In Praise of Christian Democracy

In Praise of Christian Democracy October 2, 2007

It is now common to remark that Catholics in the United States have no home, drifting aimlessly between two parties that fall radically short of the ideal. This is not the case in Europe, or at least was not the case in the post war period, where there is a clear example of a political movement underpinned by Catholic social teaching wielding enormous influence. I’m talking about Christian democracy. It’s no exaggeration to say that the Christian democratic movement rescued Europe from the abyss after the second world war, and sowed the seeds of what would become the European Union.

What is Christian democracy? This is not easy to define, especially since, as a large movement, it encompassed a wide diversity of views and positions. But certain themes stand out. First, Christian democracy absorbs the best of Enlightenment thought, and welds it with a Christian anthropology. It emphasizes the unconditional character of God-given human rights and dignity, derived from the natural law. It is suspicious of both laissez-faire individualism, which plays down the notion of community, and Marxist collectivism, which seeks a utopia on earth brought about by a materialistic determinism that sees no role for the divine. It is authentically conservative in that it respects tradition, especially Christian tradition, and seeks change by evolution rather than revolution. It specifically affirms the value of Europe’s Christian heritage. In the economic sphere, it is influenced by the teachings of Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius XI, embracing the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. It is supportive of the social market economy, which sees a role for the state in providing a social safety net and in facilitating social partnership– whereby unions, employers and other groups will negotiate wages, working conditions, and other work-related issues.

Europe owes an enormous debt to the Christian democracy movement, and especially to three Christian Democratic Catholic political leaders who did more than anyone else to shape the post war history of the continent: Konrad Adenauer of Germany, Robert Schuman of France, and Alcide de Gasperiof Italy. All three had a vision of what Europe could become, how it could reclaim the treasures of its past, while embracing a peaceful, prosperous future. Their vision, starting with the humble European Coal and Steel Community eventually became the European Union. These men’s backgrounds are interesting. All hailed from regions torn apart by ruinous nationalism: de Gapari from Austrian-controlled Trentino, Schuman from Alsace-Lorraine (controlled by the Germans from 1870-1918), and Adenauer from the Rhineland. All saw the benefits of internationalism, especially if it meant securing peace in Europe. Also, as Catholics, they shared a vision of Christendom, a Europe that existed before the emergence of the nation state. In that, their project owes much to the efforts of 16th century Catholic humanists like Erasmus and More, who also dreamed of an international peaceful alliance among nations. But the power of nationalism was on the rise as Christendom was waning, and the humanist’s vision proved wishful thinking.

All three men were heavily influenced by Catholicism, and rejected the totalitarian vision of their time. Schuman was particularly devout, and heavily influenced by Aquinas and Maritain. He worked tirelessly for greater cooperation within Europe. And the cause for his beatification is in the final processes.

Thus, the vision of modern Europe owes everything to Catholic social teaching, through its integration into Christian democracy, and to these three visionaries in particular. The process of European integration involves international cooperation, while respecting subsidiarity, which could eventually evolve into a “Europe of the regions” as the nation state becomes less important. The free market is respected but not idolized, and there is a strong role for the state in securing social solidarity and an equitable distribution of goods. But this is not a utopian vision, and the founders would never have used such language. The European political model is imperfect, and some aspects of its social model are in dire need of reform. Plus, as Pope Benedict has pointed out on many occasions, the common Christian vision that shaped the post war agenda no longer holds sway. These are all problems, urgent problems. But none of this is to deny the accomplishments of post war Europe in terms of securing peace and prosperity.


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