On September 24, 2021, CEU Democracy Institute and the Review of Democracy held the symposium The Past and Present of Christian Democracy where leading scholars discussed the historical significance and contemporary state of Christian Democracy. The first panel was dedicated to Carlo Invernizzi Accetti’s book What is Christian Democracy? Politics, Religion and Ideology (Cambridge University Press, 2019). The book was discussed by three speakers, Giuliana Chamedes, James Chappel and Martin Conway, which was followed by a response from the author. The debate was organized by RevDem Assistant Editor, Vilius Kubekas. You can find below the revised transcript.
Giuliana Chamedes: Carlo Invernizzi Accetti’s What is Christian Democracy? Politics, Religion and Ideology is a really terrific book. We were missing a book on the political ideology of Christian Democracy – there was a real gap. Yesterday I did a search on WorldCat for European socialism, and I found over a hundred thousand results; I did a search for Christian Democracy in Europe, and I found a few hundred books. So there is clearly a big difference in terms of the amount of coverage that this major political ideology on European soil has received by scholars. It has become somewhat of a trope in the literature on Christian Democracy to lament the small number of serious works on the topic, but the claim still holds. It is therefore very attractive to have a single book that enables students and scholars to wrap their heads around this complex political ideology.
I particularly liked the framing that Carlo gave where he organized his analysis in part around Michael Freeden’s vision set out in Ideologies and Political Theory (1996). This enables us to see that Christian Democracy is crafted collectively as an ideology rather than by one or two key thinkers. The analysis connects ideas to praxis in a way that, I think, is very enriching; as Carlo puts it, the book emphasizes “the world-disclosive nature of political ideologies.” It also crosses a lot of disciplinary boundaries: historians should be interested in it, as should political scientists, scholars of international relations and really everyone else who is interested in the intersection between religion and politics.
I decided to organize my presentation around a series of questions so that we can engage in discussion together. The first thing I would like to ask to Carlo to reflect on is how his book relates to the monumental work of another political scientist, who has worked extensively on Christian Democracy, Stathis Kalyvas. In his 1986 book, which at this point is quite dated but is still considered a standard of how to bring political-scientific analysis to Christian Democracy, Kalyvas offered a comparative account of how Christian Democracy arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. What Kalyvas is arguing in the book is that Christian Democratic parties arose in a sense by accident, as an “unintended consequence” of actions by Church officials and conservative Catholics. What he says is that neither of these groups wanted a confessional party, but they got one anyway. Conservatives were opposed to a confessional party because they were worried about the politicization of religion and about being bound too tightly to the Church. The Church opposed it because they feared that authority would pass out of the hands of the Church hierarchy to lower clergy and to politicians. But in the process of mobilizing against anti-clerical legislation and politicians in the late 19th century, the Church decides to empower Catholic lay organizations. And then, in the story that Kalyvas tells us, these politicized organizations get out of the Church’s hands.
The big conclusion that Kalyvas draws from this is that Christian Democratic parties did ultimately achieve, in his view, a separation from the institutional Church and from religion itself.
He notes at a certain point late in the book that “thus in a paradoxical way the politicization of religion contributed to the secularization of politics.” I see this claim as the one that Carlo’s book is directly disputing. As you put it at certain point in your book, Carlo, “Christianization of democracy and the democratization of Christianity were the two things achieved by Christian Democracy.” Clearly, the final overarching point that Kalyvas makes is clashing directly with the point that you raise here.
So my question to you is: how do you arrive at this different claim? You certainly provide plenty of empirical examples in support of it, but I would love for you to reflect a little bit more for us about why you think you and Kalyvas arrived at such radically different conclusions. Is it that the two of you are looking at different time periods? His focus is the late 19th century and early 20th century, while the second half of your book is really about Europe after 1945. Is it a definitional issue? That is, are you two even defining secularization in the same way, or do you have a different way of understanding this concept? Is it a methodological issue? And here I get on slightly uncertain terrain, because I am not a political scientist, but what I do understand is that Kalyvas is operating within the rational choice theory model. Is it the case that the theory he uses leads him down the path he would have avoided, he had favoured a functionalist approach like you do?
To return to the empirical question, do you think that Kalyvas is simply wrong in his choice of sources and, most importantly, in his interpretation of those sources? Is it just not the case that, for instance, Christian Democrats broke with the Church and with religion? In my own research, I have made this case, though it certainly does not apply to all Christian Democrats, but to some very key factions within national parties. To put it in a nutshell, can you summarize the nature of your disagreement with Kalyvas?
The second question that I wanted to ask you pertains to the uses and abuses of history. I am sure you predicted that at least one of us would pick up on this point in your introduction where you note that historians often adopt what you called a “semantic nominalism” that “consists in tracing the observable occurrences of the term under consideration and examining the meaning that is attached to it in those contexts.” If I understand correctly, your concern is that this line of reasoning can collapse into the conclusion that Christian Democratic ideology amounts to a non-phenomenon and it is maybe even a kind of illusion that anything like Christian Democracy exists at all; all that exist is what Christian Democracy looked like in particular historical moments. Seen from a greater distance, all that is solid melts into air, the centre does not hold. My sense is that this concern is a bit overblown.
