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The Catholic Historical Review 87.4 (2001) 761-763

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Book Review

Left Catholicism 1943-1955: Catholics and Society in Western Europe at the Point of Liberation

Left Catholicism 1943-1955: Catholics and Society in Western Europe at the Point of Liberation. Edited by Gerd-Rainer Horn and Emmanuel Gerard. [KADOC-Studies, 25.] (Leuven: Leuven University Press. 2001. Pp. 319. 1,300 BEF; Euro 32.)

In their introduction, the editors raise a number of questions that the contributors discuss from their various angles throughout the work. How were the leftist elements that made themselves noticed as World War II came to an end rooted in or related to Catholicism? Were the strains of opposition to liberalistic capitalism stronger than the commitment to political democracy? To what extent did the massive development of Catholic Action in some countries under Pius XI and Pius XII play a more significant role in the postwar radicalization of left Catholics than did the prewar Catholic labor movement? In what cases was a shared experience of the Resistance a major factor? And, of course, why did the movements of Left Catholicism succumb so quickly to a more moderate, centrist Christian Democracy in Italy, Germany, and the Benelux countries? Was the initial prominence of working-class demands in the new or reconstituted [End Page 761] movements led by Catholics mostly just a by-product of the temporary discomfiture of conservative standard-bearers after the defeat of Fascism and Nazism? The dramatic rise and decline of the Mouvement Républicain Populaire in France would seem to be a case in point.

In the first article Horn posits the thesis of a transnational European Left Catholicism in the 1940's. Not all the authors are satisfied with this category, but all, starting with three meaty articles on French (and one on Belgian) developments powered by a zealous generation of former Catholic youth intellectuals and workers, note more or less radical departures on the left from previous Catholic practices and organizations (contributions by Jean-Claude Delbreil, Bruno Duriez, Yvon Tranvouez, and Jean-Louis Jadoulle). The worker priests (Oscar Cole-Arnal) were but one manifestation of the responses to the indignities under which the industrial proletariat labored, indignities shared by intellectuals and clergy who accompanied some of them to forced-labor sites in Germany during the war.

There follow two essays on Italy, one (by Antonio Parisella) on political movements and party formations to the left of, or in the left wing of, the Christian Democratic Party, and the other (by Giorgio Vecchio) of less political mavericks, closer than other Italian Catholics to the radical French attitudes of the era; some of them were hailed as prophets at the time of the Second Vatican Council. An article (by Andreas Lienkamp) on German Left Catholicism, e.g., that of Walter Dirks, and one (by Patrick Pasture) explaining the notable lack of interaction between Christian (Catholic) labor across Western Europe and the Catholic leftist intellectuals, even in the immediate postwar years, lead to a discussion of the increasing chilliness between the mass of the Catholics and their leftwingers. The penultimate essay (by Peter Van Kemseke) focuses on the international context of the Cold War, with a turning point for Left Catholic fortunes about mid-1947, but notes that the resonance of the movements was already fading for other reasons. Within the church hierarchy, an initial permissiveness gave way to marginalizing and finally excluding socialist and other radical proposals in the last decade of Pius XII's pontificate.

Martin Conway goes into such reasons in his concluding interpretative essay. Like the others, it is packed with succinct new angles and insights. In the context of Catholicism as a whole, Left Catholicism found a small and increasingly isolated niche within the Christian Democratic or Catholic parties where they existed. In France, all the same, as Pasture notes (p. 246), the transformation of the Christian trade union, the CFTC, into the CFDT (the Confedération Française Démocratique du Travail) in 1964 was the result of a left...


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