Christian Democracy (Fr Michael Bullock, OGS)

A paper delivered to the London and Cambridge College Chapter at Alton Abbey 18 February 2020

I am going to begin with the fifth Note of the Oratory ‘The love that makes for peace’:

‘Members will have a concern for living interests and problems in Church and State, and in discussing opinions which differ from their own will avoid harsh judgements. Brethren must try to understand these differing opinions, in the hope that they may help to restore the unity of all Christian people in the spirit of charity and peace’.

I suggest this has relevance in the life of our own country where perhaps uniquely in the last three or four years harsh judgements have prevailed in discussing matters of state, although not, I like to think, within the Oratory. In my own time in the Oratory I have known brethren who would not object to being described as romantic Tories, and others as red-hot socialists; actually, some were both. One brother tells me that when he was rendering account of his stewardship he acknowledged a subscription paid to a British political party, he was asked by another brother how he could reconcile that with being a Christian. I like to think that irony of a rather Oratorian character was being employed. We are all familiar with the description of the Church of England as the Conservative Party at prayer, and its later alleged twist as the Communist Party at Mass. Both sound very dated; my purpose in presenting this paper is to look at a political tradition which has called itself in continental Europe Christian Democracy.

As brethren and companions know, I myself have lived in continental Europe, in the Diocese in Europe, since 1991, and now in my retirement serve at least three days a week as Chaplain of Bonn and Cologne in Germany. Most of my examples will come from Germany and Italy: in Italy the Christian Democrat party governed without interruption from 1947 to 1994, and in the Federal Republic of Germany the Christian Democrats have governed, although mostly in coalition, and with intervals, from the foundation of the state in 1949 to the present day. There have been Christian Democratic parties in Belgium, Spain, Portugal and Switzerland, and all could be characterised as centre-right. No significant Christian Democratic parties have emerged in France or the United Kingdom, although the name has been taken by small groups which emerged with the turn of the millennium, groups with a significant pro-life agenda. The peculiar historical church-state relationship may explain this in France, and I will return to the peculiar context of this country later. I am saying nothing about Christian Democracy outside Europe: one source tells me that, where there is a functioning parliamentary system in South America, Christian Democracy is likely to be centre-left rather than centre-right; it could be interesting to look at Labour parties in British overseas dominions, which drew their support from Irish and largely Catholic workers.

Pope Leo XIII
Pope Leo XIII

I propose to give an historical overview of continental Christian Democracy by looking at its forerunners up to 1945. Its roots were very Catholic, both in defence of Catholic concerns perceived to be under threat and in the teaching of the Church as formulated in the social teaching of the Church in the nineteenth century. A key document here must be the encyclical Rerum Novarum issued by Pope Leo XIII in 1891. The purpose ofRerum Novarumwas to apply to the new conditions created by the Industrial Revolution the traditional Catholic teaching on the relationship of human beings to their work, profit, masters and servants. On the ground that society originated in the family, it proclaimed private property a natural right and condemned ‘socialism’ as infringing it. It upheld wage-settlements by free agreement, the rightfulness of combinations of workers or employers, and above all the ideal of a just wage, defined as ‘enough to support the wage-earner in reasonable and frugal comfort’ with a family. More controversially to modern ears, it maintained that the natural place of women was in the home. It also emphasised the duty of the state to preserve justice and the responsibility of the Church in the moral aspects of employment. This new concern of the Church for the condition of the workers was heralded as revolutionary and subversive of the established order. In 1931 the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno was issued by Pius XI to mark its fortieth anniversary, stressing the evil results both of free competition and centralised administration and in 1991 John Paul II marked its hundredth anniversary with Centesimus Annus, which attacked the evils of both capitalism and Marxism.