All the historians of Christian Democracy that I know of, including those on this panel, are committed to reading their sources both with and against the grain. And their concern is that assuming one continual teleological story about Christian Democracy risks prioritizing certain sources over others. In particular, it risks taking at face value the self-narratives that Christian Democrats voice about themselves after World War II – even though, arguably,
Christian Democracy’s reinvention during and immediately after World War II was circumstantial and many of its commitments, like state intervention and the construction of robust welfare states, should be seen as historically contingent rather than sempiternal or naturally flowing from previous ideological commitments of Christian Democratic movements.
This observation leads me to my next question. Historians are quite fond of identifying historical turning points. This is a way for us to get a critical handle on the question of continuity versus change over time. In Part 2 of your book, you spend a lot of time discussing Christian Democracy after World War II. You have this terrific attention to national differences. So my question for you is: do you see World War II as a significant turning point, or inflection point, in the study of Christian Democracy? Why or why not?
Similarly, I was surprised to see that the 1970s and the 1980s did not play a bigger role in your story. The combination of economic crises and societal change was a major shock to the world and certainly to the European continent. And it is quite a surprise, at least to me, that Christian Democracy survived these shocks and so many other parties did not. What is the reason that they have survived and have they really remained the same kind of Christian Democrats?
The final quick point that I wanted to raise has to do with your normative conclusion, which is really fascinating. In your words, Carlo: “there is indeed a lingering normative potential in Christian Democratic ideas and principles in the present day, but this does not lie where most people have been looking for it – i.e., in the way in which Christian Democracy proposes to articulate the domains of politics and religion – but rather in the specific conception of democracy that Christian Democracy can help stabilize against its populist challengers.”
Now, I entirely agree with you that there is a deep inadequacy in the current anti-populist strategies that have been put forward, mainly by scholars. And you are absolutely right to say that we need a better strategy. Your conclusion is that Christian Democracy can help stabilize Europe against populist challengers. I wonder, on the one hand, whether this in some subtle way contradicts the argument that you built elsewhere in the book about the implicit danger of the Christian Democratic ideology of creating extreme exclusion and unequal distribution of resources within societies and within families, and prioritizing certain notions of the family, certain types of individuals, and so forth.
The other question that I had about your normative conclusion has to do with whether there is anything distinctive about Christian Democracy in the argument that you put forward. Are you simply saying we need a respectable right that is capable of containing extremist impulses within the right, such as the argument that Ziblatt and Levitsky put forward in How Democracies Die (2018)? Or is it that you think there is something special and important about Christian Democracy that will enable the European continent to fend off the populist right more successfully?
Those are my three questions for you.
James Chappel: I am going to a little bit summarize to see what Carlo’s basic claims are and then I will ask some questions as well. I want to pick up on something that Giuliana said at the end of her presentation, and Carlo was vigorously nodding. My understanding of the normative part is that wherever we sit on the political spectrum, most of us, at least when it comes to an event like this, think it is important that there will be a respectable centre-right that is not fascist and respects constitutional democratic norms. That strikes me as one of the major problems in political reality today: what happened to that respectable right? How can we recover some kind of respectable right?
So much history of political theory is about how do we create the best and most radical movements for change and why have those failed. That is a very important kind of question but there has been a lot less interest in what are the ways in which a moderate right is created that will at least defend something like liberal civilization. Because of that, Christian Democracy has received a lot less interest.
But I think that now, in 2021, it is very important to understand how it happened that in 20th-century Europe there were places where for thirty or forty years the big conservative parties basically supported democracy, human rights, the constitution, and things like that. I presume that is one of the big questions that draws Carlo into the topic.
The book is a diachronic and a synchronic study of Christian Democracy. It tries to create that we might call an ideal type of Christian Democracy. Carlo is trying to see what it is and how it functions as a coherent ideology. He has a number of chapters that are about Christian Democratic views on the economy, Christian Democratic views on the state, how do Christian Democrats view a political party, how do they think about religion, how do they think about welfare. This historical part draws a lot on the Popes and various Catholic thinkers and politicians.
It is a really important intervention, because there can be a presumption that social democrats and communists have an ideology that is very interesting, but Christian Democrats are just moderate bourgeois parties that do not have any interesting ideology. Carlo shows that is a misunderstanding. These are not just kind of centrist, catch-all parties, at least not at the beginning.
However, while the book is largely about the period from 1950s to 1990s, the ideology part is about the 1890s to the 1940s. So I am curious why that is.
Without going through everything Carlo discusses in the book, what are the basic components that make Christian Democracy what it is?
He wants to say, I think, that Christian Democracy, first and foremost, is a political party form that supports democratic constitutional order for religious or moral reasons rather than for liberal or socialist ones. It is trying to create a religious or moral account of why democracy is good.
