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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E se i Fratelli fossero la Dc del Cairo?

[Excerpt from an interview by Lorenzo Biondi published with Europa, an Italian daily newspaper, on the November 28th, 2011 elections in Egypt. To read the whole interview online, click here]

Non c’è il rischio che l’affermazione elettorale degli islamisti li spinga verso il radicalismo?
Di certo la vittoria li inorgoglirà. Ma l’elettorato egiziano oggi è molto scettico nei confronti di chiunque cerchi di accentrare troppo potere nelle proprie mani. La Fratellanza cercherà di rassicurare quell’elettorato, come sta facendo anche Ennahda in Tunisia: mettendo in chiaro innanzitutto che non hanno intenzione di instaurare uno stato islamico, che non vogliono guastare i frutti della rivoluzione.
Un portavoce della Fratellanza ha detto a Der Spiegel: «Il “modello turco” non ci interessa. Loro consentono l’adulterio e l’omosessualità». Qual è il potenziale “democratico” dei movimenti a ispirazione islamista?
Se ci aspettiamo una laicizzazione completa della politica islamica, siamo fuori strada. Nel breve periodo si dovrebbero tenere sott’occhio alcuni criteri “minimi” come il rispetto della democrazia elettorale e delle opposizioni laiche. I Fratelli musulmani continueranno a perseguire valori che hanno un fondamento religioso, ma in una cornice diversa di regole. La retorica sulla loro agenda morale può rimanere invariata, anche se cambiano i mezzi con cui cercano di realizzarla.

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?

Sartori, Islam, Rosarno

Last week, attacks on migrant workers in Rosarno, Italy and the riots which ensued brought the conflicts over immigration in Italy to the global news audience. Although the great majority of the immigrants involved were from “Christian cultures” of sub-Saharan Africa, Egypt’s foreign minister made headlines for accusing the attacks as another example of religious racism in Europe versus Islam. As a background drop to this accusation, for several weeks before the riots began, a vicious debate unwound in the newspapers between Tito Boeri, a relatively well-known Italian academic, and Giovanni Sartori, who holds a reasonable claim to one of the top ten most influential political scientists of the world in the last 50 years. Angelo Panebianco, another leading Italian political scientist, also weighed in on the debate.

Essentially, Sartori argued that integrating Muslim immigrants into Italian democratic life posed difficult, although not insurmountable problems. For successful integration or “Italianization” to occur, he claimed that immigrants need to adhere to a basic political ethic of tolerance and that they respect the principle of a separation of church and state. The latter, he argued poses a major problem because Islamic culture, in general, traditionally does not support such a separation. He juxtaposed this Islamic cultural bent unfavorably against that of the millenarian Jewish tradition.

Leaving aside the historical evidence, I just want to point out that this is an odd claim to make, not least because there is no evidence that integration in Italy is being hampered by efforts by the Italian Muslim-community to do away with the present church-state arrangement in Italy. It is especially strange in light of the fact that Italy’s constitution held up the Catholic Church as the “official religion of state” until 1984, and because the state of Israel does the same with the Jewish religion to this day. Which is to say, the whole separation of church and state question is much more complicated than Sartori would like to admit and in his two juxtaposing societal cultures, a Jewish and an Italian one, democracy survived, even flourished, for decades without such separation.

Panebianco, while also making dubious claims about Islamic culture as a whole, was at least more honest in his response, which also affirmed the inherent difficulty of Islamic immigration in Italy. It is not Islamic immigration, in general, for Panebianco, that is problematic for integration, but the public and political expression of Islam in Italy which poses the problem, not just to the social-liberal foundations of the Italian constitution, but because such expression challenges the traditions of Italy’s established public religion, namely, Roman Catholicism. As long as Italian Muslims practice “quietism,” Panebianco sees little difficulty for Islamic integration into Italian life, but if they allow their religion to affect their politics, in Italy, that sounds like fanaticism to him.

Which brings us back to the messy political geography of the Swiss Minarets, and the strange, unfolding alliance consequences of a Catholic Church in favor of Islamic immigration.

Catholic Anglicans, Islam and l’ora di religione

Douthat wrote quite the Op-Ed piece in the Nytimes last week which argued that darker motivations  lay behind Pope Benedict’s move to create a special Anglican-rite institution within the Catholic Church, suggesting that it was a way to circle the wagons against the growing strength of Islam, the “foe” of all Christians in Europe. To support his argument he juxtaposed statements by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in support of some sort of possibility for the application of Shari’a law in Britain with Benedict’s Reggensburg address.  I found it interesting that this week also saw the Italian Bishop’s Conference go on the record in favor of Islamic public religious education for Muslim immigrants. The Italian Catholic Church, which could hardly be characterized as a hotbed of liberals and which long enjoyed the exclusive privileges of educating Catholic doctrine to all Italian school children for one hour a week (l’ora di religione) has consistently come out in support of the political and spiritual rights of Muslim immigrants in Italy, offending both the right and the left in the process. While Benedict is certainly keen on reminding secular, liberal and socialist Europeans of their need to recognize their Christian roots, he also seems to be finding common cause with people of other religious faiths interested in reframing the role of religion in the public sphere and renewing its importance. Not exactly the treatment of someone you would suspect is circling the wagons.