Commentary Magazine

A European Wave of the Past

During the 1950’s, Christian Democratic parties, bastions of anti-Communism and of the modern welfare state in its moderate or conservative form, held power in all the major countries of the European Community. During the 1960’s, they seemed to be the wave of the future in Latin America. Today, even though interest in Christian Democracy is high in the former Communist world, the failure of the movement has become undeniable.

In June 1993, Italy’s Christian Democratic party (DC), the most successful of its kind, having ruled the country uninterruptedly for 48 years, got all of 9 percent of the vote in Milan’s mayoral election. (The winners were a hitherto powerless bunch of political nobodies calling themselves the Northern League.) The DC’s historic leaders are under indictment for corruption. In July the party held a special “constituent” congress to change its name—thus aping the Italian Communist party, which executed the same maneuver in 1990 to distance itself from its unsavory past. Despite the DC’s power, patronage, wealth, and sophistication, despite vast influence in the media, not to mention the support (albeit weakening) of the Church, Italian Christian Democracy is being repudiated as repugnant and anachronistic.

The Italian DC’s predicament is not essentially different from that of other European and Latin American Christian Democratic parties. Even the German Christian Democratic Union—still in power in Bonn—and the Chilean DC—about to gain the presidency as part of an uneasy coalition with socialists—suffer, though not so acutely, from the same liabilities.

The fall of Christian Democracy is, as it happens, long overdue. So long as Communism was a threat, Christian Democrats could claim that they were its most trustworthy opponents. Now, however, they have no firm self-definition. They are neither principled defenders of free economies nor principled socialists, neither the champions of the family nor the party of New Age social bureaucracies. Least of all are they defenders of Christianity, though they certainly treat Catholic (and sometimes Protestant) prelates as prized interest-group constituents. They are, however, as much for high taxes, patronage, and statism in general as anyone on the political scene—and, not least, they have earned a reputation for corruption. Hence, they are liable to be swept away either by middle-class protest movements or by the first political situation that requires an unambiguous choice among important matters.



The Christian Democratic movement in modern politics traces its ancestry to the 19th century. It consisted then of parties of Catholics who, in line with papal teachings, were on the whole quite wary of state power. Thus, the German Catholics who stood up to Bismarck were not asking that the government do anything, only that it stop its Kulturkampf aimed at driving Catholicism out of public life. The Frenchmen who fought Jules Ferry’s establishment of a secular monopoly in tax-supported schools were saying the same thing. The Italian Romolo Murri, like his French counterparts, was careful to specify that his suggestions for improving the lot of workers were aimed at the private sector, not the state. Even in 1938, the founder of modern Italian Christian Democracy, Luigi Sturzo, stressed the vital importance of maintaining the independence of civil society, especially of education and economic enterprise.

All this was very much according to the social teachings of the Catholic Church. Today’s impression that these teachings mandate a fuzzy sort of paternalism of the state over civil society (an impression to which Christian Democrats have contributed mightily) has no basis in papal encyclicals. The popes always made clear that the state should be the servant rather than the master of families and civil society, and that state power is likelier than not to be misused. After all, if individuals are flawed by original sin, the state is even more so.

How, then, did Catholic parties become vehicles for supporting ever bigger government? Practically, the process was driven by the way Catholic politicians of different secular political persuasions came to terms with the greatest political movement of our time: the belief that the modern state could be the prime mover of material and social progress. Recall how widespread was the faith, early in this century, that the combination of technology and rational, large-scale industrial management was the key to health, wealth, and happiness. This was the model that infected a whole generation of political thinkers, including Catholics. And the fact that the “progressive” enterprise gave power to those who ran it only increased the attraction.

There was something else as well. To Catholic politicians, socialism—aside from being their spiritual enemy—offered the example of an organization which could fill the lives of its members and bind them together with ties that seemed stronger than the Church’s. Many Catholic politicians admired and envied their socialist counterparts, not only for their role as material providers but for the power they wielded as heads of political battalions.