Therefore, it plays a really important role in European history and politics, because the big issue after 1945 is that we have to train all these people to believe in democracy again. I think that is the basic level of what Carlo sees Christian Democracy was doing.
It is also a political ideology, concerned with the content of that political structure. To be schematic, if liberalism is most concerned with the rights and dignity of the individual, and socialism is most concerned with the rights and dignity of the working class,
Christian Democracy, as Carlo presents it, is most concerned with the rights and dignity of all the different groups that make up the social order.
He calls this subsidiarity. This is the word that you will probably come across a lot, if you are thinking about Christian Democracy. The most famous one of these groups is the family: everybody knows that Christian Democrats support the family. It is not only due to some kind of traditionalism or misogyny, it is also because the family functions in the Christian Democratic worldview as a really important basic institution whose rights should be protected.
However, it is not the only one. In Christian Democratic view, there are all kinds of other institutions that deserve that kind of support, including trade unions, workers’ cooperatives and then, of course, above the level of the state, the European Union.
So one of Carlo’s big points is to see the kind of Christian Democracy I am talking about, which is concerned with respect to different groupings as central to the basic architecture of the European Union.
It seems to me Carlo also wants to make the point that in Christian Democracy there is something that makes it different from other right-wing visions. All of what I have just said about groups and subsidiarity, a lot of fascists thought as well. Catholics have thought about these matters for a long time because they were concerned about the rights of the Church.
Carlo wants to say that what makes Christian Democracy different from those kinds of traditionally Catholic or fascist visions is that the former has a commitment to the rights and dignity of the individual person. And this is what is called personalism in Catholic circles.
The real significance of personalism for Carlo is that it provides a language, in Catholic’ circles especially, to say that individuals matter a lot as social entities. That is the part that is democratic and allows for Christian Democrats to play in the same sandbox with liberals.
The second part of the book is about how Christian democracy emerged, what kind of power it had, and things like that. As Carlo points out, Christian Democrats won an enormous percentage of elections held in continental Europe in the late 1940s. They had immense power in the 1940s and the 1950s. He calls this a moderate phase of Christian Democracy. At this point, in the late 1940s and the 1950s, they are usually centre-right parties. He subsequently explains that there is a more progressive phase in the 1960s and 1970s where you see Christian Democratic parties moving to the left, like a lot of people were at the time.
And then, from the 1980s onwards, where the traditional story is that Christian Democracy falls apart, he wants to say that it is not so simple. Christian Democracy, and not just in Germany, has been performing well and it might re-emerge again. It is way too simple to tell a story of rise and fall. It is a rise story and then a story of fracturing. There could be lots of variabilities and Carlo also brings in evidence from Latin America and the United States here.
Carlo thinks that even if next year Christian Democrats will lose every election in every place and they will be gone as a separate political force, Christian Democracy will still remain an influential force in European politics. He calls this a “hermit crab”: since Christian Democracy created the structures in which European politics takes place, you could have something like Christian Democracy without having any actual Christian Democrats in that democracy.
Having summarized key parts of the argument, I want to ask larger questions to spark some discussion. One thing that I was wondering is how someone like Angela Merkel fits into the story, i.e., somebody who is not Catholic and was raised in the East German system. If you told me that Angela Merkel was very influenced by Leo XIII and Jacques Maritain, I would not believe you. If the first part of your book is basically dedicated to understanding the Christian Democratic ideology, how does that relate to somebody like Merkel?
Another question I have has to do with something both Giuliana and I have mentioned, which is a kind of disjunction between the theoretical and the empirical parts of your book. The theoretical part is really about the 1890s to the 1940s, a quite religious period in European politics; it is not yet clear at that time that Catholicism, or Christianity, is going to collapse in a lot of places in Europe. And then, the diachronic part of your book takes us into the 1980s and 1990s, the period where people practically stopped going to church. Surely, that matters. I have read Olivier Roy’s book on this recently and he thinks that matters a lot to what Christian politics becomes. I was curious for some reflections from you about that issue: does it matter that Europeans basically stopped going to church?
I have no idea what your personal political proclivities are, Carlo, but I understand why for anybody who supports liberal democratic order, a celebration of Christian Democracy, or at least the respectful elaboration of it, might seem like a good thing. But I did wonder if you overdid it a little bit by talking only about the good parts of Christian Democracy: that Christian Democrats are personalists, they believe in individual dignity, they are supportive of the welfare state, they like equality. That is how Christian Democracy looks if you are a Catholic worker who is married and has kids, but obviously not everyone belongs to that category. For an historian it is an obligation that we also look at these things from different perspectives. What does Christian Democracy look like if you are an unmarried Jewish mother? What does Christian Democracy look like if you an immigrant?
Something that your book does not talk a lot about is Christian Democrats and the Jews, antisemitism, and Holocaust memory – something that after the World War II Christian Democrats were not real champions about.
Obviously, the same can be said if you think about homosexuals, or gay rights. In other words, if this book was written from a perspective in which homosexual rights really matter, it would look like a different book, I think. I am just curious how you would respond to that.
