Written by Jason Horowitz
Pope Francis is viewed by many European liberals as the greatest moral voice against the resurgence in populism and the demonization of migrants.
But for many European nationalists, anti-migration politicians and opponents of gay rights, the real spiritual strongman of their movement is the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, their alternate pope.
So when Putin visited the Vatican on Thursday, it was more than a mere meeting — their third — between the two men. Rather it was a tête-à-tête between the standard-bearers of competing views of Christianity on the European continent as ideological polarization between nationalists and liberals cleaves the West.
“I may be speaking heresy, but President Putin looks more like a pope to me, for the way he is living Christianity, compared to the one who should to all effects be the pope,” said Gianmatteo Ferrari, the secretary of Lombardy Russia, a pro-Russian and Putin-adoring association, before the meeting.
“The greatest, proudest and most strenuous advocate of our Christian values is President Putin,” Ferrari said.
The president of Lombardy Russia, Gianluca Savoini, is a close ally of and unofficial Russia liaison for Matteo Salvini, Italy’s anti-migration interior minister. Putin was scheduled to meet Salvini for dinner, along with Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio, leader of the populist Five Star Movement.
Putin’s dance card also included meetings with President Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, as well as his old friend Silvio Berlusconi. But his most closely watched appointment was with the pope.
In typical fashion, Putin was an hour late (he also arrived 50 minutes late for their first meeting, in 2013, and more than an hour late in 2015).
The men exchanged gifts, and also what the Vatican later described as “cordial” conversation on “questions of relevance to the life of the Catholic Church in Russia,” ecological issues, and the political situation in Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela.
For Putin, the meeting was a way to burnish his reputation as a global leader. For Francis, Putin’s cooperation is essential for the protection of Christians in the Middle East, where Russia is active. The pope is also pursuing unity, or at least better relations, with the Russian Orthodox Church.
In 2016, Francis met with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, the first such meeting of the two church leaders in about 400 years. But Francis is aware that without the support of Putin, those efforts are likely to go nowhere.
The meeting at the Vatican comes as Putin has taken to directly addressing Europe’s Catholics, many of whom are attracted to nationalist politicians.
In a recent interview with The Financial Times, in which Putin declared the end of Western liberalism, he was asked whether religion would play a greater role in national culture and cohesion.
“This is exactly why I will now say a few words about Catholics,” he said, embarking on what seemed like a defense of the traditions of the Catholic Church.
“Sometimes I get the feeling that these liberal circles are beginning to use certain elements and problems of the Catholic Church as a tool for destroying the church itself,” Putin said. “This is what I consider to be incorrect and dangerous.”
That was music to the ears of traditionalists and hard-right nationalists, who are convinced that Francis — who has spoken inclusively of gay people and Muslim migrants — is that destructive element. The traditionalists find comfort in the vision of Christianity promoted by Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church, which have drawn a hard line against gay marriage and changing gender roles.
Putin has many fans in Italy, including the country’s de facto leader, Salvini, who has publicly professed admiration for the Russian leader. He has traveled to Putin’s political party events in Russia and once wore a shirt with Putin’s face on it at the Kremlin.
In an interview with the Milan daily newspaper Corriere della Sera before the pope meeting, Putin said that Salvini and his League party had actively supported the restoration of “full cooperation between Italy and Russia.”
He added: “They are pushing for a rapid abolition of the anti-Russian sanctions introduced by the U.S. and the EU. On this issue our points of view coincide. Salvini has a welcoming attitude toward our country.”
Putin also said Russia had no intention of getting involved in an arms race with the United States, called accusations that Russia had interfered with the American elections “absurd” and said similar claims of interference in the European elections last May was meant “to continue to ‘demonize’ Russia in the eyes of ordinary European citizens.”
In an article in the Turin-based daily La Stampa, he wrote that despite global economic growth, the current Western economic model was “in a universal crisis” called for new accords centered on the notion of “sovereignty and the unconditional right of each country to its own course of development.”
Massimo Introvigne, an Italian sociologist of religions, said Putin had made it clear that he believed Western values, such as a belief in human rights and religious liberty, were not universal rights and did not necessarily apply in Russia.
“Putin represents a medieval, pre-enlightenment Christianity or at least pre-Vatican II view of Christianity,” said Introvigne, referring to the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, which brought modern reforms into the church.
On the other hand, Introvigne said, “Pope Francis represented a more progressive and modern view of Christianity that accepted and promulgated the Western conception of human rights.”
The most devout Putin followers talk of the Russian leader in mystical terms, comparing him to the Katechon, a Greek word referring to a force that keeps the Antichrist at bay.
“Putin is katechonic,” said Alexander Dugin, a Russian public intellectual and traditionalist who maintains a following among nationalists, neo-fascists and European identitarians.
Putin’s devotees also make passing references to “Third Rome,” a 15th-century idea of Manifest Destiny for the Orthodox Church, in which Moscow would become the spiritual center of the true church after Rome and Constantinople.
Amid this backdrop, Francis has been careful not to antagonize Russia by taking sides in the conflict in Ukraine, or between the Ukrainian Orthodox churches. Introvigne, the sociologist, said that Putin’s apparent opposition to religious liberty in Russia “could eventually endanger the Catholic minority.”
Dugin said he had noticed that the mysticism of the Russian Orthodox Church, to which he belongs, had drawn converts from Catholics frustrated by what they see as the liberalism of their church.
He said that some rank-and-file clerics in Rome also saw Putin as their protector. But not all Catholic traditionalists agree.
Roberto de Mattei, the president of the Lepanto Foundation — which is deeply critical of Francis for what it calls his failure to defend Europe from Islam — said he did not share the sympathy some Catholic traditionalists feel toward Putin and suspected that the Russian leader was waging a “political operation.”
“My fear is there is a double game,” de Mattei said, adding that he felt stuck on a chessboard between Putin and Pope Francis, while “the West doesn’t have a real leader.”