On February 17, Matteo Renzi, the mayor of Florence, was appointed the Prime Minister of Italy three days after he had forced the resignation of Prime Minister Enrico Letta. And this was despite their belonging to the same political party, the Democratic Party. Although a practicing Catholic himself, the election of Renzi represents a low point in the fortunes of political Catholicism in democratic Italy, as engaged Catholics across the political spectrum have less influence over the national government than at probably any point since World War II. This decline in fortunes illustrates the weaknesses of mainstream Catholic political strategies in the post-Cold War era.
In an earlier post I have described how U.S. political Catholicism is in a state of crisis, as well. Although conditions unique to each nation have shaped the strategies of political Catholicism in each nation, a cross-country comparison can help illustrate how the struggles of political Catholicism in the early twenty-first century reflect certain weaknesses in the Catholic Church’s current understanding of its social mission.
The most obvious difference between political Catholicism in Italy and its counterpart in the U.S. is the predominant demographic and cultural status of Catholicism in Italy, compared to its minority status in the U.S. A close second would be the dominant position of political Catholicism in Italy within recent memory, in the form of the Christian Democracy (DC) party. The DC dominated Italian politics between 1948 and 1992, taking part in government for that entire period and only giving up the premiership from 1981 to 1982 and from 1983 to 1987. This dominance was the result of not only Italy’s Catholic majority, but also the absence of any real democratic alternative to the DC; the DC’s main competitors, the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), were anti-democratic, at least until late in this period. The DC governed loosely in line with Catholic social teaching, although with diverse factions across a broad political spectrum, yet its governance was increasingly marred by corruption.
The dominance of the DC ended in 1992 with Mani pulite, the massive corruption investigation that led to the indictment of up to 5,000 politicians, business leaders, and others. Decimated by the loss of many of its leaders and of the public trust, in the 1992 elections the DC received only 29.7% of the vote, its lowest ever, and in 1994 the party was dissolved and replaced by the Italian People’s Party (PPI), an attempt at a purer form of political Catholicism. The PPI was quickly overshadowed by Forza Italia (FI), the secular conservative party of media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, and the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS), a social democratic party that had evolved out of the PCI in 1991 after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.
The post-1992 era represented a new stage for Italian political Catholicism as it responded to the increasing secularity and pluralism of Italian society. Although Pope John XXIII had ensured the autonomy of the DC from clerical meddling in the early 1960s, it was only in the post-1992 era that Italian Catholics experienced in the political realm Paul VI’s dictum that “the same Christian faith can lead to different commitments” (Octogesima Adveniens #50). Many Catholics simply chose to vote for the now-dominant secular parties of the Right and the Left, FI and the PDS. Others judged these secular alternatives as inadequate, instead opting for the more distinctively Catholic PPI. The overriding question for Italian political Catholicism in the 1990s was that of alignment with the dominant poles of Italian politics; the days when Christian Democracy was the governing party were gone, so to have any influence on the governance of the nation, it became necessary to form a coalition with one or the other of the dominant secular parties.
Just as in the United States, however, even among Italian Catholics who drew on Catholic social teachings, some leaned in a more conservative direction and others in a more social-democratic one. These differences led to the eventual split of the PPI. Very early on Pier Fernando Casini formed the Christian Democratic Centre (CDC) and joined a coalition with Berlusconi and the FI; Casini was soon followed by Rocco Buttiglione and the United Christian Democrats (CDU) in 1995 (the CDC and the CDU joined to form the Union of Christian and Center Democrats, or UDC, in 2001). More left-leaning Catholics remained in the PPI, which in the 1996 elections joined the “Olive Tree” coalition with the PDS and other smaller parties of the left.
Although operating in a multi-party system in which politically-engaged Catholics have diverse political options, Italian political Catholicism demonstrates a dynamic also found in its U.S. counterpart. Both operate out of a model of social mission, increasingly endorsed by the Magisterium since the pontificate of John XXIII, in which Catholics draw on a set of abstract principles (such as the “principles of social doctrine” found in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, or the “seven key themes of Catholic social teaching” presented by the U.S. bishops) and apply them to their concrete circumstances. Because “the same Christian faith can lead to different commitments,” however, Catholics can come to different practical conclusions on social matters and make different partisan allegiances. In the United States it is common for politically-engaged Catholics to consider themselves a “leaven” within their respective party, sharing the party’s overall orientations but pushing it in distinctively Catholic directions, for example, by introducing a greater concern for the poor within the Republican Party or a greater respect for unborn life in the Democratic Party. In Italy, although acting through independent parties or factions, Catholics play a similar function, bringing their distinctive concerns to coalitions of the Left or Right. In both countries, too, Catholics face the danger of compromising their Catholic identity by too easily accommodating to the values of Left or Right incompatible with their faith.