One argument you make is that Christian Democrats provided a safe haven for fascists, providing people who remained fundamentally conservative a way to support a liberal democratic order. And that is definitely one way to look at it. But I wonder what about the counterhypothesis, which would be that Christian Democracy provides a place for fascists to go. The point is that Christian Democrats, at least in the cases I know about – my own book is about France, German and Austria; and so there are a lot of other places that I do not know as well, including Italy – did provide a place for a lot of fascists to go, and not only to gain the status of ‘you are a democrat now’. It was also “we would not talk about the crimes of the past, we will not really address fascism, because the big threat is communism, so we do not have to worry about fascists anymore.”
I think it is historically accurate to say that Christian Democrats collude in, or play a huge role in creating a culture in early post-war Europe that does not really deal with the legacy of fascism, or at least not until later. I wonder if you could say that there is an opportunity after the World War II to really deal with fascism and most European countries do not do it, and that Christian democrats might be a reason for that.
Martin Conway: As has already been said several times, Carlo’s is an important book because it was needed and because of the arguments it advances. It wants to define Christian Democracy and it also wants to be ambitious in scope by integrating different national experiences into a common frame. But above all, it is bold, clear, and comprehensible, as James has just demonstrated, in terms of the shape that it imposes on Christian Democracy.
That, of course, is where the problems begin for historians; because we are often scared of the false clarity provided by microscopes or maps. And any attempt to isolate a particular variant of politics labelled as Christian Democracy is always going to run up against grumbling by historians about problems of definition. However, rather than retreating into debates about definition, I shall focus on some more high-level challenges I have with Carlo’s book, while emphasizing, I hope, that everybody should be reading it. It is a very important book, and it is all the better for not being the book I would have written.
First of all, if you adopt this definitional approach to Christian Democracy, it requires one to set off in pursuit of an essence of Christian Democracy, by isolating the qualities that are specific to it. At the same time, you are bringing in edges, by deciding that some things are Christian Democrat, and some things are not. And, as James has already suggested, this raises questions about the post-fascist legacies, which lived on, in a half-life way, within Christian Democracy.
In addition, both of those issues about essence and edges have a particular importance when applied to Christian Democracy, because they risk us adopting the worldview of the people whom we are studying. We know that Christian Democrats, especially in the 1940s, always wanted to present themselves as new, as transnational, as radically different, and as providing a comprehensive new vision for European society. That was the enthusiasm which drove the founding manifestos of the 1940s; but from which we also wish to maintain a certain critical distance. Thus, if one adopts this “essence and edges” approach to Christian Democracy, the danger is that we become drawn into sharing the assumptions of those whom we are studying.
So let me interrogate these two issues. There is a particular way of reading Christian Democracy, which is to say that its essence originated somewhere in the 1890s, and we have already talked about Kalyvas’s book in this respect in Giuliana’s presentation. This approach takes its starting point in the political context of the 1890s, as well as the doctrinal theological elements in neo-Thomism, and creates from this an intellectual lineage, which resembles plants growing in the garden: the ideas gradually come into focus, and the politics into definition. And presiding over all of this is a genius – Maritain. In line with this, your book, Carlo, elevates Maritain to this level where he becomes the person who provided a definition for Christian Democracy.
Yet we know that Maritain can be read in a whole series of different ways. His work across the different periods of his very long and, in many ways, admirable intellectual life moved through a series of different rooms. And the room where Carlo chooses to place him is that of the Maritain of the 1940s, when he articulated these founding precepts of Christian Democracy. That, of course, is a rather selective reading. What I liked best in Carlo’s book was the moments when he talks of Maritain as a flexible source of inspiration for the definition of the Christian Democracy that developed, rather than there being what, in American English one might call a simple read-across, i.e., a transcription from what Maritain wrote to what the Christian Democrats did. This encapsulates my problem with essence: it risks inserting too great an element of determinism into the history of Christian Democracy by constructing a single narrative during the half century from the 1890s until it reaches the big bang in the 1940s.
My second issue is the one about edges.
Carlo’s book is quite clearly comfortable – perhaps too much so – with the idea that there is a border to Christian Democracy; that there are things inside it and others which lie outside it. That approach lends itself very easily, especially in a book that starts after 1945, to a rather selective reading of Christian, or, more especially, Catholic politics in the 20th century.
Indeed, we have already heard from James about how there was some rather non-Christian Democratic things going on in Catholic politics in the 1930s and early 1940s.
If there was a moment when Catholics were at their furthest point from existing democracy in Europe, then that was in my opinion around 1941. They thought that what was really happening across the interwar period and reached its culmination in the early years of the Second World War, was a general movement of Europe away from democratic politics towards some version of corporatist authoritarianism, which certainly was not fascism. But it also defined itself against what they regarded as an outmoded 19th-century democratic model.
So we need to include Dollfuss, Salazar, and Vichy in order to understand the heritages that fed into Christian Democracy, and not just what it defined itself against, because there was much from those prior political experiments that was also smuggled into the Christian Democracy of the 1940s and 1950s.
