Sunday, March 11, 2018

Wolfram Kaiser, Christian Democracy and the Origins of European Union - A Review


Wolfram Kaiser's realm of expertise lies in the world of transnational politics, specifically those influenced by Catholic institutions. In editing collaborative works such as Political Catholicism in Europe 1918-45, Kaiser has proven himself a keen student of how the Catholic intellectual edifice has gradually come to a position of 'compromise,' as it were, or how it has reasserted itself in a political world increasingly shaped by democratic ideas.

The papacy of Pius IX, despite its rigidly reactionary character (see The Syllabus of Errors), nevertheless acted as a key mobilizer for a rejuvenated Catholic demographic in Europe (see the 500,000 head Trier pilgrimage in 1844 to see the Holy Shroud of Jesus). According to scholars such as Kaiser, John Boyer, and Christopher Clark, it did this in three ways: (1) the centralization of hitherto disparate and diverse political actions into a unified 'matrix of power' to which the national Catholic oppositions could look for inspiration and cohesion; (2) the encouragement on the part of Pius IX and the Church hierarchy to the laity to engage in political disputes with the liberal and anticlerical factions, and to cross national divides to find further support; and (3) the concrete application of these 'new' strategies in the fight over the lost temporal powers of the church (1870) and in the culture wars all over Europe (Kaiser, pp. 12-13).

John Boyer has accurately described transnational political Catholicism at the end of the nineteenth century as 'a civilization... as a whole way of life involving many different folk communities, each having its own physical identity but bound together by a higher order... of shared legal and moral norms, sacred cultural rites and performances, overlapping forms' (Boyer, p. 22). This 'civilization' carried over into the 20th century, and it naturally meant an accompanying political or extrapolitical representation (the Catholic press, Catholic Action groups, confessional parties such as Zentrum and the Christian Socials, Catholic trade unions, etc.). The papacy of Leo XIII and its later influence, however, no longer meant a direct attack on the entire modern order, but rather an entry into party politics in the attempt to edify society from within its new social structures.

These initial movements and battlegrounds set the scene for the next phase, which was the formation and influence of the transnational Catholic groups that helped foster the creation of European union, something which Kaiser investigates in the present work.


Whereas at the end of the nineteenth century Catholic transnationalism was still largely dominated by ultraconservative groups such as the Geneva Committee and the Union de Fribourg led by legitimist aristocrats, meaning that democracy and the parliamentary process was rejected   in toto, deteriorating political circumstances demanded some measure of adaptation and evolution if Catholics were to remain a relevant social force in opposition to the surging liberal and socialist elements (Kaiser, p. 21). The polarizing tactics of Pius IX were obsolete in the increasingly exigent mission to unify all the different Catholic positions into a more compact, more cohesive identity; there was no room for marginalizing more progressive Catholics when the opposition could easily rally around key simple concepts in great numbers and when democratic society is conditioned and controlled by great numbers. Thus, the papal policy of non expedit, which restricted Catholics from voting, was amended in 1905 to allow Catholics to vote against a more extreme (socialist) politician, and finally annulled altogether in 1918.

Because of the emerging nationalist currents in 19th century Europe, Catholics were again subjected to the suspicions of their Protestant and secular neighbours. The fact that Catholics 'took their orders from Rome' precluded their full integration into the modern nation, which demands exactly that for its homogeneity, its unity (Ireland is an obvious exception where the Irish religion was subservient to its nationalist struggle to emancipate itself from Britain). This put any Catholic political activity on the defensive, where it tried to ensure the rights and privileges of its own, where it conceded to national demands in order to show that Catholics were indeed loyal citizens, and which ultimately killed the blossoming of any meaningful transnational growth because of the lack of proactive policy-making or long-term vision. These are things that the international socialist movements were more or less settled on, but which were still in the nascent stages of their development in Catholic movements.

This all changed after the Great War, however, which, while shattering the traditional transnational Catholic state of the Austrian Empire, opened new doors for emergent Catholic parties to forge their own transnational links. The Vatican was no longer totally opposed to the idea of political participation (in 1918 Pope Benedict XV finally allowed for the creation of an Italian Catholic Party, the Italian People's Party), which meant that Christian democrats could again look to it as a source of unity and guidance (Kaiser, p. 43). Meanwhile, the secularizing process hit Catholic cultures as well, meaning that their political parties could appeal to a broader range of interests, Catholic, Protestant, or secular (including lapsed Catholics who still felt connected to traditionally Christian sociopolitical ideals).