By the same token, many Catholic politicians were also deeply affected by another nemesis of Christianity, fascism. The Mussolini regime in Italy really did organize civil society. The fascists arranged outings for young people in the summer, help for farmers, recreation for industrial workers; they also undertook the first massive efforts to uplift downtrodden sectors of society. They bailed out failing businesses; established services for the unemployed; started minimum pensions for the aged. Not incidentally, they did all this with appointees and cooptees who were kept loyal by the patronage that all these activities generated. Just imagine, a Catholic politician might reason, how much good these tools could do in the hands of worthy and pious anti-fascists!

The latter got their chance after World War II when victorious American and British officials chose Christian Democrats and socialists to be the main contenders for power in Western Europe. Between the two, West European citizens by and large voted Christian Democratic. They did so not only to reject Communism, but above all to reaffirm the decent civilization that Christianity had built and that modern totalitarianism had well-nigh wrecked. The postwar period also saw a religious revival. The Christian Democrats all but asked for votes in the twin names of Jesus Christ and the United States of America, and they got them.



To be sure, not all Christian Democrats were enthused by the modern enterprise. The first set of postwar leaders—Italy’s Alcide de Gasperi, France’s Robert Schumann, and Germany’s Konrad Adenauer—were in fact rather suspicious of it. They carried in their bones the old distinction between the party and the state, and between the state and the economy. But even in the 1940’s these leaders did not represent the majority of their organizations. Schumann never really set policy for the French Popular Republican Movement (MRP). Until 1954, de Gasperi ran the Italian DC as the heir of Luigi Sturzo, and as the favorite of the Pope and the Americans, but he constantly compromised with internal leftist factions. And as for Adenauer, he emerged as the leader of the German CDU by daring acts of presumption and tactical skill, but despite his enormous success in raising a starving pariah-people to prosperity and prestige within the international community, his party could hardly wait to get rid of him and repudiate his policies.

So, by the 1960’s, power within the European Christian Democratic parties had passed into the hands of two factions: pragmatic (read unprincipled) managers of patronage and far smaller groups of principled statists.

In Italy and France first, in Germany and the Low Countries later and to a lesser extent, the Christian Democrats built party structures that looked very much like those of the Communists—general secretaries, directorates, central committees, regional and provincial federations. Under the European electoral system of proportional representation (in Germany mixed with American-style direct elections), according to which a candidate’s place on the party list determines his chances of election, and the party leadership determines each candidate’s place on the list, the party could hire and fire legislators. Christian Democrats never went as far as the Communists, who required that MP’s turn over their state paychecks in exchange for party salaries, but Christian Democratic MP’s did work not so much for the voters as for the party or for one of its “mass organizations”: labor unions or womens’, youth, and church organizations.

As the years passed, more and more of the party apparatus was lodged and fed in the expanding state bureaucracy and nationalized industry. The Italian DC had a head start: it simply took over the giant fascist holding companies and expanded what it called the para-state sector. By 1978, one-third of all clerical workers in the country were government employees, not including the para-state sector. The German CDU had to start from scratch; nevertheless, by 1973 one out of five German service workers was a government employee. By the 1980’s the influence of these parties extended throughout society, and good connections with them had become the shortest route to affluence.

One reason the parties chose to build big, clientelistic organizations was to reduce their dependence on the Catholic Church and its organizations. Immediately after the war, the clergy and lay volunteers were, by default, the most numerous and best-organized corps of political activists in Europe. Moreover, the Church’s prestige was high. But the Christian Democrats, with the Italian contingent again in the lead, preferred to rely on members tied to the party by interest rather than by ideas.

Their treatment of the Church over the decades has been consistent with this. They have supported the material interests of the Catholic hierarchy (and in Germany of the Protestant hierarchy, too) as steadfastly as they have supported the interests of farmers. In Italy and Germany, tax monies pay the clerics’ salaries, and, what is more, prelates can always get important government officials on the phone. But on issues like divorce, abortion, or education, European Christian Democrats have fought perfunctory battles, and catered more to the views of their secular coalition partners than to those of the Church. The Church, it seems, has acquiesced in an increasingly bad bargain for essentially mercenary reasons.



