The Last Stand Against Populism? The Catholic Church in Italy and its Defence of Social Assistance and Migration Policies

This blog is based on an article in Social Policy and Society by Ugo Escoli, Marco Arlotti and Emmanuele Pavolini. Click here to access the article.

Churches’ positions and preferences in social policy are often described in the literature as fixed over time. We challenge this assumption. As argued in our paper, we show how the Italian Catholic Church (CC) has changed its position over time towards social assistance and migration policies. In particular, in relation to social assistance, the CC has shifted from an antagonist approach to public intervention to the support of a universal public minimum income scheme.

Taking a long-term view over the CC’s role in relation to the Italian social assistance system and migration policies, three different historical phases can be identified. The first and longest one covers around 130 years, starting with the creation of an Italian National state in 1861 to the 1980s and it was characterised by an antagonist approach to public intervention. The second phase started in the 1990s and it covered around two decades and a shift took place from an antagonist approach to the consent to the role of public social assistance. The key concept increasingly used in official CC documents became subsidiarity. The approach and the specific meaning given to subsidiarity were in this second phase a communitarian one, referring to the idea (typical of other countries where the CC played a role within a religiously pluralistic society, such as the Netherlands or Germany), the state should provide resources and then leave room to local civic society in order to provide answers to social needs. However, within this idea of communitarian solidarity there was not really a focus on citizenship and social rights.

The third phase started in 2010 with the CC taking a strong explicit position in favour of universal social assistance policies, departing from its previous positions. The CC strongly and explicitly supported the introduction of a universal measure to combat poverty. Some of its branches (starting from Caritas) and many Catholic civic society associations directly participated in the networks that promoted the introduction of a “Citizenship Income”.

The CC was also highly active in the field of migration policies. In the first phase, the topic was not an important one, because there were practically no migrants in Italy until the 1980s. In the second phase, the CC was very active directly (through Caritas) and indirectly through a vast network of catholic-inspired associations and non-profits. In this second phase, the role was mainly providing social assistance services and supporting social integration. Again, the last decade signed an even stronger CC’s political (and not only social) role in relation to migration and migratory policies. At a time of increasing aversion towards migrants, the Catholic Church has become one of the few core actors in Italian society and politics advocating explicitly for more welcoming migration policies and criticising national governments, especially the populist ones. In this respect, the CC expressed clearly a position accepting and welcoming migrants than the ones advocated by many political parties.

Overall, four factors help to explain these changes: the way institutions have worked in this policy field and therefore institutional legacies, CC material interests, how new ideas on social rights and social justice have been re-elaborated within the CC and its moral authority in politics.    

At present the CC continues to play an important role in social protection in Italy toward old needs (social assistance) and new ones concerning foreign migrants, although such role has radically changed over time. The idea of the Italian CC standing against state intervention in social assistance and only being interested in mere assistance to migrants and not their social rights seems to belong to the past. Nowadays the CC seems keener to build a more universalistic public approach in respect of these needs than simply preserving its sphere of intervention. 

About the authors

Ugo Escoli is Professor at Marche University, Italy.

Marco Arlotti is a Researcher at Politechnico Milano, Italy.

Emmanuele Pavolini is Professor at Macareta University, Italy.


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