This wide appeal was not possible prior to WWI because of the stringent Catholic attitudes towards the democratic process and because of the defensive nature of Catholicism in general, which felt itself to be in the position of 'us against the (modern) world.' The political parties inspired by Catholic social teaching were now on the offensive, wielding fresh ideas about how to implement the core precepts of their faith in a secular, modernized setting. In spite of the variegated national conditions and histories of social division even within Catholic ranks, they did so with a remarkably unified spirit, drawing from their faith and their willingness to combat all manner of political heresy a 'Europe-wide sense of shared purpose and common identity' (Conway, 'Catholic Politics,' p. 3).

All the same, differences persist, and even grow as the 20's become the 30's. Kaiser mentions how the Pius XI papacy advocates a form of corporatism over parliamentary democracy, which it is supposed to replace. This support was shared by right-wing Catholics all over Europe, who were altogether persuaded by the more regimented and authoritarian Catholic systems installed in Dolfuss's Austria and Salazar's Portugal and the regionally-oriented 'federalist personalism' of L'Ordre Nouveau. The ruinous economic climate of the 30's certainly facilitated such extreme reactions against the global liberal-capitalist order, and to a large extent vindicated them.

(Regardless of our own sympathies with these spirited efforts to recreate the hierarchical and organic values of traditional Europe, this is not the place to get into the problem of corporatism, however, especially since Kaiser himself does not spend much time on this temporary diversion in the development of political Catholicism. The fundamental point is that the economic crisis and the political extremes engulfing Europe, the Bolshevism of Russia and the Fascism of Italy, motivated many formerly centrist Catholics to join the latter as a defensive measure, certainly as the 'lesser of two evils.')

In spite of the resurgent fires of nationalism, the 20's and 30's also cultivated cross-border political and economic links between the nations, which is particularly important for Catholic parties, who never had the kind of international support that the socialists enjoyed, for example (Kaiser, pp. 60-61). The Internationale Democratique, for example, organized thousands of left-wing Catholics from all over, but especially from Germany and France. while the Secrétariat International des Partis Démocratiques d'Inspiration Chrétienne (SIPDIC, known today as the Centrist Democrat International) acted as the organizational centre for all European Christian democratic parties. The SIPDIC had the moral support of conscientious men like Konrad Adenauer, but it was the active participation of men like Joseph Joos and Robert Schuman who really defined the objectives of a 'Catholicized' democracy and paved the way for its realization in the political sphere (Kaiser, pp. 63-65).

These were the kinds of organizations that planted the roots for the plants of Christian democracy that would flourish in post-WWII Europe, a crucial one being the reconciliation and integration of Franco-German interests. Kaiser elaborates on the kind of foreign policy that the leaders of Christian democracy were considering for the European future, clearly revealing how much they owed to the ideals formulated in the Catholic social teaching of Popes like Leo XIII and Pius XI:

Joos shared most of the revisionist aims of German foreign policy (and the Centre Party), which largely remained geared towards re-establishing German hegemony over central Europe. He had a keen interest in Franco-German reconciliation, however, and established many contacts in France. Even at the height of the Ruhr conflict in 1923, he distanced himself in his articles for the Westdeutsche Arbeiter-Zeitung from the prevailing extreme nationalist fervour, denouncing nationalism as ‘a sin against the Holy Ghost’ in the German version of his contribution to the Europe-wide critical enquiry into nationalism, which the Catholic intellectual and journalist Vaussard put together for the French journal Les Lettres. Instead, he propagated the application of the ‘federalist principle’ to Europe’s future political organisation. This guiding idea – shared also by Adenauer, for example – reflected the traditional preference of Rhenish-Westfalian Catholicism for a more federal organisation of Germany with the aim of overcoming Prussian-Protestant hegemony. In the case of Joos, it also derived from the preference of Catholic social teaching for the application of the principle of subsidiarity in all social relations including the organisation of the state and international affairs. (Kaiser, pp. 93-94)

Whereas Kaiser carefully, patiently unveils the progress of European union according to the foundations established by the Christian democrats, we ourselves do not have the interest or the patience to repeat the entire narrative. Suffice it to say that the author's thesis traces familiar ground in his explanation of how the victorious CD parties in post-war Europe solidified federalist policies, communicated Christian humanist ideas about the dignity of man, and promoted economic integration not only in public and private relations, but between nations as well.  These things then contribute to the growing federalization of European political society to the Maastricht Treaty and beyond.

