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Once, Christians led the response to socialism and liberalism. Could it happen again?

Leaders from six countries, including Konrad Adenauer, sign the Treaty of Rome (Getty)

Christian democracy helped create order in post-war Europe, but today looks like a spent force. It’s time for a rethink

Christian democracy has been one of the most important political traditions in modern Europe and yet today it is virtually irrelevant. Formed by the question of how Catholics should interact with liberal political structures, Christian democratic parties largely helped create the post-war order in Western Europe. Despite significant political, economic and social achievements, Christian democratic parties have failed to keep up since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and even on their own theoretical terms of pursuing a Christian vision of society it is hard to view them as anything other than failures.

Before the emergence of Christian democracy, Catholics had been among the most committed defenders of the union of throne and altar. This political vision was jolted by the shock of the French Revolution which was overcome politically and yet still dominant intellectually. Throughout the 19th century, order in Church and society were challenged by revolutionary liberalism and nationalism. Elites influenced by these ideologies took charge of the state and claimed that their authority came from the people. Increasing democratisation of political structures sought both to justify this claim and placate a population that elite liberals feared might escape the arbitrary confines they imposed on the revolution they fostered – or back the reactionary causes that the new elites had overthrown.

How were Catholics to meet the challenge of reacting to these new and confusing circumstances? Many embraced the road of reactionary rejectionism, not without good reason. But the inherent weakness of retreat to an embattled monarchism was that the absolute monarchies that liberalism replaced were not consistently friendly. As the historian John Rao has pointed out: “Sacred monarchies had controlled rather than protected Catholicism, subordinating spiritual concerns to secular ones in a manner that led to a practical secularisation of the clergy as well as the Church’s mission as a whole.”

Was there a way of engaging with the new liberal structures without being overwhelmed and taken captive by them? Developments unfolded differently from country to country. As the forcible unification of Italy came in part at the expense of the Papal States, the peninsula’s Catholics were forbidden by the Pope from participating in the kingdom’s legislature and elections. Through the enthusiastic formation of Catholic associations and committees gathered into the Opera dei congressi (Work of the Congresses), a Christian approach to civic society distinct from participatory politics emerged. It was called Catholic Action and had great influence. In France, Pope Leo XIII had encouraged a ralliement of Catholics turning away from monarchist polemics and rallying to take part in the French republic. Liberal republicanism was not willing to grasp the Church’s outstretched hand and turned its back on compromise with the 1905 law secularising the state.

Not all strands that came together in Christian democracy were Catholic. In the Netherlands, the neo-Calvinist theologian (and later prime minister) Abraham Kuyper conceived a highly developed political theology centred on “sphere sovereignty”, in which each sphere of life had its own responsibilities and must be allowed to develop accordingly. Much of this tied in with the subsidiarity preached by Bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler of Mainz and incorporated into Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno. Today it is hard to believe that a country like the Netherlands had a 20th-century prime minister who calmly asserted “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: Mine!”

Christian democratic theorists looked at the economic exploitation permitted by liberalism and the divisive revolutionary thinking encouraged by socialism and rejected both as incompatible with Christianity. Solidarity instead of conflict or exploitation should be encouraged, as well as conciliation across the boundaries of class and even nation. The Christian democrats’ international secretariat, founded in 1925, promoted pan-Europeanism and in particular Franco-German reconciliation long before the Second World War made these seem imperative.

Germany’s powerful pre-war Zentrum party did include Christian democrats, but the party was functionally a coalition of elements from across the country’s Catholic population and was mostly pragmatic and conservative in its leadership. The Italian Popular Party was the most Christian democratic of the pre-war parties and reached its electoral zenith in 1921 with 108 seats – behind the dominating Socialists and only three seats ahead of the electoral alliance of liberals, fascists, nationalists, and social democrats (odd bedfellows indeed). The Popular Party’s shield logo of a red cross bearing the word “Libertas” on a white background has become the most recognisable emblem of Christian democratic politics.

With the coming to power of fascism, Italy’s Popolari continued their opposition and faced the fascists in the last multi-party elections in 1924. The Holy See, however, understandably wanted to secure its place in international law vis-a-vis the Italian state, which it achieved with the Lateran Treaty in 1929. While Catholic youth and social organisations continued, the cooperation between the Vatican and Mussolini effectively killed Italian political Catholicism (and Christian democratic politics in general) during the fascist era.

After the war, with most of its opponents on the political spectrum discredited by collaboration with or advocacy of some form of totalitarianism, Christian democracy came to the fore; and in material and political terms the achievements of post-war Christian democratic governments were impressive. In West Germany, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) rebuilt a destroyed country and accommodated millions of German refugees.

From the formation of the Federal Republic, the country achieved rapid industrial growth, low inflation and a swift rise in living standards. Under Christian democratic governments in Italy, GDP doubled between 1950 and 1962, while the Italian party held the line in the face of a well-organised, Moscow-backed communist machine.

