Catholicism in European Elections: It’s Back (sort of)

Catholicism in European Elections: It’s Back (sort of) February 7, 2017

The development of post-war European politics is difficult to grasp without a discussion of the role of Catholicism. It’s central role is evident across the continent, most obviously in the establishment and subsequent influence of Christian Democracy in Germany and Italy, but also in myriad social movements and in the diverse processes of democratization.

As noted in a recent article in The Economist discussing this issue:

“Devout statesmen such as Robert Schuman of France, Italy’s Alcide De Gasperi and Konrad Adenauer of Germany (pictured, left to right) laid the groundwork for a new continental order in which national divisions would be overcome and Western Europe, at least, would stand firm against totalitarianism. Politicians who had resisted fascism, in the name of their Catholic faith, were seen as well-placed to oppose the new menace of atheist communism, and the movement known as Christian Democracy took shape.”

However in recent years, Catholicism has generally been seen as a political “non-entity” on the continent. Outside of countries such as Poland and Ireland, where the Church maintains an unique position owing to the distinct histories of these states, the Church is not really seeing as a player in an increasingly secular Europe. The continent’s Catholic history is occasionally referred to – as was seen in the negotiations of the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty – but direct influence is more difficult to find. However, as Europe enters the 2017 election season, we are observing a unique return of “political Catholicism” (for lack of a better term) in various states. While this has varied across the continent, it is in France where commentators have noticed the greatest shift.

Francois Fillon, the presidential nominee of the “the Republicans” (France’s catch-all center-right political party), has experienced difficulties as of late owing to an investigation of possible misuse of office funds and it remains to been seen whether he will remain the party’s standard bearer in the upcoming match up against the National Front’s Marine Le Pen. However, myriad observers have noted that his unexpected success in his party’s primary was driven by France’s “provincial, middle class Catholic population” which are increasingly seen to be his primary base of support. Practicing Catholics are estimated to represent 15% of French voters. While a relatively small block, it is viewed as a powerful minority which is particularly capable of strong mobilization to get voters to the polls.

In a country with a deep tradition of state secularism, where even President de Gaulle would not take communion at events where he was officially representing the country as its head of state, Fillon is positively radical in his openness about his faith and his frankness as to how his faith has informed his political beliefs. He included a chapter on his Catholic faith in the book which launched his candidacy over one year ago. In a country where the debate on abortion has been seen as “settled” for decades, he shocked the Paris commentariat by publicly announcing his personal disapproval of abortion – something unheard of for a presidential candidate in contemporary France.

If Mr. Fillon remains in the race, the dynamic to look out for is whether is able to block conservative Catholics from voting for Marine Le Pen. The primary seems to indicate that he has been successful on that front and until his recent financial troubles, it was assumed that he would easily glide to the presidency after the second round of voting. While the future remains unclear, France could be on track to elect its first vocally Catholic president in decades – something everyone thought was impossible just a few months back.


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