A Christian Democratic Revival?

In the midst of the political and economic crisis tumbling out of Italy today, fresh voices have been raised for the return of a Catholic political party. Early in the month, on Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone’s initiative, the Vatican invited public Catholic leaders from various political and religious formations to talk about the political role of Catholics in a post-Berlusconi era. Prominent articles musing the return of a Catholic movement to politics followed, by Marco Tarquinio in L’Avvenire and Ernesto Galli della Loggia in the Corriere della Sera.

This musing plays on a painful sense of political diaspora which many Italian Catholics from the left and right experience and the concomitant, buried hope that political Catholicism might prove a steadying resource for these depressing times of Italian democracy.

With the passage of two decades from the implosion of Democrazia Cristiana, the idea, thus, of a political party inspired by the Christian values, ethics and social doctrines which many Italian Catholics share has taken on a new attractive glow. Yet, for all they share in identity and tradition and yearning, there are multiple, unresolved contradictions about Italian political Catholicism which cast doubt on the capability and will of Italian Catholics to take up a unitary voting block at this moment. Both the Bertone initiative and Galli della Loggia’s proposal put at least two of these contradictions into relief:

 1. Unity of Catholics or Unity of Political Ideas? Galli della Loggia proposes that the proper political home of a new Christian Democratic party in Italy ought to be on the liberal, center-right-hand side of the European political spectrum. This solution would resolve the bitter internal tensions between Christian Democrats of the left and of the right which had historically divided the party and led to politically inconsistent policy goals. Although a liberal Christian Democratic party would be more politically consistent, it is not clear that it could be coherently inspired by the deep set of “Christian” values or Christian votes which Galli della Loggia and others hope would give such a party its force and animating roots. Neither those values nor those votes fit neatly onto the spectrum of traditional left-right politics in Europe. Although they certainly do not represent a majority of Catholic votes in Italy, many practicing Italian Catholics, especially many of those who are most active in social and political spheres, lean consistently to the left and are tipped there by the fundamental social doctrines of the Church. The Italian Church’s recent public stances on immigration policy and welfare, for example, put it distinctly at odds with what would be considered a traditional center-right political platform (just as many moral values championed by the Church put it distinctly at odds with a center-left political platform, an experience Romano Prodi’s Catholic voters have not forgotten).

2. Clergy Leadership or Lay Leadership? Although the question would seem to conjure up dead horsemen from another era, the initiative of Bertone, currently the Vatican’s secretary of state, illustrates how this contradiction is far from resolved. In 1948, Democrazia Cristiana launched a united Catholic voting block with the clear and full apparatus of the Church hierarchy at their back. The rest of the story of the DC, however, was that of the emancipation of the party from Vatican politics. This emancipation liberated both the party and the Vatican to be more efficient with their respective political and spiritual authority and play more constructive public roles in a modern, pluralistic democratic society. At the moment, most lay Catholic politicians in Italy are too identified with a politics of the right or left to make a similar appeal effective, and so who other than the Vatican could bring the Italian Catholic electorate together into a party today? Yet, putting such a task in the hands of the clergy risks reversing important evolutions in the relationship of authority between lay and religious Catholics. And at a time when the Italian laity is sorely in need of assuming autonomous roles of leadership within the Church, not to mention in the secular sphere of politics.

Both of these contradictions point to the conclusion that there is still much work to be done for the success of a future Christian Democratic party in Italy. Even if the present crisis represents an irresistible opportunity for the return of a Catholic political movement in Italy, it would be desirable for that movement to have a more developed political vision at its back of how to harness its Christian intellectual and faith traditions to the complex contours of contemporary democratic society. Important Christian philosophical and political ideas, such as those that emanated from Jacques Maritain, gave weight to a common political project for Catholics of many stripes in the first half of the twentieth century. Do Italian Catholics yet have access to ideas of such force and inspiration developed for the political nebulous of this century?

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