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?

Tombs, Real Estate and Crucifixes: Church-state relations in Europe today

This week has seen a concentrated spate of church-state events in Europe: a tomb raid in Belgium by government inspectors looking for hidden evidence relating to pedophilia investigations, a corruption case involving real estate deals managed by Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, currently the Archbishop of Naples, and the continuing saga of the EU vs. crucifixes in Italy.

So far, despite sending a sharp-worded statement about the respect shown to the tombs in Belgium, the Vatican has given full signal to cooperate with the civil authorities in both cases, although it has reserved its diplomatic rights in the Sepe case as stipulated by its Concordat with Italy (stipulations the Vatican does not enjoy in Belgium).

These structures governing the relationship between religion and state, as Belgium attests, have a surprising degree of variance throughout Europe, and often reflect the success of negotiations between liberal and conservative forces over the future of religion in political life in the early 20th century. While often taking advantage of and trying to expand these privileges in the years immediately following these deals, the Church more or less backed away from them after she had re-found her footing, for better or worse, in modern, democratic, post-war European politics.

Depending on the country, and the institutional deal, the Church has tried to articulate a new, public and even political voice over the last twenty years in Europe, one more closely tied to its strength in “civil” society than in state institutions.

The political maneuvering in these two cases, therefore, might tell us something about the level of confidence the Church has in its relatively new role as a civil society leader and how much distance with a the world of authority and privilege the Church still feels it needs to give up to preserve that role in Europe as the pedophilia scandal continues to tread its wake across the continent.

Interesting questions to think about as Italy brings its appeal on the legal decision against keeping crucifixes in Italian schools before the European Union’s Human Rights Court today.

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.