Despite this shared understanding of the Catholicism’s social mission, there are important differences between Catholics of the Left and Right. The political scientist Aldo Di Virgilio surveyed members of Italy’s small Catholic parties and found that those who allied with the Left felt more at home with their coalition partners while those on the Right felt more alienated (“From Proportional Representation to Plurality and Back: Post-Christian Democratic Parties Compared,” Modern Italy 13 (2008): 429-49). These attitudes were reflected in the actual political strategies of these parties. The PPI joined with other smaller parties to found the officially nonconfessional, although culturally Catholic, Democracy is Freedom – The Daisy party in 2002 and then in 2007 The Daisy became a Catholic current within the larger, secular Democratic Party. The UDC, in contrast, has retained its independence and has alternated between alliances with the right and operating independently, in recent years even attempting to establish a “Third Pole” in the political center.
Although it is only an intuition, I believe that on the surface the exact opposite is the case in the United States; I would imagine that informed Catholics who vote Republican are more likely to feel at home in their party, while Catholics who vote Democrat are more likely to feel some alienation from their party. Even if I am right about this difference, there is a deeper underlying commonality in the situations in the U.S. and Italy. Despite a shared understanding of the church’s social mission, Italian Catholics of the Left and Right have developed different rhetorical strategies for balancing their Catholic identity with the secular and pluralist society in which they operate. Right-leaning Catholics tend to adopt the rhetoric of natural law, which provides a way to maintain strict adherence to controversial Catholic teachings on abortion and traditional marriage, for example, while in theory maintaining that those teachings are accessible to a broader public since, as natural law, they are founded on reason rather than ecclesiastical dictate. Therefore conservatives are able to adopt a strategy that emphasizes purity of identity that is nevertheless accepting of pluralism and secularism. In the Italian context, this explains the UDC’s fluctuations between coalition and autonomy, as the party remains true to its principles while making strategic alliances on issues of shared concern.
Left-leaning Catholics, on the other hand, have adopted a strategy of, for lack of a better term, consensus-based accommodation. For example, Rosy Bindi, who has played prominent roles in the PPI and The Daisy, and until 2013 served as President of the Democratic Party, helped craft Italy’s “civil union” policy in which certain legal benefits are provided to cohabiting couples, including same-sex couples, while maintaining traditional marriage as a distinct institution. Bindi also supports the status quo on Italy’s abortion law, in which abortion is permitted during the first trimester but prohibited afterwards, unless the life of the mother is in danger. In both cases, Catholic values continue to have relevance for the broader society, but there is also a recognition that in a pluralist, secular society those values are not completely accepted. This consensus-based strategy helps explain the absorption of the PPI into The Daisy, and then The Daisy into the Democratic Party; these Catholics recognize that they must work with individuals who do not share all of their values, and that a consensus-based policy that respects that diversity while also reflecting one’s own values is the best response to this situation.
I would argue that Catholics in the United States have adopted these same rhetorical strategies. Consider Mario Cuomo’s acceptance of the right to an abortion in the name of consensus, and Henry Hyde’s rebuttal in terms of natural law. In the U.S., however, the conservative strategy of purity has so far enabled Catholics to feel at home in the Republican Party, at least since the 1980s, since the evangelical Protestant base of the party share many of the same ethical concerns. In the Democratic Party, in contrast, many Catholics feel increasingly alienated as the growing radicalism of some within the party on issues such as abortion, bioethics, and sexuality exposes the limits of consensus-based accommodation.
In Italy, the strategies of both the Catholic Left and Right have failed. With growing disillusionment with the dominant parties, the UDC had an opportunity to propose a real alternative in Italian politics. In the 2013 elections, the UDC threw in its lot with Mario Monti, who had been appointed prime minister to respond to Italy’s debt crisis. Monti was crushed in the election, coming in fourth place behind not only the Democratic Party and Berlusconi’s People of Freedom, but also the comedian Beppe Grillo’s 5 Star Movement. The UDC’s alternative had little appeal to Italians. Left-leaning Catholics appeared to fare better, playing a prominent role in Enrico Letta’s government, formed after long negotiations. Most of these Catholics were gone, however, after Matteo Renzi’s insurgency. Renzi consciously models himself after Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, advocating a liberal “Third Way” less tied to social Catholicism, and identifies with a younger generation over against the old guard of Italian politics. It seems likely that political Catholicism, as currently understood, will have less appeal to this younger generation.
Given the increasing marginalization of political Catholicism in different national contexts, it is becoming more obvious that those of us who are convinced of the political significance of Catholicism must reconsider the current model for the church’s social mission. Decades of experience now show that this model has an innate tendency to create a polarity between purity and accommodation, identity and engagement, that has contributed to its weakness. We need to develop a new model that can combine these two poles in the service of political engagement, which will require creative thinking and experimentation in practice.