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Report. In search of a Christian Democratic identity (1945-2013). 2013 CIVITAS-FARCD annual conference

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Christian Democrats in Belgium and elsewhere are sometimes accused of not having a clear ideology, a “big picture” of their own. Decades of participating in coalition governments are said to have alienated them from their ideological principles and made them into “power politicians” or pragmatic “plumbers”. The singularity of the Christian Democrat identity in a historical perspective was the theme of an international workshop, held on 14 and 15 November in Leuven. Among other things, participants were seeking an answer to the question of what common elements we find after 1945 in the ideology of people who identified themselves as Christian Democrats and sought to join up with an international Christian Democrat organization.


Civitas. Forum of Archives and Research on Christian Democracy

The workshop was the first public initiative from a new organization called “Civitas. Forum of Archives and Research on Christian Democracy”. Civitas is a collaborative effort of the KU Leuven’s KADOC centre, the German Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (Sankt Augustin-Berlin) and the Italian Istituto Luigi Sturzo (Rome). Its purpose is to exchange information about source material, to construct a shared website which includes databanks, set up research projects and publish the results, and to organize an annual workshop. Civitas presents itself as a scholarly, independent and open organization. Institutions managing Christian Democrat archives or conducting academic research in this area can register as partners. Civitas is run by a board of directors; working within the Forum will be a committee of archivists and a committee of researchers, as well as other groups.

The first Civitas workshop drew about thirty researchers, a mixture of young researchers and known quantities, who met in the atmospheric setting of the Irish Institute in Leuven. The subjects discussed involved the great Christian-democratic principles and their impact on party programmes in western Europe after the Second World War. They also turned their attention to some factors - crucial in the development of this ideology – such as the historical context and the contributions of Christian Democrat thinkers and politicians. To conclude, they presented some specific ideological developments in a number of countries.


Principles and programmes

Regarding the core principles of Christian Democracy, Rosario Forlenza (New York University) explored the concept of “das Abendland”, a popular term in Catholic milieus before and after the Second World War. The youthful Christian Democracy movement now had a concept with which it could indicate it had its own “third way”. The term evoked a supranational and symbolic European space, an alternative to the capitalist USA and the Bolshevik Soviet Union. The Christian Democratic Abendland was antisocialist, anticapitalist and “organic” by nature. Catholics liked to use it to refer to an idealized pre-modern Europe. There was no room in this concept for totalitarianism, whether it came from the right, the left, or from nationalist sentiments. An “integrated society” with the necessary freedom, order and hierarchy could only arise in a parliamentary democracy. A dangerous nationalism would have to be replaced by a “noble”, “superior” form of supra-nationalism. Forlenza stressed that these abstract images had a considerable influence on, among other things, the European drive for integration and the more realistic policies of the post-war Christian Democrats. Steven White (Mount St. Mary’s University, Emmitsburg) made the anticommunism of the post-war Christian Democracy extremely concrete in his lecture. He described the joint political, economic and ideological efforts of the Italian premier (1945-1953) and Christian Democrat figurehead Alcide De Gasperi and of US ambassador James Clement Dunn to stabilize and democratize post-fascist Italy. The US administration considered the Italian Christian Democrats the designated partners par excellence for curbing the spread of communism in southern Europe.

Paolo Tedeschi (University of Milan) made a twenty-year leap forward in time, discussing the huge significance, both real and symbolic, that Christian Democrats attached to the introduction of the common European currency. The euro was to give opportunities to Europe’s own social and economic model and bring their ideal of a European political union closer. Christian Democrats on the Werner Committee (Pierre Werner was prime minister and minister of finance in Luxemburg) in the early 1970s did everything they could to help a common currency find its way in. Their efforts would be nipped in the bud by the economic crisis. The Euro sat in the waiting room for nearly 30 years, even after Leo Tindemans presented the common currency as a driver and keystone of a European union again in his famous European report from 1976.

Guest speaker Werner Fasslabend, former minister of Defence in Austria, did not avoid the subject of the delicate interaction between religion/churches and politics/government. Politics and politicians, he said, need religiously inspired values, even – and even more than ever – in secularized times. He attributed the post-war success of Christian Democracy to the citizens’ need for a moderate centrist party founded on values. For him, these values stemmed from a specifically Christian view of the individual. Principles such as personalism, solidarity, subsidiarity, tolerance and sustainability were extensions of this view. Fasslabend added that Christian Democrats continued to present a nuanced discourse in which rights were coupled to duties and freedom to responsibility. It was essential for Europe to continually emphasize its own value system, even in times when the European model – including the social/economic level – was coming came under pressure from the ascension of South American, African and Asian tigers.


