New Italian Perspectives on American Political Catholicism

A certain profile of Public Catholicism has been on full show in America this past month. The show, so far, has included the strong opposition of the US Bishops to the White House’s decisions on contraceptives, Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign and, to some extent, the deliberations among Catholics of the Supreme Court over Obama’s health care policy.  Santorum’s comments on President Kennedy’s speech about religion and the public sphere were especially revealing and fueled several weeks of national conversation about the contemporary role of religion in politics. It has been a fascinating discussion and brought into light important shifts in the direction of American political Catholicism.

I just want to add some comparative perspective to this debate by noting that a similar national conversation is happening right now in Italy. There are important historical and political differences to political Catholicism in either country, of course. Just to name one, abortion is much less politicized in Italy than the United States, while “family welfare” policy is much more so. However, I believe that further, careful reflection on the structure of these two national debates could give us a richer understanding of the possibilities and risks in store for public Catholicism in certain post-secular environments.

Let me start with this word, “post-secularism,” and just say that what I want to get out of the term is an important sense of change in the religious fortunes of institutional religion in the United States and Italy. The Catholic Church, in both countries, has come to a realization that they have survived the period of “Great Secularization” in the West and remain in a position of social and political strength. Among the G8 countries, if we look at the World Values Surveys (WVS), the United States and Italy are the only two to broach 30% regularly practicing religiosity (World Gallup Poll figures put self-reported regular religious practice in 2011 for both countries at 47%, although that seems to be a stretch). Germany, the only country that comes close, boasts less than 15% on the WVS surveys of late. Japan, Britain, France, Canada and Russia slink down after that.

So what about political Catholicism in Italy today? In the 1990s, what caught the eye of most political scientists was the collapse of the Christian Democrats in Italy, thanks to corruption, scandals and overreach.  And yet, in the midst of the wider destruction of the Italian political system which followed, the Catholic Church (as opposed to the Catholic party) proved to be one of the most popular institutions left in Italy and was generally looked to for a source of political stability. This has proved to be the case once again today. Following the collapse of Berlusconi’s government and an impending economic crisis in Italy last fall, the Italian Catholic Church proposed that the time had come once again for Catholic politicians and organizations to step into the fray. To some extent, they got what they wanted: Italy’s “technocratic” government is also a heavily Catholic government and includes Prime Minister Monti, himself a devoted Catholic, and several other major Catholic figures in Italy with close ties to Catholic movements. Italy’s new Minister for International Cooperation and Integration, for example, is Andrea Riccardi, founder of the lay Catholic movement of the community of Sant’Egidio. Riccardi, perhaps more than any other Catholic in today’s government, has become a lightning rod in the media for the debate over Italian political Catholicism.

There are rumors that a new Christian Democratic party will arise from the ashes following the end of the technocratic government’s term. Yet, even if these rumors turn out to be true, it is doubtful that such a party could include the whole Catholic world in any way that resembles that of the old Christian Democrats. Instead, what looks to be happening is the development of a new form of political connection between Catholic movements and organizations, on the one hand, and the national public sphere, on the other. In this respect, the Italian situation looks very similar to that in the United States, a country that has always been allergic to any organized form of a Christian Democratic party.

The lay movements here are key. In both countries, powerful individuals, who are supported by the clergy, and whose identity, politics and charisma were forged in the intensely associative life of a lay Catholic movement, have  taken on political roles of leadership and acknowledged their religious sources and values in the process.

Some sort of parallel can be drawn between this and  the experience of Catholic Action in the first part of the last century, which produced a Christian Democratic political elite that ran governments in many post-war Catholic countries. Catholic Action was also deeply associative and activist, but one thing that has changed is that there is no longer one Catholic movement and no longer one (mass) Catholic party. Jacques Maritain, it should be noted, and many of the writers of Vatican II documents, foresaw this shift as inevitable and even, prophetically, thought that it could be understood in the right light as a rich, growing experience.

That might yet be the case, but for the moment, a growing political polarization has accompanied this pluralism of public Catholicisms in Italy and the United States. Splits, which can often be personified by naming certain movements, are raking Catholic communities over the coals. In the old days in Italy, the Christian Democratic party became masters of compromise and inter-ideological synthesis, and when that didn’t work, the Church helped cajole individuals of all stripes to stay together.  This is no longer the case. Catholic Workers, Charismatics and Traditionalists (the biggest Catholic movement without a name, Scott Appleby has claimed) have not often seen eye-to-eye politically in the States; nor have Communion and Liberation, the Neocatecumens or Sant’Egidio in Italy. The presence of Santorum and Riccardi bring these divisions to the light even as they showcase the possibilities for future, public Catholicisms.

So there’s got to be a better way of navigating this pluralism.  Putnam and Campbell have made a strong case that one of the gifts religion can offer to modern democracies is in the creation of thick, “horizontal” bonds of social trust among  citizens, even in Catholic societies like Italy. In other words, the fundamentals of brotherhood and sisterhood, a point deeply ingrained in the spirits of many early Christian Democrats.  Compromise marks democratic politics, even religious politics, and has often been accused of sapping the moral strength of religious political movements. But new political Catholicism, in the plural, might make a run for brotherhood by distinguishing themselves in the pursuit of the politics of compromise in a different key. We might call it the pursuit of the politics of reconciliation. Over the last 25 years, Catholic leaders have built up substantive skills as political peacemakers in civil war contexts by preaching political forgiveness. Could those skills be applied to everyday domestic politics, too?

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