In Diario

Stefano Ceccanti, speech for the conference “Normative Perspectives on Political Catholicism” held by the John Cabot University

“Continuities of inspiration, discontinuities of instruments”

Rome, May 23, 2014


1. The new terms of the issue and the necessary distinction between cultural currents and party system instruments

If such an issue had been raised in the aftermath of Wold war II currents of thought would have been almost certainly identified with concrete party system instruments, at least in the three great continental democracies in the process of reorganization. As a consequence this would have lead to the identification of programmatic priorities among the four thematic areas outlined by you, which we will come back to, and to the identification of possible allies and adversaries. Without however leaving out the differences that play an important role alongside the common traits. We are referring to the plural and interconfessional nature of the German case, or the transient victory, as stressed by Emile Poulat and by the thorough study by Michele Marchi, of MRP in France.        

The identification of that cultural current, the practical reconciliation between Christianity and liberal democracy, with the party system instruments of the time is something that would be unthinkable today.

I would like to demonstrate this by looking at the four themes identified in the question: European unity, welfare state, relations with the churches, political idea of Christian democracy, in order to highlight the difference between the way these questions were positively dealt with and solved after World war II and the way they are posed today.  


2. Positive choices made in the aftermath of World War II

With reference to these four themes it must be noted that the difference in approach is a positive notion in that it is the result of achievements, not of failures: 

  1. European unity which respected differences gradually took shape in the context of Atlantic solidarity and marked a shift from residual nationalism of authoritarian and right-wing Catholicism in Spain and Portugal and from right-wing groups still attracted by the myth of the October Revolution and of popular democracy, particularly strong in southern Europe.

b. The realization of an inclusive welfare state that did not remove all sense of responsibility, despite some critical issues addressed by Sturzo, marked a difference from the traditional liberal minimal state position on the one hand and from forms of excessive state-entanglement on the other. This welfare state also meant the organization of strong executive branches as opposed to models based on assembles which were unable to consistently implement decisions in the long run, models that had been in part the cause of the rise of authoritarian regimes in Europe.      

c. The acknowledgment of the public dimension of religion took place in a context of free democratic competition, guaranteed by the work of Constitutional Courts. This event can be seen in contrast to extreme secular currents and also residual confessional lines of thought, still dominant in terms of doctrine until the Second Vatican Council. The concrete action of secular Catholic politicians such as De Gasperi, Adenauer, Schumann and Kennedy anticipated a new course, without them Dignitatis Humanae and Gaudium et spes would not be possible.

d. The new Christian Democratic/profane current tended to assert itself against the myth of a Christian State, a notion which had been definitely delegitimized by the pacts with authoritarian states, most of which had been defeated during the war, and against the Jacobin myth of an omnipotent state. 


3. The subsequent separation between inspiration and instruments: how and why

The concrete way of the operating of the party system, in connection to social change, and the development of the Catholic Church, which was in part the result of these changes as mentioned above, and in part itself cause for other changes, for instance the transition towards Third Wave Democracy where Catholicism plays a fundamental role, did however radically modify the way the issue must be approached.

The history of these ideas, as we have just said, is a history which, together with other factors, made it possible to achieve important results such as European institutions, welfare systems, authoritative legislative governments (initially with the exception of Italy), conciliar documents. However the ideal behind these changes became disconnected from the original instruments because these ceased to be or because their nature changed, despite their name often remaining the same. 

In the case of two of the three continental democracies, France and then Italy, the relative unity which had been realized at a political level, though more in Italy than in France, was provided by the political ideal as well as by external cohesion caused by the awkward presence of the Communist parties on the left and then gradually ceased as a consequence of these parties becoming weaker. These conditions in the 1980s led Pietro Scoppola, a scholar who carefully researched these issues, to draw a distinction between the current ideal of democratic Catholicism and  party system instruments which are necessarily transient. In pluralist societies, also post-Christian to a certain degree, where new, democratic and secular models of Christianity are structurally absent, the problem is turned upside down: while the question was about how political agendas proposed by Catholic politicians from religious parties could unite Christians from different confessions and non-believers in the aftermath of World War II, the problem later became, and is still today, about how believers can play a significant and driving role not only by setting individual examples, within parties which are structurally plural, made up of various religious and ideal minorities.          

Also in Germany, the third continental democracy, the same dynamic can be seen under a formal appearance of continuity. Because of the absence of real right-wing competitors in the political system, the parties forming the CDU/CSU Union did not occupy the centrist position traditionally taken by the Christian Democratic parties but a center-right position in accordance with a bipolar scheme, while a series of other actors more to the left, believers and observant, went with the SPD following the change of direction imposed by Bad Godesberg.