The difficulty here is of course the degree to which Christian Democracy became defined by its subsequent success. Its evolution over the twenty years after the Second World War, created a rather too clear-cut division between post-1945 Catholic politics and what preceded it. Authoritarian legacies faded away, and the Second Vatican Council came along, embedding Christian Democracy in a longer democratic narrative. This enabled Christian Democrats to bracket out almost everything that had happened in Catholic politics between 1920 and 1942. However, I think that the history of the 1930s and 1940s has to be there in order to understand its legacies for the subsequent history of Christian Democracy.
I also think it needs to be there because it brings out the coalitions that always existed within Christian Democrat politics. ‘Coalitions’ is a word that historians are on the whole much more comfortable with than essences or edges. The coalitionism within Christian Democracy, particularly perhaps in Maria Mitchell’s work on the early CDU in Germany, is very striking. Everything was there. There were some 18th-century ancien–régime attitudes present within Christian Democracy at that point: some were hoping that the end of the Second World War would mark an end to modernity and Europe would be able to return to a happy land of peasants and castles. Yet, alongside that, there was a radical Christian communist tradition as well as the post-authoritarian politics that was evident, for example, in sections of the ÖVP in Austria.
That coalitionism declined over time. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Christian Democracy after 1945 was not its electoral success, but its unity. It required quite skilled political leadership – one thinks of Adenauer in this respect – to hold together these coalitions and gradually manage to weld the coalitions into a more unitary political movement: a modern political movement, with internal party discipline, and a certain sense of “oh, you can’t say that,” which was quite clearly evident in Christian Democrat ranks in West Germany after 1949. This was assisted by the way that the authoritarian right was splintered after 1945 and had fallen apart to such a degree that those who wanted to situate Christian Democracy firmly within the democratic camp could get away with it. This was because at that point it really did seem like it was the only show in town on the political right, at least until de Gaulle came along.
The cautionary tale of de Gaulle and his emergence from Colombey-les-Deux-Églises to national and imperial power in 1958, should give us pause for reflection here. It shows the degree to which voters who it seemed had moved to the MRP (Mouvement républicain populaire) and towards a particular version of French Christian Democracy, could be won over quite easily by the neo-nationalist, almost imperialist, rhetoric of de Gaulle, which had some echoes of poujadisme and indeed of Vichy at that early point, regardless of the fact that de Gaulle subsequently became more moderate. At that moment around 1958 one can see that the definitional edges to Christian Democracy were in fact quite fuzzy. In response to the political crisis, the French centre-right electorate moved away from the MRP towards a different version of right-wing politics which was certainly not Christian Democratic.
Those two problems of essences and of edges were the ones that I felt when reading Carlo’s book. They also create some problems for me with Carlo’s best friend, the “hermit crab.” Those who have not read his book would not necessarily understand this point, but
the metaphor that Carlo uses throughout the book – and it is a very arresting one – describes how Christian Democracy managed to occupy the democratic regimes of post-war Western Europe and shape them to reflect the interests of Christian Democracy, and its ideological precepts and worldview.
That is a very interesting proposition, but I feel that it is only one side of the story.
We can indeed talk, as Carlo does, about how Christian Democrats shaped democracy to their own vision. They made a world ofdemocracy safe for Catholics. It was probably the first time in modern Europe that Christian Democrats living in Italy, in Germany, or in Belgium around 1953 actually felt that they were living in a democracy which they liked. That was a very distinctive achievement, which was based around the achievement of pillarization, subsidiarity, guarantees for the autonomy of schools, and other long-standing Catholic concerns. But, of course, this commitment to democracy always had limits. When socialists and liberals in Belgium forced the abdication of Leopold III in 1950, and attempted to rip up the School Pact (which guaranteed Catholic educational independence) during the 1950s, this provoked huge demonstrations in the streets. Belgium looked as though it was returning to its old habit of insurrectionary politics, conducted by people who described themselves as Christian Democrats but who now appeared to be rather tempted by an insurrection against the democratic government. They did not have to because in the end a constitutional fudge was found, as normally happens in Belgium. This, however, serves to underline the extent to which, though Christian Democrats operated within democracy, they also had red lines that they were not willing to see transgressed. Moreover, Pius XII as Pope certainly had plenty of red lines in terms of the defence of Church interests; and over the course of the 1950s he kept drawing them ever closer in terms of defining what constituted an acceptable form of Catholic politics.
On the whole though, Christian democrats got their way because they won the elections.
And they won the elections because they made sure they were organized in ways that ensured they would win,
i.e. they brought in proportional representation, and other constitutional provisions which favoured, for example, their largely provincial and rural electorates. There was a deliberate complexity to electoral structures and representational structures in post-war Europe. This did not imply that they were fraudulent; but, after the experiences of the inter-war years, everybody was mindful that it was best not to leave the composition of parliaments entirely to chance. It was better to construct structures of representation in ways that ensured that youended up with the kind of parliament that you wanted. That was particularly true if you were the governing party, as the Christian Democrats were in many West European countries in the 1950s. In this way they saw off both Communism, and the old anti-clerical, individualist, atheist threat, which had preoccupied them for so long, and they created, as hermit crabs, an institutional environment in which they felt comfortable.
