What is Christian Democracy?

2 October 2020

Represented in governments across Europe and at the vanguard of the founding of the European project, Christian Democracy was one of the most important postwar political ideologies. Yet surprisingly few studies exist on it. In What is Christian Democracy? Politics, Religion, and Ideology, Carlo Invernizzi Accetti makes a concise but insightful contribution that reminds us of the realities of the postwar European landscape, and shows how Christian Democracy continues to shape European politics.


Effectively, the book is two discrete research projects. Part I aims to bring greater conceptual precision to the key tenets of Christian Democracy. Part II summarizes the history of Christian Democracy, with a view toward defending the enduring relevance of Christian Democracy for understanding present and future politics.


What, then, is Christian Democracy? Defined in terms of its specific challenge, Christian democracy is the effort to reconcile Christianity (especially, Catholicism) with modern democracy, “by carving out a political role for the former within the institutional and conceptual horizon of the latter.” Christian Democrats made largely historical arguments as to how to best apply immutable Christian principles to their particular historical epoch. While past historical epochs did not require either accepting or engaging with modern democracy (even the opposite), Christians Democrats judged that the mid-twentieth century challenges of atheistic and materialist ideologies of fascism and communism required new prudential considerations. In that epoch, engaging with modern democracy was the requirement for Christians to serve as a leaven in social and political life.


The key concepts of Christian Democracy are as follows. First, there is a commitment to the doctrine of personalism, the demand that the political authority respect the dignity of the human person. This defense is rooted in a robust theological and philosophical account of human nature and the requirements of the natural law. Second, Christian Democracy subscribes to popularism. Unlike liberals and republicans, Christian Democrats take the political community to be a natural community, composed of many sub-communities that are teleologically ordered toward the common good. From this is derived a commitment to democracy: not, as in modern republicanism, from popular sovereignty, but from a “consociational” institutional framework that seeks compromise between different social interests and groups. Third, Christian Democracy affirms the principle of subsidiarity, which rejects the idea that the state must be the sole locus of sovereignty. Power is then distributed downwards toward functionally defined authorities, and upwards to international organisations.


Fourth, Christian Democracy sees social and economic questions through the lens of social capitalism, a middle way between socialism and liberal capitalism. Finally, Christian Democracy affirms the validity and necessity of Christian religious inspiration for politics—otherwise, one falls back into the atheistic materialism so devastating in the twentieth century. Christian Democracy accepts the legitimacy of a secular sphere not directly ordained towards religious ends, as long as the secular sphere remains indirectly ordained toward religious ends, with immutable Christian principles informing politics.


These themes are familiar to students of Catholic political thought, but Invernizzi Accetti shows how Catholic social doctrine and political thought were taken from the heights of Leonine encyclicals and Jacques Maritain, then transcribed (sometimes word for word) and applied in the lows of manifestos and platforms of Christian Democratic parties and politicians. His attention to these theological sources, key to understanding Christian Democracy, prevents one from making the category mistake of understanding Christian Democracy as a mere moral or political movement.


Now, Christian Democracy was never simply applied Maritainian or Leonine theory. Sometimes, Invernizzi Accetti sets aside the tensions and disagreements between these theological and political theories and Christian Democratic parties. Maritain’s Man and the State, upon which Invernizzi Accetti relies, was his most accommodating work to the postwar political moment. But Maritain’s final work, Le Paysan de la Garonne, was a sharp criticism of how his thought had been misunderstood in theology and politics. Augusto del Noce, whom Invernizzi Accetti mentions, was a member and parliamentarian with Democrazia Cristiana. But he criticizes Christian democracy for what he saw as its distorted application of Leonine thought. Arguably, an important clue about the substance of Christian Democracy’s concepts, and how their use changed over time, is how its original theoretical sources criticized later Christian Democracy. Because Invernizzi Accetti does not discuss internal criticisms of Christian Democracy, he does not have as profound an account of the conceptual transformations within Christian democracy as he might otherwise have. 


