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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  • Zak

    I think this is a very good post. The Christian democrats were responsible for most of what was good in the rebirth of Europe after World War II. And Schuman is a candidate for beatification, isn’t he? Maybe a patron saint of the EU? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on:

    1. The disappearance of Christian Democracy in France,

    2. The inability of Christian Democrats to prevent very liberal divorce laws and widespread (if more limited than in the US) legislative liberalization of abortion laws in Germany, Italy, and elsewhere,

    3. The apparently very limited appeal of Christian Democracy in Europe, given the paucity of parties embracing its philosophy in total (at least it was has traditionally been articulated in Western Europe).

  • jonathanjones02

    The Europeans need to listen to the Holy Father (Americans too):

    we must learn to again welcome children and value the family, or we are doomed, spiritually, emotionally, and physically.

  • jonathanjones02

    And here’s an uncomfortable truth not touched upon in the post:

    What is one very important reason it worked? Why is it now breaking down? Why were the northern midwestern states successful imitators?

    Homogeneous populations who valued tradition, family, and faith. One does not de-value other cultures or peoples if they believe this: Democracy, Multiculturalism, Mass Immigration – – Pick Any Two.

  • Zak:

    Yes, all good questions. I think the problem is ultimately related in pushing Enlightenment thinking too far. The Enlightenment was great in terms of a fresh stress on the dignity of the person, freedom of religion etc. But if you push too far, the individual replaces the community, and the common good (if you can still use that term) becomes a summation of individual wants and needs. As Pope Benedict noted, if you can do it, there is nothing in the way to stop you from doing it. Thus we know how to build nuclear bombs and do so. We know how to experiment on embryos and do so– all in the name of some greater good. The sexual revolution is another example. There was therefore a limit to how much the Christian democracy movement could keep these pressures bottled up.

    But it’s a lot more complicated than that, and the Church cannot absolve itself from any blame. As a remnant of the wars against liberalism, the Church (from about the time of the French Revolution) aligned itself with some very reactionary forces. Sure, the other side was gunning for the elimination of the Church from public life in its entirety, but the Church made a tactical blunder nonetheless. Despite the pleas for sanity from Benedict XV, the Church in many countries during the first world war was seen as too close to the secular authorities (think of Austria-Hungary). So when the European system came crashing down, the authority of the Church went down with it. The increasing sophistication of Catholic social teaching, the advent of Christian democracy, and the opening of Vatican 2 all helped restore some lost legitimacy, but in the end, it wasn’t enough.

  • Pete

    The increasing Marxist influence, at least among the intelligentsia and the policy makers in the prominent European countries which followed this period of relative stability also requires some explanation. If the situation was so good immediately prior, it sure lacked staying power. Obviously, we can’t expect any good political situation to last indefinitely, but the speed at which a spirit of radical secularism replaced the influence of the Christian Democratic parties was and remains troubling.

  • Zak

    MM and Pete,
    I think you both give good responses, and I think the too-close relationship between the Church and some of the failed political institutions of the 20th century (like the French state, or at least parts of it like the military) probably is a big part of the answer. The relative weakness of the Christian Democrats from the late 60s on is probably also related to the general changes in European society, but it just seems so striking to me that in the 1950s and early 60s, there was what might have seemed the beginning of another Catholic renaissance, but ended up being the calm before the storm.

  • Pete

    I’m not at all anti-Vatican II, at least as long as we’re not talking about its mysterious “spirit”. But I think that its failed initial implementation played a major role in what we saw in Europe from the late 60′ s onward. It wasn’t only in politics. There was the emergence of many socially influential and technically excellent artists and philosophers who appeared to be a vanguard of the new Catholic Renaissance as Zak put it. What happened to Waugh, Maritain, Gilson etc? Their work didn’t suffer qualitatively (in my opinion), but it certainly lost most popular influence. Perhaps the assault on the liturgy quickly began to deteriorate indiviual faith from the inside, thus opening them to alternate ideologies to fill the void. I remember reading that in England there was a petition signed by many influential Brits to keep the Tridentine Mass in use. Signatories included non-Catholics and even the athiest/agnostic (?) Iris Murdoch. Clearly, some people saw the threat at least in a cultural if not a more fundamental theological sense. Thoughts?

  • Br. Matthew Augustine, OP


    Bingo. There was an unprecedented lay movement at work in Europe which was flourishing before the Council and almost totally disappeared during the post-Council chaos. The Council beautifully articulated the spirit of this lay movement, and the craziness after the Council kicked the chair out from underneath it. The change was so profound that it is hard not to chalk it up to diabolical opposition. The irony is that the Council that gave voice to this movement was used as a justification for undermining what made the movement possible. MM has given good examples of this lay initiative with regard to politics and you have good examples of novelists, historians and philosophers. I would add the movement in French music that included Durufle and Boulanger. My house of formation had a regular attendee at our liturgies. He was a musician and professor at UC Berkeley who was part of the Paris music circle before the Council. He never tired of reiterating what a shock and heartbreak the post-conciliar era was to this circle of musicians.

  • Pete

    Bro. Matthew,
    Excellent points. I was able to study with the Blackfriars in Oxford several years ago; Dominicans rock. Your point about music is well taken. I have long felt that the spiritual void in popular music over the last 40 years was due in part to this spiritual violence that we are discussing. Not only did popular music suffer, but the popular and the sacred were conflated, opening the way for lame folk musicians at mass. We’re way of the original topic, but isn’t interesting (and depressing) that the guitarists at mass are never very good? I know the arguments against the guitar as a liturgical instrument, but has anyone ever heard a really excellent guitarist at mass? Maybe if so many liturgical musicians weren’t so mediocre (in addition to being theologically inaccurate) the anger in that arena would not have been quite so deeply felt.

  • Br. Matthew Augustine, OP

    What an opportunity to be able to study at Blackfriars. Our English friars have a long history of great scholarship and eloquence in preaching. Our Province has always had close ties with our English brothers, their Prior Provincial and the former Master will both be visiting our Province in the coming months. It will be good to see them.

  • Kurt

    Thank you for this discussion. It is so much more refreshing than what I read on some of the more polemical blogs.

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