But that is only one half of my story. It seems to me that what was also happening was that the hermit crabs were being shaped by the shell that they inhabited; in other words, they were being shaped too by the political context of post-war Europe.
That, of course, is a classic historians’ grumble, and is the one that I was left with when I finished reading the more historical sections of Carlo’s book. The thesis that Christian Democracy shaped everything to its own interests obscures the fact that Christian Democrats were themselves being shaped by other interests. Most obviously, they were influenced by national politics. Christian Democrats were very different in different European countries. Many were strongly royalist in Belgium in 1950, others were post-fascist in Italy at that time, while in Austria, they were trying to engage in all forms of amnesia that were necessary for the recreation of a viable Austrian state after 1945.
They were also highly attentive to material interests everywhere. I wanted more in Carlo’s book – because I like this sort of thing – about the price of milk, about the degree to which farmers were actually getting a fair reward for their farming labour. Such matters were very important for Christian Democrats, who relied for their electoral success on the voters of provincial and rural Europe.
In a history of Christian Democracy, you have to have Maritain, but you also have to have the price of milk (and wheat, and wine).
That attentiveness to the material interest, not just of farmers, but of small businesses, and indeed to the new voters who were women in post-war Europe, was central to Christian Democrat success. The women were coming to the political process with different agendas which generated a centre of gravity to female voting after 1945, based around housing and home, education, children, welfare, and other distinctive “female” issues. This is not to belittle levels of women’s politicization, but was a reflection of their formation as voters and the needs they had. What one sees through this “material” history of Christian Democracy is the wider truth that Christian Democracy was also shaped by the environment in which it operated.
A final element of that was, of course, Europeanization.
In retrospect, Christian Democrats have been keen to portray themselves as the great saints who created European integration in the 1950s and 1960s. But they were largely doing so because the structures of the European Union (and its forerunner institutions) were a confining structure imposed on them by the dictates of the time, notably the collapse of the iron and steel industry, the problems of the agricultural economy, etc.
In response, they were obliged to create these largely non-democratic European institutions which provided a means of solving these problems. Again, here one senses that an “intentionalist” account of Christian Democracy has its limits, and one needs to be alert to the defining influence of the political and economic context.
And this was what I came away worrying about when I had finished reading Carlo’s book. The forward march of Christian Democracy after 1945, or 1949, was also the consequence of the particular character of politics in those years; hermit crabs do not necessarily mould their environment, but are moulded by it.
That sounds like a last line, except that it would be unjust to end on that point, and not to return to what I said in my first remarks: this is a very much better book by not being the book that I would have written, and because this is a book that brings the distinctive strengths and clarity of political analysis, combined with an ideologically informed approach, to provide an intelligent understanding of the evolution of Christian Democracy. In the rather muddy world of much of the writing about Christian Democracy, there has been a real need for the energetic clarity that you bring to this subject. Thank you very much for providing that, Carlo.
Carlo Invernizzi Accetti: Thank you to everybody, first of all to the organizers. It is a pleasure to be here, to be discussing Christian Democracy with you at an important moment because of the German, but also the Central European and Hungarian context. I am also very grateful to all the comments that I received from the other panellists. These are terrific questions. I do not have time and probably would not be able to answer all of the questions. I will to try connect some of them together.
I will begin with the last set of questions, which also connects with some Guliana was raising. I feared this panel a little bit, because of a disciplinary, or more importantly methodological chasm that that can occur when political scientists talk to historians. But I appreciate that you all agree that defining what we mean by “Christian Democracy” is an important exercise in clarification, that definition is necessary. We have to define our concepts. Otherwise, how can we use them?
With that said, I am extremely sensitive to the point that Martin made – that it is not easy to fix definitions. In fact, I am not at all surprised that when somebody like me comes out and boldly says “this is Christian Democracy,” the historian replies “well, actually it’s more complicated.” And they are usually right. It is more complicated, and inevitably in a book about Christian Democracy as a whole, there will have to be many simplifications. I think this dialogue, the way that Martin set it up, is fruitful: it’s our job as political theorists to define concepts and as historians to complicate them.
Now let me move to some of the more pointed criticisms, starting with Martin and then going on to some of the other questions, in particular the methodological ones raised by Giuliana. Martin said I am looking for an “essence” of Christian Democracy and that this is a problem. Giuliana noted that I oppose this approach to what I call a “nominalist,” more characteristic of historians, who only focus on the label: what did the people who called themselves Christian Democrats actually stand for? Unsurprisingly, whet you adopt the “nominalist” approach you find out that “it’s complicated” – different people have used the same label in a panoply of different ways.
The way I tried to address this issue in the book is by pursuing an intermediary path between “essentialism” on one hand and “nominalism” on the other. Most of the literature on Christian Democracy that talks about its ideology is essentialist in the sense that they look for a core concept or set of concepts. Jean Dominique Durand, for instance, identifies “religious inspiration” as the essence of Christian Democracy. Kees van Kersbergen focuses on “compromise” and “accommodation.” Once you have a concept – or an essence – of that sort, it is easy to also define edges or boundaries.