To be fair, Invernizzi Accetti’s primary task is to highlight the overall conceptual unity across Christian Democratic politics, as a kind of ideal theory. Only secondarily does he attend to some of the variability and ambiguity of their key concepts. But his best chapters succeed at both—his discussion on social capitalism is particularly skillful and helps explain how Christian Democracy over the decades has tacked left, right, or to the center on economic matters.


The book’s greatest accomplishment is to showcase Christian democracy as a distinctive political ideology, not to be reduced to the ideologies of social democracy or liberalism in particular. Throughout the book, the author skillfully resists accounts of Christian Democracy that characterize it in terms of liberal normative ideals. Grasping distinctions between Christian Democracy and liberalism that elude other commentators, Invernizzi Accetti perceives that Christian Democracy is not just about how to order the private sphere, attending to social morality therein but leaving public issues to a neutral state. Instead, Christian Democracy is a creed dedicated to public issues: state form, constitutional matters, socio-economic policy, and the right relationship between politics and religion. The above concepts suggest particular institutions, and Invernizzi Accetti is adept at showing how these concepts informed the development of some of the most important postwar institutions in Europe, including those in the European Union.


Invernizzi Accetti is out to understand Christian Democracy, not to defend it. He makes his liberal commitments clear, and criticizes Christian Democracy for violating liberal neutrality. But these criticisms do not distort his presentation of what Christian Democracy is. He identifies subtleties concerning the nature of religious freedom, subtleties that elude some defenders of Christian Democracy. 


While Christian Democracy’s conception of religious freedom rejects the coercion of non-believers, it does not entail that the state has no duty in religious affairs. Instead, Christian democracy understands religious freedom as freedom to exercise Christian (especially Catholic) belief. It is then the active duty of the state to promote a particular spiritual goal. The state has a native duty to foster religious education “as an integral part of [the state’s] overarching mission to aid in the fulfilment of the principle of human personality. These commitments sound jarring to those who think Christian democracy leads to a comfortable fusion with modern democracy or liberalism, but Invernizzi Accetti reminds his readers that in its original formulation, Christian Democracy was in large part a prudential accommodation with modern democracy. It did not argue that Christian faith compelled everyone to be a democrat. It was possible and desirable for Christians to support democracy in the postwar historical epoch, but other regimes remained desirable, even if they were not now possible. 


The second part of the book makes the case for Christian Democracy’s enduring relevance vis-à-vis the ascendency of liberalism in Europe and elsewhere. Three of Invernizzi Accetti’s most provocative conclusions merit further commentary here. We might characterize these conclusions as a lengthy gloss on a question Canadian philosopher George Grant once posed: “in a liaison between liberalism and Christianity, who is going to seduce whom?”


For Invernizzi Accetti, the seduction goes both ways. Those who state simply that Christian Democracy has been seduced, swallowed up by liberalism, and is doomed are mistaken. While much of Latin American Christian Democracy has been seduced by liberalism—specifically, neo-liberalism—and so is a spent electoral force, the European scene is more lively. Even if European Christian Democratic parties are sometimes in electoral decline, their ideas are still relevant, because they underwrite Europe’s political culture.


Invernizzi Accetti also contends that Christian Democratic ideas matter because they provide the best explanatory account of the EU’s institutions. As Christian Democrats explicitly designed many of these institutions, they, rather than liberals, are the founders of Europe. While more liberal politicians now occupy these institutions, the Christian Democratic shell remains. Opposition to Turkey’s EU membership bid or the heightened scrutiny European juridical institutions give to Islam show that in some controversies, it is Christian democratic ideals, not liberal ones, which still inform European institutions. On these points Invernizzi Accetti criticizes the EU: for him, Christian Democracy has seduced many European liberals. 