Regardless of current controversies, the European Union must be counted as one of the Christian democrats’ greatest achievements. The elimination of borders among the preponderance of European countries and their peaceful cooperation in an economic, social and political union seemed like a utopian fantasy when discussed by Christian democrats in the 1920s. It was the anti-utopian pragmatism of Christian democrats like Robert Schuman that allowed this dream to become a reality. Simply put, there would have been no EU without Christian democracy.

Yet judged by Christian democracy’s own standards of seeking to imbue our societies with a Christian vision of the common good, we need only look around today to judge it an obvious failure. The EU has been reduced to a bloated institutional hulk with no sense of the continent’s common inheritance beyond the centralisation of power in its own hands. From Lisbon to Helsinki, secular liberalism is not just in the ascendant but is also increasingly radicalised. Those who have enough common sense to see liberalism’s error have little to fall back on in terms of the parties that avowedly claim to be Christian democratic today.

This should not surprise us. Since the 1960s we have seen the Church in its formal leadership continually abdicating its responsibilities towards the laity and the surrender of the public square to whatever might take its place. Bishops and clergy began to tear down the walls of Christian doctrine, claiming they imprisoned rather than protected the faithful. Lay Catholics formed all too well by clericalism began to follow their lead, sometimes sheepishly, sometimes enthusiastically.

Christian democrats’ strengths were turned into weaknesses. Parties thrived because of their ability to appeal to the widely varying interests of workers, employers, farmers, women and youth. Mediating conflicts among these groups was necessary to maintain electoral cohesion; in the best instances this promoted social harmony but in the worst fostered a stifling atmosphere of conformity.

During periods of Christian democratic ascendancy, more often than not Catholic social input was downgraded or put on the back-burner to avoid divisions in the anti-communist grand alliance. Once the threat of Soviet communism disappeared, this pragmatic alliance of Christian democrats with anti-communist liberals and socialists collapsed. Social and economic liberals were freed to cooperate with the left towards electoral gain. Christian democratic parties, long bereft of the actual Christian inspiration for their policies, began changing them, playing catch-up with an increasingly dominant liberalism.

Skill at mediating conflicts within the Christian democratic family became a defect when interacting with opponents outside of it. The centre-left gradually became more pro-enterprise on the one hand but more extreme in its social radicalism on the other. With the Church encouraging the laity to secularise, this meant Christian democratic parties made concessions to economic liberalism on the right and social radicalism on the left.

The Catholic vision of society has been reduced to just one of several options (if even that) in a liberal-democratic game – not just among parties but even within Christian democratic parties themselves. Some gave up the pretence entirely, as when Belgium’s Christian Social Party renamed itself the Humanist Democratic Centre.

Christians don’t “believe” in democracy any more than they believe or disbelieve in any system of government, but Christian democrats felt their mission was to use democracy to imbue society with Christianity.

It has been argued that liberal praxis breeds liberal theory sooner or later: it is difficult to play the game while asserting you don’t believe in it. Is it possible to have a full-hearted Catholic participation in a political realm that is decidedly pluralist? Lacking a well-informed and catechised laity backed up by priests and religious who uphold at least the basics of the faith, it is hard to imagine. Sooner or later there is concession after concession, with liberalism moving the goalposts at whim.

For those of us in Western democracies, it is all too easy to give in to victim status and complain that the game is stacked against us so we should just keep our heads down and guard our immediate family life. But this is a strategy of abject surrender and facilitation of evil. Besides, we will soon find the fight brought to our doors and inside our homes regardless.

In the third decade of the 21st century, can we foresee any emerging forms of Catholic engagement with politics? Here in Britain Jacob Rees-Mogg’s unruffled defence of Catholic doctrine is heartening but his politics overall owes more to Margaret Thatcher than to Leo XIII. Catholic Labourites such as Stephen Pound and Mary Glindon hold the line admirably but have a small following in Corbyn’s party. Commentators Tim Stanley and James Forsyth have proposed Theresa May as a Christian democrat, given her emphasis on an economy that must work for everyone, but we have heard little on this theme since her advisers Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill were offered as sacrificial victims after the failures of the 2017 election campaign.

If there is any room for cooperation with outsiders it may come not from party politics but from the growing intellectual tendency known as post-liberalism. British thinkers like David Goodhart have tried to move beyond simplistic dichotomies of individual versus collective or state versus market while sharing a respect for tradition and duty. Post-liberal thinking is strongly distinct from Christian democracy but many of the conclusions are similar.

Others in the Catholic world such as Patrick Deneen, a professor of political science at Notre Dame, use post-liberalism as an intellectual device to discern what a Christian society would look like in the aftermath of a liberalism that is superficially triumphant and yet racked by its own contradictions.

If there is to be a Catholic re-engagement with politics, it will come despite, not thanks to, clerical leaders all too willing to keep their heads down and manage a decline they feel is inevitable. For the Church to regain the skills, confidence and internal cohesion it needs to re-engage with society in any sphere, lay Catholics must lay the foundations in their families, schools and workplaces.

Andrew Cusack is a writer and web designer who blogs at andrewcusack.com