I agree that there is no one “essence” to Christian Democracy. The reason is that people who have called themselves Christian Democrats identified this essence in different ways. However, I also do not want to fall into the nominalist approach, because it is unwieldy.
If everybody who has called themselves a Christian Democrats was a Christian Democrat, there would be too many internal contradictions and we would lose our object. That is why I pursued what I call a “functionalist approach,” which tries to define Christian Democracy as not an essence, but an intellectual operation – an attempt to reconcile Christianity with democracy, or as you put it, Martin, “make Christianity safe for democracy,” or democracy safe for Christianity.
That reconciliation can be done in several ways. Indeed, there can be even mutually contradictory ways of doing the same thing. So, I do think there are edges to Christian Democracy because I think to define something is to give edges. But I do not want an essence. I tried to define Christian Democracy in terms of its function. And this is my attempt to recognize its internal complexity, without denying all the things you said: that it is more complicated and the boundaries are porous.
I want to define boundaries, because without boundaries you do not have concepts. We ask ourselves all the time: is the European Union neoliberal? And of course, there is a massive debate on what neoliberalism is. And it is complicated. But if you do not have a concept and you do not define it, you do not have a question. In a similar way,
I agree with you that there is no essence to Christian Democracy, but I do want to have boundaries to the concept. I want to be able to say who is and who is not a Christian Democrat.
And then you are going to say “well, there are difficult boundary cases.” Sure, but without making distinctions of this sort, it is difficult to think, even if the line is of course always porous.
That brings me to the second point. I think it is interesting to consider the first question that Guliana raised about the relationship between my book and the one by Stathis Kalyvas. I would say that the origin of this difference is also methodological, but in a different way. He is a political scientist, and therefore he focuses as he puts it on “actors, strategies and outcomes.” I am a political theorist, so I focus on the ideas. And this yields a lot of differences in our outcomes.
But, apart from method, let’s get to some content, so we start talking about “what is Christian Democracy” here. Giuliana correctly pointed out that for Kalyvas, Christian Democracy paradoxically ended up secularizing politics by politicizing religion, whereas I argue it is more complicated. Maybe here Martin will be happy with what I tried to do. As Guliana explained, my claim is that, yes, Christian Democracy democratized Christianity and in so doing “made democracy safe for Christianity.” But I also wanted to say that, in so doing, Christian Democracy also did the reverse – it Christianized democracy. So there were two sides to the operation. While achieving this reconciliation between Christianity and democracy, Christian Democrats did manage to bring Christians into a democratic fold, but in so doing they also changed the nature of democracy itself. And here I have in mind James’ question, or point: that there is ambivalence – and maybe also a less palatable side – to Christian Democracy.
I think the framework of secularization is very useful here because Christian Democracy tried to break out this framework. That’s precisely why they developed the idea of “religious inspiration” of politics. That was the key of how they articulated the relationship between politics and religion. I try to reconstruct this in the book, but in a nutshell, it boils down to the idea that
politics is understood in a neo-Thomist way as a specific domain within the “natural order,” which has its “infra-valent” goal of achieving the “temporal common good.” That is why it has its own “dignity,” which is inscribed in a broader religious program of salvation of humanity.
Politics is autonomous from the religious, in the sense that it has its own internally defined goals, but also subordinated to it, with respect it its ultimate ends. In this way, Christian Democrats managed to thread a very fine and complicated line between secularism and anti-secularism.
I also do not like the distinction between “confessional” and “aconfessional” politics that Kalyvas works with, because the whole point of Christian Democracy was to thread that distinction, to confuse it, to complicate it: to bring politics into religion, but also religion into politics. And that is also what I find problematic about the Christian Democratic project, for many of the reasons James has mentioned. I do not want to live under a Christian democracy, I would rather live under a secular democracy. If you are a Jew, either you want to become a Zionist one, or secular one; probably not a Christian one, I imagine. The same is if you are Muslim.
So, this idea of “religious inspiration” of politics, which means Christian inspiration of politics, is the less palatable aspect Christian Democracy, from my point of view. It is the exclusionary part.
The same if I was a homosexual, or an immigrant. I would be happy if Christian Democracy had indeed secularized politics. But my point is that, in so doing, it also Christianized democracy, and that is my attempt at a critique.
This leads me to the last and more important point that several of you have raised about the normative dimension, which also ties us to the more contemporary issues. I am surprised and a little bit aghast that James said that I want to celebrate Christian Democracy. I should say that that was certainly not my intention. I come at this from a very different perspective. Let me give a biographical note, before I answer the substantive point. The book I wrote before the one on Christian Democracy was about Catholic social doctrine and in particular about its critique of relativism. And the basic argument I made there was that the Church has always had a problematic relationship with democracy because it believed in absolute truth. You cannot really be a democrat if you believe in absolute truths.
