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European Christian Democracy: Historical Legacies and Comparative Perspectives (review)

From: The Catholic Historical Review
Volume 90, Number 2, April 2004
pp. 344-346 | 10.1353/cat.2004.0061

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The Catholic Historical Review 90.2 (2004) 344-346

European Christian Democracy: Historical Legacies and Comparative Perspectives. Edited by Thomas Kselman and Joseph A. Buttigieg. (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press. 2003. Pp. ix, 339. $40.00 hardcover; $18.00 paperback.)

A colleague who conducted a "Junior Year Abroad Program" in Italy related how an agitated American student entered his office to complain that she had seen a crucifix on the wall of a Florentine post office. "We should organize a protest over this," she insisted. The professor calmed her, reminding her that she was now in another country where things were done differently. Such anecdotes, or the recent news reports of the almost universal outrage in Italy encountered by a Muslim father who insisted on removing a crucifix from the wall of his child's schoolroom, illustrate that Europe's Christian identity retains a vitality that may surprise those social scientists and pundits who frequently dismiss it as "nominal." Church attendance figures are usually lower there than in America, but other indicators can lead to different conclusions. Does the absence of crucifixes in United States public schools and post offices indicate that America's culture is less Christian than Europe's? Does the persistence and weight of Christian Democracy in European, but not American, politics illustrate the same point? Thomas Kselman and Joseph Buttigieg's impressive and provocative collection of essays, European Christian Democracy, reminds the reader of the significance and complexity of religious politics and, as an examination of that phenomenon, challenges the notion "that secularization is an ineluctable process."

After Kselman's introduction the book is divided into twelve chapters, each of which is a self-contained essay by a leading scholar in the field. Most of the contributors are historians although the work is enriched with a sprinkling of political scientists and theologians. Perhaps a third of the essays are nation-specific while most of them attempt, with varying levels of success, to take broader perspectives. Stathis Kalyvas' contribution, burdened perhaps too heavily by social-science language, even goes beyond Christian Democracy to focus on "non-secular" parties in the Third World. Antonio Santucci's piece, a Marxist critique of Italian Christian Democratic corruption, is based on a 1981 interview with the Communist Party leader Enrico Berlinguer and stands out as too polemical for a book such as this. Santucci's discussion, however, indicates that Christian Democracy remains in the thick of European politics and can still elevate blood pressure readings among friends and foes.

Differences of approach and of opinion, in fact, emerge in some degree throughout all of the essays. One central question asks how progressive or, more to the point, how democratic has been Christian Democracy? On the one hand, Winfried Becker recalls the German experience where emphasis on the human person and pluralism (advocated especially by Karl Bachem and in labor circles) distinguished Catholic politics even before Nazism galvanized their commitment to democracy. Karl Strickwerda echoes this in noting that while Christian Democrats "grudgingly came to accept a pluralist society," nonetheless, in learning "to fight a rear-guard action against the tidal wave of secularism and liberalism, they had also begun learning the difficult life of coexistence earlier than their opponents" (pp. 281, 283). Furthermore, he concludes, in Latin America even "Liberation Theology" takes a back seat to Christian Democratic parties in the struggle against dictatorship. A skeptical Martin Conway sees Christian Democracy as a "center-right" force, drawn there by the cross-class nature of its politics and by Cold War anticommunism. Although he does not cite Alcide DeGasperi's famous description of his party as centrist but leaning to the left, Conway nevertheless acknowledges ironies here. He concedes that Catholic politics constituted something of a big tent that sheltered movements "open to men and women of all faiths and of none" and that at the same time covered a church that was "intransigent, hierarchical, and dismissive of the values of other denominations and political traditions" (p. 47). In his study of the postwar Italian case, Steven White portrays these two forces at work in direct opposition to each other. The conservative Pius XII and Luigi Gedda envisioned a...



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