recently that some "anti-establishment parties" had "sensible reform ideas," and could be instrumental in encouraging EU institutions to adopt a "more conservative attitude to religion, family life and national identity."