An objection I often got, especially in America, for reasons that Tocqueville talks about clearly, was “no, but here democracy and religion go very well together.” That is why I wanted to study a way in which Christianity and democracy could be reconciled after having stated perhaps too strongly in my previous book that they were incompatible with one another. So, I came at it from the other perspective – not to celebrate, but to see if it is even possible to have a reconciliation between Christianity and democracy. Here, in the Christian Democratic tradition were a lot of people who tried to do just that. Did they succeed? Maybe I overcompensated, but my initial intention was to examine whether it’s even possible to reconcile Christianity and democracy.
So, I did not intend to celebrate it. Maybe in so doing I fell in love with my object or got “too close to the fire,” as Martin put it. I do not know if that is a problem. From a point of view of a political theorist that does not sound so bad. If you are trying to reconstruct an ideology’s self-understanding then you want to be “close to the fire.” For instance, if you want to understand what Marxism is, ask a Marxist, do not ask a liberal. But that is a separate question. Maybe I got too close to the fire and got burned. But I do not think of myself as a Christian Democrat.
You asked about my political proclivities – I am on the left. But what I did find interesting in this Centre-Right tradition was this point that all of you have mentioned about stabilizing a certain conception of democracy through the proposal of a “respectable right.” I did find that this is a conception of the right that I, as a person on the left, can work with, and that people like me who are on the social democratic side of politics had worked with it successfully. And why? Because these Christian Democrats had a commitment to an idea of democracy. A particular conception of democracy. It is capacious enough to have both social democrats and Christian Democrats.
And this is the point of the quote that, Giuliana, you mentioned, which is that I do not think that the way in which Christian Democracy incorporates or articulates religion and politics is very appealing. On the contrary, I criticize it precisely on the ground that you mentioned – that it Christianizes democracy at the same time as it democratizes Christianity. But I did find that this conception of democracy seemed interesting and useful today, when another conception of democracy is becoming more prominent.
I will end this point by drawing a distinction I tried to make at the end of the book. This is not something you asked about, but maybe it is a way of further opening the discussion. This is the distinction between populism and popularism. As is evident in the names of some Christian Democratic parties, such as the European People’s Party or the Partito Popolare Italiano there is a Christian Democratic concept of “the people.” Yet, this appears quite different from the contemporary “populist” understanding. The popularist idea of democracy is different from the populist idea of democracy, and maybe recalling the popularist tradition can serve us as an effective antidote against populism, or at least as an embryo for that “respectable right” we were talking about.
In a nutshell, what is the distinction between popularism and populism? It seems to me that the distinction lies in the fact that populism, theorized for instance by Ernesto Laclau, implies an oppositional idea of the people. The people is defined by what it is not. The people versus the elites, the people versus the foreigners. It is a Schmittean idea – the friend is defined by what is not the enemy. In contrast, popularism is based on a very different idea of the people, which is not defined by opposition, but by a set of shared ideals.
In Pope Pius XII’s articulation of the notion of democracy and the people in the Christmas Message of 1945, the people has a soul that keeps them together and that soul is Christianity. So, a set of values holds the people together and that is what distinguishes the people from a mass. Here the people is held together not by opposition, but by their own internal articulation and set of values. And what is important about these values is that they are universal, and therefore inclusive, not exclusive. Ultimately, anyone can become a Christian. Christianity is a universalist religion of inclusion. And that contrasts with the populist idea of the people, which is predicated on conception of the people as closed and oppositional.
This leads me to what I hope will really be my last point, about the contemporary situation. You asked if Angela Merkel is a Christian Democrat by my definition. And here I will be more “Martin-Conway-ian” than Martin and say that “it’s complicated.” This is a borderline case. Surely she is not a Christian Democrat in a sense that she reads or at least grounds her politics on Maritain or Pope Pius XII. No. She comes from a Protestant, and therefore much more liberal, background. But as Sam Moyn, who all of us here know and admire very much, has pointed out, elements of Christian Democratic ideology come up in her discourse at various crucial moments. One example Sam highlights is the open letter Merkel wrote to Donald Trump immediately after his election, proposing a partnership based on the value of “human dignity.” As you all know, human dignity is a key Christian Democratic concept. So at a critical moment, when she had to define her ideological stance (which she does not have to do often because of her pragmatism), she did fall back on a key Christian Democratic concept.
The other obvious example refers back to the distinction between popularism and populism. It was another strange and exceptional moment when Merkel actually took an ideological stance, in that hot summer of 2015, saying Wir schaffen das, we can do it, with respect to the Syrian refugee crisis. We can take in the other, we can take in the refugees. This is not the “populist” idea of the people that is defined by what it is not. What Merkel said is that we can accept the other within our fold. And this is a Christian Democratic idea, an idea of Christianity which is inclusive, potentially universalist, and therefore different from the populist idea, which is exclusive and ultimately anti-immigrant.
I have tried to address at least some of your points and will with that, but I hope we can continue discussing all of these issues going further.
In collaboration with Vilius Kubekas, Ferenc Laczó and Karen Culver.