The fall of the Christian Democratic parties is as instructive as their rise. As the biggest “objectively” conservative movement in Europe, Christian Democracy had gradually absorbed nearly all other conservative forces—monarchists in Italy and France, nationalists and refugee groups in Germany. Yet although most Christian Democratic politicians were happy enough to present themselves as conservative society’s bulwark against the Left (the Italians used the term “anti-Communist dike,” and until the mid-1970’s the Germans made anti-Communist rhetoric into a high art), they became less and less distinguishable from the socialists, with whom they would coalesce or strike legislative deals without blinking an eye.

Thus, although the Christian Democrats’ natural electoral constituency has remained conservative, when either the electoral system or the political situation has forced a choice, Christian Democrats have lost out because they have not been ready to represent the views of that constituency.

The first big casualty was France’s MRP. Although the burial was delayed until 1969, the party effectively died in 1958 when Charles de Gaulle posed a clear choice between himself and the united forces of the Left. All manner of conservatives, Catholics included, saw him as a far less ambiguous champion than the MRP. Then, when the Fifth Republic scrapped proportional representation for majority voting by district, and the public got used to making choices among the most convincing leftists and the most convincing conservatives, the MRP was shut out.

Similarly with the most successful Christian Democratic parties, Italy’s and Germany’s. These had established a monopoly on representing the conservative electorate, and firmly believed that their voters had no choice but to stick with them no matter what. But as the parties became indistinguishable from the socialists—except in rhetoric—voters became less averse to experimenting and more attracted to anti-system candidates. In Italy, the conservative electorate that went to the Northern League last June could have gone to any likely-sounding movement that came along. But it was bound to leave the DC.

The German CDU, which triumphed in the 1990 election when it was (rightly) perceived as favoring rapid absorption of the former Soviet-occupied zone, has been trounced in every subsequent by-election. The immediate reasons are that it broke its pledge not to raise taxes to pay for reunification, that the tax monies spent on reunification seem to be doing more harm than good, and that the economy seems to be depressed, except for those who can get government contracts to rebuild the East. But the deeper reason for the decline in the CDU’s electoral fortunes is that Germans, like other Europeans, have had enough of big government and are looking for ways of protesting. As in Italy, this is bad news for the Christian Democrats. If the CDU should be challenged by a middle-class, anti-state protest movement, whether of national scope or regionally based, little would stand in the way of its ending up like the Italian DC.

Ironically, the CDU’s sister party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), might become part of its undoing. The CSU, the direct descendant of the Bavarian People’s party, has retained its regional organization and identity, and, despite its participation in the central government, has managed to present itself as the Bavarian people’s advocate against the center. Thus it is reasonably well placed to take advantage of the Europe-wide reassertion of regional prerogatives, and of the growing feeling in Germany that subsidizing the East is a bad idea. None of this, of course, has anything to do with Christianity, except that Catholicism is a badge of Bavarian distinctiveness.



The troubles of the big Christian Democratic parties can be summed up as follows: they are completely identified with the state and its clients, yet they are dependent on conservative voters who have less respect for the state with every passing day. This is also the predicament of the U.S. Republican party, and of the French Gaullists. It is not a passing problem. The current economic slowdown throughout the Western world is due to the excessive weight of the state—taxes and regulations. Conservative voters, always on guard against becoming the state’s cash cows, always hostile to collectivist policies, have seen socialism collapse in the East and are less willing than ever to tolerate it at home, under whatever name. All conservative parties in the West are liable to sudden flights of voters to anti-state groups of widely varying quality.

But the failure of Europe’s Christian Democratic parties has an additional dimension: they abused, and therefore devalued, the cross, the most powerful symbol in the Western world. Hypocrisy is corrosive. In time, other parties will occupy the Christian Democrats’ political space, and for better or worse, both conservatives and professing Christians will continue to play a role in the modern world commensurate with their numbers, abilities, and dedication. Contemporary challenges to the Christian vision of society are at least as demanding as Bismarck’s Kulturkampf. But no one will respond to them by trying to revive Christian Democracy.

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