On paper, Italy’s deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, is a dubious poster child for Catholicism. Mr. Salvini is divorced. He has two children by two women and is in a relationship with a third. But that hasn’t stopped him from reinventing himself as Italy’s Catholic-in-chief. “I am the last of the good Christians,” Mr. Salvini, 46, said recently, during an appearance on the popular TV show “Non è l’Arena.” “I defend our history and the existence of Catholic schools,” he said during the same appearance. “If I believe in God,” he asked rhetorically, “and if I even ask for Mary’s protection, does that bother anybody?”
It bothers the Pope, for one.
Mr. Salvini, who also serves as interior minister, is the leader of the League, a former secessionist movement that he has rebranded as a nationalist force by, among other tactics, stoking anti-immigration fears. His rallying cry, “Italians first,” matches Donald Trump’s “America first.” Mr. Salvini is also the kingmaker of the unorthodox government coalition the League formed last year with the anti-corruption Five Star Movement, making Italy a unique experiment in populism.
The League’s embrace of Christianity is a recent addition, however. In the years following its founding in the 1990s, the party was often in tension with the Vatican hierarchy: It largely took up a libertarian outlook on issues like family, abortion, end-of-life questions and religious freedom, rarely putting them at the core of its agenda.
And yet speaking in Milan a few days before the European Parliament election in May, Mr. Salvini invoked the names of the patron saints of Europe. “We entrust our destiny, our future and the peace and prosperity of our peoples to them,” he proclaimed, and then became more intimate. “Personally, I entrust Italy, my life and your lives to the immaculate heart of Mary, who I’m sure will lead us to victory,” he said, gripping a rosary in his right hand. When the League obtained more than 34 percent of the vote, becoming the leading political party in Italy, Mr. Salvini thanked “the one who is up there” and kissed the rosary during a news conference. A few days later, in a magazine interview, he expanded on his devotion to the Virgin Mary and announced his wish to walk the Way of Saint James, a popular pilgrimage route, one day.
The Catholic Church has reacted furiously to Mr. Salvini’s politicization of religious symbols. Pietro Parolin, the cardinal secretary of state, rebuked the minister, saying that “it is always dangerous to invoke God for your own self.” Avvenire, the newspaper of the Episcopal Conference of Italy, described Mr. Salvini as the “torchbearer of a Catholicism of his own, very distant from the teaching of the Pope and the Church.”
One source of the tensions between Mr. Salvini and the church lies in the minister’s aggressive anti-immigration rhetoric and policies. Last year, Mr. Salvini ordered Italian ports to block migrant rescue boats from docking; he also successfully pushed for a bill that imposed new restrictions on asylum seekers in Italy and gave his office virtually unchecked powers to prohibit entry by any ship into Italian waters. Those efforts have put him directly at odds with Pope Francis, who has made the welcoming of migrants a central theme of his pontificate.
But if millions of Catholics are voting for Mr. Salvini — polls show 33 percent of the practicing Catholics voted for the League, making it the leading party among churchgoers — it may also be because he is filling a vacuum in Italian politics left by the church’s own retreat, under Francis, from political debate.
The eagerness of Francis’ church to chastise politicians who refer to Christianity represents a sharp break with the policies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who attempted to keep the church’s views relevant in societies, including Italy, that have grown increasingly secular. Under these popes, spokesmen for the church criticized civil unions and same-sex marriage both in Italy and abroad, and campaigned against procedures like in vitro fertilization.
But Pope Francis has embraced a new model. In a speech to the Italian church in 2015, he called for the end of the so-called bishop-pilots, clerical shepherds who seek to direct the political choices of their flock. Francis exhorted church leaders to limit their action to the pastoral dimension. The message was consistent with his idea that bishops should be “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep,” taking care of the poor and the marginalized rather than obsessing over social issues. (Some critics, however, have argued that the church under Francis has not so much retreated from politics as embraced a different sort of politics — that despite its protests, Francis’ church didn’t dismiss the bishop-pilots, but rather ordered them to subtly pilot the Catholic people in a different, more progressive direction.)
The Francis model has received support among some within the church — Father Antonio Spadaro, editor of the Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica, for instance, launched the idea of a synod for the Italian church to reimagine the relationship between the church and politics — as well as disparagement from Francis critics like Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, who in a phone interview said “the process of de-Christianization of our societies demands the courage to proclaim the truth. I like the politicians who openly say they are Christians better than those who disparage Christianity.”
But for some believers, the Francis model has simply been disorienting. The Vatican is now sending ambiguous messages on issues that were considered crucial only a few years ago. Many Catholic voters complain the church is not vocal enough in condemning abortion and L.G.B.T. rights, and upholding Italy’s Christian identity, while it emphasizes immigration, social justice and environmental issues.
Mr. Salvini is targeting Italian Catholics who either are refusing to follow the new path or just miss the days in which the church offered straightforward political guidance. In doing so, he has followed the lead of other right-wing European leaders like Viktor Orban in Hungary and Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland, politicians in countries with large Catholic populations who present themselves as champions of a Christianity under siege.
Mr. Salvini is a parody of a religious leader. His theology is virtually nonexistent; his motives are doubtful. His blatant appropriations of Christian slogans are clumsy; in his mouth, even the most solemn of Pope Benedict’s quotes sound like they came out of a fortune cookie. And yet, his message has been effective among Catholics because he has occupied a space that the church left unguarded.
His unexpected transfiguration is the consequence of a strategic error by the church. Francis may have opted to retreat from the political debate on what Pope Benedict once called “nonnegotiable principles” — like the protection of life in all its stages and the promotion of the “natural structure of the family” — for valid reasons. But this choice has left many Catholics confused. The church hierarchy wrongly assumed that its befuddled sheep would automatically find their political homes among moderates. Instead, many of them have been attracted by a strongman who promised to defend the values that Francis’ church today hardly mentions.
Mattia Ferraresi is a writer for the Italian newspaper Il Foglio and a Nieman fellow at Harvard.