Historical context and inspiring figures

As the lectures showed, the principles employed by Christian Democrats, especially their concrete form in political practice, were subject to change under the influence of the context of the age. The post-war period and the Cold War were fertile soil for Christian-democratic ideas about representative democracy, the third (middle) way, economic growth and social justice, and about the need for European integration. The economic crisis that began in the 1970s and the fall of the Berlin Wall challenged many prevailing assumptions (Marialuisa-Lucia Sergio, Istituto Luigi Sturzo, Rome). At the same time, after 1989 opportunities arose in the former East Bloc countries. Numerous sister parties had been founded there, in part because churches and Christian social organizations often had already created a breeding ground for them by their opposition to the communist regimes. Along with the expansion created by joining forces with conservative parties, this wave of newly founded parties gave the Christian Democrat family (united as the European People’s Party) dominance in institutionalized Europe. At the same time, however, it put the ideological homogeneity of this formation under heavy pressure.

The lectures mentioned the names of a number of philosophers and politicians who made their mark on Christian Democrat ideology: the Frenchmen Emmanuel Mounier, Jacques Maritain and Robert Schuman, the Italians Luigi Sturzo and Alcide De Gasperi, the German Konrad Adenauer and the Belgians Robert Houben, Leo Tindemans and Wilfried Martens. Nevertheless, their precise insights and contributions to the Christian Democrat identity were only referred to indirectly referred to.


National evolutions

The final segment of the workshop focused on particular national developments in the Christian Democrat identity and ideology.

According to Bernhard Altermatt (University of Fribourg), the Swiss CVP/PDC party was a moderate centrist party for years, often forming a centre-right majority with traditional liberals. It was an important factor in the country’s stability and continuity. The Christian Democrats faced some difficult strategic and ideological challenges since more populist-driven parties were increasingly polarizing the country, as they had done elsewhere.

Natalia Urigüen and Lourdes Lopez (Universidad nacional de Educacion a Distancia, Spain) discussed the reasons why a Catholic country like Spain had never had an active Christian Democrat party. They mentioned several factors including the ever-changing relationships between Church and state, and the extremely transient nature of political arrangements. Yet a number of Christian Democrat politicians and their ties to foreign Christian Democrat parties were defining for Spanish politics. As regards this first influence, they pointed out the presence of Christian Democrats in two major centre-right coalitions/parties: the Union de Centro Democratico (1976-1989) and the Partido Popular (after 1989). These parties also maintained close contacts with Germany’s CDU and other Christian Democrat parties. Their by-laws and programmes also contained references to Christian Democrat principles, in addition to more reformist and liberal ideas.

The Dutch Christian Democrats’ views of and attitudes towards liberal representative democracy were analyzed by Hans-Martien ten Napel (Leiden University).  His premise was that confessionally inspired parties found it extremely difficult to accept the principles of liberal democracy (equal rights, individual freedom, separation of Church and State) at their founding in the late 19th century. Even after 1945, they felt that a democracy also had to have room for representatives of social organizations such as pro-family movements and trades unions. In the past decades, the acceptance of representative democracy by Christian Democrats has become an established fact, partly under the influence of the Second Vatican Council.

Given the strict separation in France between public space and religion since the Revolution, the adjective “Christian democratic” and all references to religion were absolute taboos in the country, as Laurent Ducerf (Lyon III) put it. The Mouvement Républicain Populaire considered its ideology an original package of philosophical and sociological ideas about people and society, rather than a colourless mixture of conservative and progressive principles, and therefore scrupulously avoided any reference to religious inspiration.

Philip Lerch (Universität Bonn) analyzed in detail the German Christian Democrats’ use of the subsidiarity principle, which allowed for reconciliation between individual freedom and social responsibility. He found this principle at local level in the idea of self-rule for municipalities, which was sacred to the CDU, as well as at European level in the promotion of the idea of federalism and diversity.

Jacobo Cellini (Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa-KADOC-KU Leuven) shed light on the extremely idealistic views of Italian minister of Foreign Affairs and prime minister Aldo Moro (1916-1978) on Europe and the role that a united Europe had to play in international relations. Cellini characterized this view as a universalist one related to the standpoints of Catholic intellectuals and church leaders. Smaller entities based on the family were perfected, according to Moro, in a greater unity. The ultimate perfection was European integration, which would ensure balance in East-West relations and would promote peace, cooperation and social justice, among other things, in Europe’s relationship to the South.

All the lectures were followed by animated discussions. There was a sense that valuable new insights had been gained and initiatives for further research explored. Certain aspects such as the relationship between Christian Democrats’ ideology and programmes on the one hand and on the other, their real policies, received somewhat less attention. New Civitas workshops were announced: In Berlin in 2014, the Christian Democrat networks in the context of European integration will be on the programme, and in 2015 in Rome, gender aspects of Christian democracy. We will keep you informed.

  • Last modified 27-02-2015