Yet the author’s examples here admit not just of Christian objections, but of liberal ones. It is from the perspective of a liberal human rights regime that Islam and Turkish membership require heightened scrutiny. These instances suggest that the European Union is better understood as an uneasy amalgam of different political ideologies, including Christian Democracy and liberalism, competing with each other for dominance. The contest favors liberalism. Europe’s established politicians are very far from speaking forthrightly about Christianity, as Konrad Adenauer and Robert Schuman did. Pace Invernizzi Accetti, if in 2004 the EU could not acknowledge the specifically Christian roots of its institutions and could only note a generic religious inspiration for them, then the EU has in fact departed from Christian Democracy. After all, the first part of the book shows how Christian theology is required to understand Christian democracy; dispel the Christian theology, and what remains is a mere moral movement, mere liberal democracy. 


Finally, Invernizzi Accetti makes his own attempt to seduce Christians to liberalism. As an increasing number of Christian voters in Europe drift toward far-right populism, Invernizzi Accetti tries to attract them back to the liberal-center through a history lesson. During the 1930s, many Christians, concerned by the rise of militant atheistic communism and having little faith in democracy’s capacity to protect them, looked to fascist movements instead. Yet fascist movements were aggressively secularist, and used their political power to assault religion. “If the analogy of the 1930s is indeed pertinent,” it is in reminding Christians of this lesson: that historically, the far-right has not been friendly to Christianity. Christians sympathetic to the far-right must be taught that “laying their hopes for the advancement of religious interests in a Faustian bargain with anti-democratic forms of secular authoritarianism may ultimately turn out to be counterproductive from the point of view of those interests themselves.” (In short: do not make the same mistake twice.) “The main point”, Invernizzi Accetti writes, is that an effective anti-populist strategy requires the revival of a democratic dialectic between the centre-left and the centre-right, of which Christian Democracy and Social Democracy have historically been the two main exponents.” 


This strategy is doubtful, however, for it inadvertently makes the case against Christian voters looking to centrist Christian Democratic parties. For many Christians, the longstanding democratic dialectic between the center-left and the center-right brought Christian democratic parties to abandon the concerns of their Christian supporters in favor of supporting the liberal-left’s agenda. The centrist parties, including the Christian democratic ones, came to regard Christian fidelity to immutable principles as contemptible intransigence. Because this was coupled with a capitulation to the liberal-left’s increasingly strident secularism, many Christians now regard supporting Christian democratic parties for the advancement of religious interests as itself a Faustian bargain with what Invernizzi Accetti calls “secular authoritarianism.”


Thus Christians are unlikely to find the exhortation to reaffirm the liberal centrist democratic dialectic particularly appealing. To the extent that Christians do not wish to make this mistake twice, then, the dilemma facing Christian Democratic parties is whether they want to go back to their old, often socially conservative roots, at the expense of their alliance with the left; or whether they want to persist with their “democratic dialectic,” and suffer the steady erosion of their voter base to parties that claim to apply better those immutable principles to political and social life. However this dynamic plays out in Europe’s future, to understand it we must presuppose Christian Democracy’s enduring relevance—exactly as Invernizzi Accetti urges us to do in this fine book. 


Photo Credit: What is Christian Democracy by Carlo Invernizzi Accetti, Cambridge University Press, Fair Use.


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  • Susan Emanuel says:

    Interesting, but who translated the review? Google?

  • The snow falls says:

    When the bourgeois speak of freedom, they speak of their own freedom. Mao Tse Tung. The want to be free not to pay taxes to the detriment of less well-off families. They want to be free to send their childrens to private universitties. They want to be free to protect their private interests. They want to be free to seize the resources of other countries by distributing wealth in a way that always benefits the ruling elite and the middle class. They want to be free to manage politics and political parties always for their own benefit. They want to be free to take care of their health by defending private healthcare or traveling abroad. When it comes to protecting class interests, they ally themselves with the secular bourgeois, so we have the handover from the believing bourgeoisie to the atheist bourgeoisie. The apparent clash between them is like between members of the same family. They sit at the same table. Their freedom probably equals kleptocracy.

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