Konrad Adenauer
Konrad Adenauer

How did this work out on the ground? The overwhelmingly Catholic Rhineland, where I work, had been annexed by distant Protestant Prussia in 1815, and the Centre Party was founded in 1871 to fight the Catholic cause, especially in education, association and expression, in the face of the Prussian and later German governments, remarkably successfully. One of my sources says that the Centre Party was so named from Rome as the centre of Christendom; I think this is unlikely, but I don’t think the Centre Party thought of itself as a middle-of-the-road party. The Centre Party held its own electorally in the Rhineland up to and beyond the Nazi takeover in 1933; Centre Party votes did not fall to the Nazis as quickly as they did elsewhere in Germany. In 1933 the Centre Party was suppressed by Hitler along with the other German political parties, although at the same time Hitler agreed to the Reich Concordat through which the Church hoped to defend its liberties.  The dismissed Mayor of Cologne, Konrad Adenauer, withdrew to the Benedictine monastery of Maria Laach in the Rhineland, which acted as something of a think tank for a future, from which Christian Democracy was to emerge, together, it has to be said, with some less savoury ideas espoused by Catholic thinkers in southern European countries at the time. In Italy the priest Don Luigi Sturzo led the Popular Party, which in 1924 fell victim to Mussolini’s Fascism and with the collusion of Pope Pius XI Don Sturzo went into exile. We should remember in passing that up to the Second World War was not inevitably seen as an obvious good thing in Christian circles.

Everything changed in 1945. Christian Democracy filled the political and moral vacuum in Germany, Italy and elsewhere in devastated Europe. In Italy a Christian Democrat poster of 1947 shows an armed crusader (crusaders were acceptable then) facing the dual monsters of communism and capitalism. Nevertheless, in the era of the Cold War it was perhaps inevitable that Christian Democrats should become parties of the centre-right. On a loftier plane, Europe after the Second World War, understandably weary of political dogma, saw something of a revival of churchgoing; this also applied to the United Kingdom, and we might consider later how the Conservative Party in Britain at this time shows marked similarities with Christian Democracy of the continent. Another enormous change after 1945 was that Christian Democracy became less exclusively sectarian catholic and drew in Protestant support, especially in Protestant rural areas in northern Germany and the Netherlands. After 1945 neo-Calvinist joined neo-Thomist thought, the Social Gospel joined the Papal Encyclicals. But perhaps most Christian Democrat voters just wanted a quiet life.

Where is the Christian Democrat Party in Britain? You might argue that it could have been the Conservative Party, the party of Church and Crown, of Disraeli’s one nation, with a suspicion, at least before 1979, of untrammelled capitalism- or as it would be called in continental Europe, liberalism. Or you could argue that it could have been the Labour Party: it is debated whether Labour owes more to Marxism or Methodism, it is less often debated how much it owes to Catholic social teaching, especially I suggest in urban constituencies. I have no evidence for this, but when I hear words like subsidiarity and solidarity, the currency of Christian Democratic discourse, on the lips of an MP the MP is likely to be Catholic-educated. But the British attachment to economic liberalism may have hindered the development of Christian Democracy; maybe also some residual anti-Catholicism. Perhaps more important is, as in so many things, our perception of 1945. The political and moral vacuum perceived on the continent was not generally perceived in Britain: we had won; indeed, it is not untrue to feel that we had won in 1945 a victory of good over evil. The European project became part of the DNA of Christian Democratic parties on the continent; this cannot be said of British political parties with the possible exceptions, paradoxical exceptions, of the Liberal Democrat and Scottish National Parties.

Where is Christian Democracy now? In Italy as I indicated Christian Democracy fell apart in 1993 amidst revelations of corruption. Its successor parties of the non-left have been in Forza Italiaa centre-right party with no specific Christian connection. Its more recent successor is a staunchly anti-immigrant party whose leader at least flaunts rosaries and other objects of popular piety: I use the words ‘at least’ advisedly. There are places in Europe where the programme of Christian Democracy seems excessively interested in such things as the introduction of crucifixes into schools and courthouses. The Christian in Christian Democracy can shade into anti-Muslim, especially in rural areas and eastern areas where once the Ottomans were fought. It is however heartening that when in 2017 thousands of Syrian refugees were admitted into Germany, the Christian Democrat Federal Chancellor justified her stand in explicitly Christian terms, and probably lost a lot of votes, but notably in the most secularised areas of the country.

But finally, the elephant in the room is secularisation. I indicated that the zenith of Christian Democracy in the 1950s was a time of revival of Christian practice, but all western European countries had their equivalent of the Forsyte Saga on the TV, which allegedly killed Evensong. Generations on, the once Christian people of Europe no longer have the knowledge or the will to articulate living interests in state in Christian terms. We are more atomised, and are likely to vote according to our identity group and simply in self-interest. The Oratory does however maintain a sense that matters of state can be, should be, are matters of God, and it is with this sense that I offer this paper.