Partito Popolare: 100 years ago - Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici
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Partito Popolare: 100 years ago - Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici

With the sour taste left in the mouths of many Europeans, by the tragic events that disentangled violently the close connections between the Altar and the Throne during the French Revolution, and the subsequent, no less bitter, sequels, it was decided by men of sense on both sides, that it was much safer to keep the Church separate from the State. 

Camillo Benso Cavour, the Prime Minister of an Italy that had become united through the invasion and annexation of the Papal States and the virtual imprisonment of the Pope in the Vatican enclave, expressed his considered opinion in the famous phrase (originally coined by C. de Montalembert), when acclaiming in the Camera dei Deputati, the capture of Rome from the Pope: Libera Chiesa in Libero Stato.

In truth, the State was thus being declared free from ecclesiastical injunction and perhaps, ethical compunction; while the Church was being declared free from the duty of admonishment towards the people in charge of the State machinery. 

Some churchmen were resigned to this simplification. A decree on February 29, 1868, issued by the Holy Penitentiary declared: “Non expedit � Neither electors nor elected.”

It was not expedient for Catholics to vote or to stand for election. Pope Pius IX said that as the suffrage was too restricted, the Church could not hope for a true representation of the Catholic masses. Elsewhere in Europe, this too-timid approach resulted in the supposedly democratic, constitutionally structured, nations being “occupied” by a limited number of notables from the elite, mostly connected by very secret bonds.

This formula benefited neither the Church nor the State; most of all it was harmful for the citizens of the State and the faithful of the Church, which, in part, at least, coincided.

Two priests in Italy rebelled against this abstention of Catholics from public affairs. One was Don Romulo Murri, whose defiant methods brought about his suspension a divinis. The other wasthe more prudent in style, more physically frail, but no less adamant Don Luigi Sturzo. 

He entered into politics through the local government of his native Caltagirone. Murri’s first steps at Democrazia Christiana found insurmountable obstacles. 

This formula benefited neither the Church nor the State; most of all it was harmful for the citizens of the State and the faithful of the Church

Sturzo founded in 1919 the Partito Popolare. Meanwhile the electoral system had been changed by Giolitti in accord with the Socialists, in return for support in the Italo-Turkish War of 1912. When the Partito Popolare contested their first elections in November 1919, they managed to receive 20 per cent of the electoral vote and 100 deputies. 

After Mussolini’s March on Rome, a section of the party opted for collaboration, which Sturzo strenuously opposed, proposing, instead, forming a united front with the Socialists, who, however, under Maximalist leadership, refused. 

After the brief illusion of a possible collaboration with Mussolini, Sturzo and all his deputies went into opposition to the Fascist Regime and Sturzo himself went into exile. He returned to Italy after World War II and his party, now under the name of Democrazia Christiana, soon became the leading party of post-war Italy.

When one goes back to Sturzo’s electoral manifesto of 1919 which included substantially much of the social teaching of the Church, and the achievements of governments led by Christian Democrats from 1945 to 1993, one has to admire his vision and ideals, as his enduring influence.

In 1919, he had proposed: strengthening the integrity of the family; introducing for women the right to vote; freedom of choice in education; trade union rights; social legislation, on a national as well as on the international plane;

Decentralising state administration through the establishment of regions; absolute freedom of worship; joining the League of Nations; universal disarmament; latifondo lands redistribution (eventually brought into being by the legge stralcio No. 841 of October 21,1950).

Except for universal disarmament, which entailed much more than unilateral disarmament: all the other points were, in time, substantially achieved in Italy by his followers.

As part of the Christian Democrat movement throughout this year we celebrate with gratitude Sturzo’s great contribution, to social justice, to reform, to democracy and subsidiarity, and to strenuous resistance to Fascist imposition.

Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici is Nationalist Party spokesman on foreign affairs and trade promotion.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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