It is no coincidence that these trends become even more evident with Third Wave Democracies. Christian Democratic parties in these countries, starting from the ones with a significant presence of Catholic actors, are very different from the ones which had been active after World War II. It must be noted again that the strength of these parties depended on the presence of powerful Communist Parties which acted as a strong external unifying factor, the absence of which determined the positioning of the Christian Democratic parties along the right/left axis in a context of religious pluralism. We now have more conservative parties, such as the ones which make up the EPP, more to the right than the more centrist Christian Democratic parties of the postwar period, and the Socialist Parties which provided the base for the reformist center-left. Also, the birth and development of these socialist oriented parties attracted a significant Protestant component in northern Europe, and in the case of Labour, also a Catholic one.     

In other words, even though the transition towards Third Wave Democracy originated in Catholic countries, the new religious post-Christian scenario and the end of communism prevented the
birth of new Christian Democratic parties and lead Catholics to join single groups both to the center-left, socialist de-ideologized parties, and to the center-right, secularized populist parties. 


4. Recent years and the weakening of a significant Catholic presence in both factions

In recent years, despite the initial impetus following the Vatican Council, a force still visible at the beginning of the transition towards Third Wave Democracy (three heads of state adhered to the Maritainian Pax Romana: Maria de Lourdes Pintasilgo and Antonio Guterres in Portugal, Tadeusz Mazowiecky in Poland, the first two part of the PSE, while Mazowiecky cannot be classified), the qualified presence of believers in both the competing factions in the European political space has decreased and this may be explained perhaps not only in relation to increasing secularization but also with reference to specific ecclesiastic dynamics. I am referring to two phenomena: one the one hand much attention is given to movements, which lack a real democratic drive and delegate all to charismatic leadership, secular or ecclesiastic, as opposed to well- structured associations with precise statutes and internal safeguards that are themselves examples of democracy. On the other a certain simplistic rhetoric stresses so-called non-negotiable values and that is incompatible with an attitude open to dialogue in parliamentary assemblies and in responsible executive branches. These two factors have reduced and discouraged individual and collective action. Furthermore, the Church is perceived as being an extra-parliamentary actor made up of minorities that limit themselves to opposing agendas. This at least is how the Church appears despite the  fact that its intentions might well be different, and probably, because of a heterogeneity of ends, the ecclesiastic community has often favored change in the opposite direction to the one supported by the majority of public opinion and thus by legislation.      

On this point the present papacy is clearly undertaking a productive revision that might relaunch significant forms of engagement and provide a more sensible approach to political and social mediation. It is now evident that the Church has put aside the often misused formula of non-negotiable values and problematic in the relationship between jurisprudence and ethical issues and gone beyond the positions expressed by Pope Benedict XVI in his speeches at Westminster and at the Bundestag.


5. The possible answers from the European center-left

With reference to the irreversible dissociation between the cultural current and instruments which I have illustrated, I will limit myself, with the exception of the first point that I will come to shortly, to analyzing the faction I adhere to, the European center-left, which has seemed to me for some time now the most natural collocation,  leaving to others the task of attempting to demonstrate the possible fertile nature the same current might have in the center-right area. With this I do not intend to deny that also the moderate and conservative parties play a positive role at a European level, braking strongly negative nationalist and populist tendencies otherwise emerging on the center-right. It does not however seem to me that this role has much to do with the reformist inspiration, at times daring, of the first Christian Democratic parties of the postwar period.        

I will go back to the four points mentioned above and I will try to actualize the issues.

First, with regard to European unification my impression is that the popular indication expressed by candidates for the Presidency of the Commission is a first significant step towards balancing, in a federalist perspective, a process that in the recent years has been excessively slanted towards the iter-governmental. It is however a constituent process, which cuts across differing partisan inspirations and collocations. 

Secondly it seems to me that regarding the new relationship between state and the market the most effective proposals for a systems which intends to carry on pursuing the aims of a social market economy with new means, decisively more responsible and less bureaucratic, have their origins in the experience of the Third Way in the 1990s. This experience arose through the movement of Christians on the Left of the Labour Party and led to overcoming the ideological axiom according to which the reduction of inequality should not be pursued at all or fatally categorized as the infinite expansion of public spending and taxation. As Jacques Delors impressively pointed out to the Esprit Civique movement, this effort can obviously be productive only if  we do not let ourselves be overwhelmed by imminent emergencies and constantly use more engineers and fewer firemen. The Third Way experiment conducted by Tony Blair swept away an old conception of political party and an old left-wing ideology with a single blow.     

