Christian democracy’s future - André DeBattista
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Christian democracy’s future - André DeBattista

A century ago, in January 1919, the Partito Popolare Italiano entered the Italian political arena. The party was led by the formidable prelate, Don Luigi Sturzo, and its ideas shaped much of the political development in the latter half of the 20th century. 

A stamp printed in Italy shows Alcide de Gasperi (1881-1954), Italian statesman and politician, founder of the Christian Democracy Party. Photo: svic/Shutterstock.comA stamp printed in Italy shows Alcide de Gasperi (1881-1954), Italian statesman and politician, founder of the Christian Democracy Party. Photo: svic/Shutterstock.com

Born in a staunch traditional Catholic family in Caltagirone in 1871, Sturzo was ordained in 1894. Following his ordination, he embarked on a lifetime’s commitment to the social realm; first in his work with youths and later in direct activism, which touched upon more direct political themes.

Pope Pius X – a saintly man whose nature and temperament was, however, hardly flexible – would even give him a special dispensation to serve as the Deputy Mayor of Caltagirone. It was this contact with the poorest and the most vulnerable which led him to realise that a more significant political commitment was needed.

In 1919, while living in Rome, he joined other collaborators to form the Partito Popolare Italiano – a party which tried to embody the principles of Catholic Social Teaching. Sturzo had a challenging task. 

The Vatican was not keen on this idea. Moreover, he tried to construct a broad political movement which would include national conservatives, moderates, and Catholic union leaders – in other words, people from the left, right and centre of the political spectrum.

Sturzo was adamant that the party would remain a secular party. His vision was of “a party for Catholics, but not a Catholic party”. He successfully resisted the inclusion of the word ‘Catholic’ in the party’s name.

At its origins, the party promoted a number of important causes including universal voting suffrage (the common good cannot be safeguarded if women are excluded from the voting process), the right to free assembly, social reforms on a national and an international level (for the common good goes beyond the boundaries of the nation-state), greater autonomy at regional level (pre-empting the need for greater subsidiarity) and a protection for the freedoms of the Church (which recognises two realms of authority – ecclesial and civil).

The party was founded at a time when democracy was under threat; where tensions between democrats and autocrats were reaching their climax. In this climate, Christian Democratic parties formed alliances with other parties, including former adversaries such as liberals, conservatives and socialists.

These alliances were not enough to prevent the complete collapse of democracy in some countries. The threat to democracy came from both the left and the right. Moreover, some elements within democratic parties were willing to compromise with their totalitarian counterparts, thus weakening the democratic system. In this context, it was difficult to prevent a Fascist takeover.

Pope Pius XI settled for assurances given to him by Mussolini. He even encouraged the dissolution of the Partito Popolare in 1926. He would later come to regret this decision. His condemnation of totalitarianism in the encyclicals Non Abbiamo Bisogno (1931) and Mit Brennender Sorge (1937) demonstrate his complete lack of trust in this political order.

Christian Democracy rose from the ashes in the wake of World War II. Its rise was quasi-accidental, yet the Christian Democratic parties in Italy and Germany undoubtedly helped to push the project of European integration and to stabilise the European continent in the Cold War era. All this came to a chilling halt when the Cold War came to a close.

While Catholic Social Teaching continued to develop, Christian Democracy seems to have gone in crisis. Both have now gone their separate ways, and Christian Democracy has embraced bland centrism coupled with an acceptance of neo-liberal economics. 

Paradoxically, Christian Democracy finds it hard to thrive in the society it helped create. The lack of a coherent Christian Democratic response to crises exacerbates its decline.

Part of the blame is to be found within these Christian Democratic groupings. These parties suffer from an identity crisis. There seems to be a concerted effort to undermine or downplay their roots – Christian roots which are based on the belief that the human person should be at the centre of all political activity.

In addition, there is an innate secularist bias in the writing and retelling of history. This bias downplays the role of Christian and Catholic groups in the resistance to totalitarianism and the role of such groups in the creation of a post-war Europe while amplifying the vile episodes of collaboration with regimes. Few seek to rectify this balance. 

Some Christian Democratic parties seem to have a rather nebulous idea of what they stand for, where they come from and where they are heading

The end result is that some Christian Democratic parties seem to have a rather nebulous idea of what they stand for, where they come from and where they are heading.

The forthcoming European Parliament elections will be a test of sorts for centrist parties; can they obtain a majority in the European Parliament or will such a majority be eroded by the rise of populism?

The European People’s Party is the largest party in the European Parliament. It has been so since 1999, and it is a broad coalition of parties holding Christian Democratic, liberal-conservative and centre-right views. The disenchantment with some aspects of the European project is leading to some fissures in the already-fragile coalition.

The same situation can be detected nationally. In the run-up to the Nationalist Party leadership election, the eventual winner Adrian Delia stated in a campaign interview that ideology is something which is of interest only to scholars. This is not entirely correct; ideas strike at the heart of what politics is about.

In 1986, the party published a ground-breaking document – Fehmiet Bażiċi – which outlines the raison d’être of the party. It states that the party is a Christian Democratic party and redefines its name to suit this political orientation; it claims that the party is nationalist because it believes that “these islands can develop as a nation” and that “the wealth and welfare of the whole nation” should flourish.

It speaks of the dignity of man as the basis of all Nationalist Party politics, that dialogue should be “a means to reach agreement on public policy” and that “solidarity and justice” should prevail in all aspects of the community.

Thirty-three years since the publication of this document, the Nationalist Party chose the route of its European counterparts; ideas have been replaced by “what works”. Judging by the declining success of such parties throughout the continent, “what works” isn’t working very well. 

In the post-Cold War era, politicians seem to be uncomfortable with issues of ideas and political philosophy. There is a general distrust of “grand theories” and “grand visions”. 

This may be problematic. “What works” is not good enough in the long run. It may not stand to the scrutiny of time because it does not answer the most critical questions: what is the ultimate goal of politics? What is the underlying view of humankind? What does our present reality tell us about our political needs?

Sturzo understood this. He recognised the need to create broad parties and coalitions to create conditions, which would safeguard the dignity of every human person while helping the common good to thrive. Sturzo dared to see beyond hierarchies and nomenclatures. He never failed to have an over-arching vision for the human person and society. His political vision was all about balance.

It is this which is missing in the current political class. Without the courage to ask the big questions, the future looks very bleak and fractured.

André DeBattista is an independent researcher in politics and international relations.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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