Regarding relations with the Church it is important to understand that this relationship must work two ways and be reciprocal: politics draws resources and stimuli from a plural society, also from a religious point of view, which are essential for the common good and over which institutions do not hold a monopoly. For this reason logical consequences must be drawn also in relation to a non-statism vision of the education system. At the same time churches cannot adopt the rhetoric of principles in a simplistic way in the public space, as if they were protesting minorities or specific lobbies lacking a common horizon and the awareness of the always limited value of recourse to law, in accordance with the teachings of Dignitatis Humanae. Innovative pro-integration social policies enhance the right to life, not the expansion of criminal law. The valorization of family is unthinkable if it is ideologically opposed by the legislative irrelevance of other types of union, including same sex unions: in a direct confrontation there is no longer any common ground on which to build.     

With regard to the idea of a religiously inspired democracy, the direction is that of definitively overcoming every form of Christianity and of an ahistoric perception of natural law, natural rights – on this argument the 2004 dialogue between Ratzinger and Habermas remains pivotal –  views which are also at the heart of many of the Catholic Church’s difficulties which the preparatory phase of the Holy Synod is already tackling courageously. This does not mean the loss of a golden age rather it is the premise for a different type of fruitfulness in the civil and political spheres which enables the construction of  innovative solutions and other untried answers to be found with responsibility and together with others. Was this not the case in the postwar period with European institutions, a course which has always alternated setbacks, such as the defeat of the European Defense Community exactly sixty years ago, and victories such as the one which came with the EEC Treaty of Rome three years later?

I believe that everything built is best done on the side of the democrats and socialists in the center-left but not through an act of faith, rather as a choice and a political bet. The products of talent can only be appraised ex-post.


6. To conclude and bring up to date

The elections for the European Parliament which are taking place in these days demonstrate the distance between inspiration and instruments.

One party, the EPP, openly claims continuity with such inspiration, however:

a) many of its members, it is sufficient to cite the Hungarian Orban, are very distant and, of course, such men as Luigi Sturzo and Jacques Maritain in their lifetimes firmly spoke out against the Francoist association between a certain C
atholicism and a certain inclination towards authoritarianism. Today, they would find problems being even remotely associated with a party such as the Spanish PP which is the result of its democratic development. Incidentally, the EPP has become the largest in the European Parliament after Forza Italia joined in 1998, a party which has inherited part of the DC’s votes, but not much of its inspiration;

b) the oldest Christian Democratic party, the Basque Nationalist Party, is part of the liberal group;

c) Jacques Delors, the living protagonist who’s cultural and political orientation have influenced the phases of development at a European level in this direction, I am thinking of the rediscovery of the principle of subsidiarity for instance, can be said to adhere to the PES area, just as part of the French MRP’s legacy does. The same can be said of a large part of the Christian Democrats who contributed the foundation of the PD.        

From a political perspective this is a vital inspiration, however its most important results are not to be found where this inspiration is most formally claimed: the end of the Italian DC positioned the EPP, dominated by the CDU, clearly to the right of the center and also caused the PES to embrace a new combination of cultures, the ones which traditionally have been operating for many decades now withing the Labour Party. Also, there is no monopoly over the issues mentioned, where this inspiration succeeded: European unity was supported by Spinelli and no less by De Gasperi, the Labour Party devised a modern welfare system just as the most vital currents of the Christian Democratic parties did. 

Also with regard to the Church we must note some significant new features. The election of Kennedy alongside the success of the Christian Democratic parties uniting in Europe added decisive impetus to the Vatican Council II and marked its preference for democracy as expressed by Gaudium et spes as opposed to a previous non-involvement in the forms of state, and even more for religious freedom in that the Dignitas Humanae also marked a shift from previous theories of Christian State and concepts of religious tolerance. The same holds true for the victory of Obama, obtained thanks to the majority of practicing Catholics, especially Hispanic, under the banner of economic and social issues which determined a reshaping of the previous rhetoric on non-negotiable values to unilaterally remove them from the social and economic terrain and entrusted also the issues of profane instruments, the concrete approval of laws, to the episcopacy and the pope

on the bases of  “the competency of competence.” With the new papacy of pope Francis, the result has been the renunciation of the ahistoric and simplistic hierarchy of non-negotiable principles and a new course set to make the Catholic laity component in the political field more responsible.


In conclusion we can say that there are conditions for bringing together inspiration and instruments,  especially in the center-left political area. This is an opportunity that should not be wasted.   

Recent Posts

Leave a Comment


Scrivi una mail a stefano

Not readable? Change text. captcha txt