One more thing we will look into, however, is how the influence of Christian democracy lost its specifically Christian character. One may argue that this starts immediately after WWII when, out of an interest to attract the votes and membership of Protestant Germany, the explicitly Catholic German Centre Party effectively becomes the nonconfessional Christian Democratic Union. This nevertheless does not change the fact that the CD movement was essentially Catholic in form and content, with not only its most successful parties belonging to Catholic countries (and within Germany the CDU voter's base remained a largely Catholic demographic), but the principles remain centred around the Catholic Social Teaching that was crystallized during the interwar period. Their concern for the common good was manifest in their significant role in the expansion of the welfare state, while their insistence on the concept of subsidiarity informing all governmental action meant that state intervention was limited in the economy and in the daily life of the ordinary citizen. Above all this, of course, was the continued celebration of the family as the real social unit, the real social foundation.

This all changes with the process of secularization, which sped up dramatically during the 1960's. The next generation, the '68ers,' had rejected the 'bourgeois' values of family and religion of their fathers, and longed instead for a radical change in the social order, often along socialist or quasi-communist lines. In entering the period of detente, the anti-communism of Christian democracy no longer had its former importance as a rallying point for the various kinds of conservatism. The SPD in 1959 abandoned its Marxist rhetoric through its Godesberger Programm, making itself more attractive for Christian workers (Kaiser, pp. 306-8). Most crucially, with the loss of parish life as a source of networking and a fount of shared values, Christian democracy as it had existed for 15-20 years after the war drifted from its original vision of a Europe founded on and preserved by the Christian faith. Since religion was no longer the most decisive background for many people, political parties that were formed on religious principles had less and less meaning for them.

This crisis motivated new attitudes in Christian democrats who sought to generalize their ideas to make them appeal to a wider audience – which meant secularizing them. While a kind of secular humanism permeates their approach to the social questions of our times, from this point on Christian democracy in reality is more and more involved with economic liberalization and national integration into the European federal framework. Despite the Christian democrat's role in the moral and spiritual recovery of Europe in the initial postwar period, it is its economic role in this success that is most vividly remembered and commemorated. Regardless of the contrast and conflicts with British-style liberalism on the part of its supranational organizations, Christian democracy is nonetheless defined more by its neo-liberal convictions and policies than the social teachings of Rerum novarum and Quadragesimo anno. Thus, Christian democracy morphs into a standard centre-right party with faintly popular leanings, leaving behind the things which originally inspired its very name; thus Martin Conway is prompted to say that 'the age of Christian democracy in Europe has ended' ('Age,' p. 43).


By being acquainted with this history, it is easy to imagine how a neo-liberal archon such as Angela Merkel may have come to lead the Christian democrat party in her nation for nearly two decades. It is equally easy to understand how the EU developed from its origins as the implementation of Catholic Social Teaching and the pursuit of peace through international economic arrangements to the centralized neo-liberal conglomerate it is today. While we cannot minimize the great strides that the EU has made in terms of securing peace in Europe, raising living standards in the more primitive corners of the continent, and finally breaking down the belligerence of 19th century nationalism, we nevertheless have to question whether it has the spiritual and intellectual fortitude to preserve the unique traditions that characterize all its different members, or whether it really is just an agent of globalization as the populists fear.

In order for the European Union to succeed it cannot reduce itself to a provider role. It is true that European stability relies on the continued prosperity of all its member states, but just as the father has responsibilities to his children other than putting food on the table, the EU likewise owes its member states the protection of their common heritage, their very identity as Europeans. This identity does not come from abstract 'rights' such as 'liberty' or 'equality,' nor by the labour we sell; it comes from our cultural history, from our particular traditions and institutions that we must cultivate a certain way, and from our faith as Christians.

What are we to think, then, of the fact that over the past couple years millions of foreigners with no basis for integration into European culture were invited into Europe? Are we to suppose that a 'European' is simply someone who has European citizenship, or even simply lives in Europe? Such a definition necessarily ignores the crucial importance that our cultural traditions play in conditioning our identity over the generations, which is the true meaning of ethnos. The second and third generations of foreigners who arrive in Europe won't be integrated into the deeper nature of the European identity, nor are they likely to retain the traditions of their fathers; they will instead subscribe to the surface consumerism and lose themselves in whatever artificial subculture appeals to them. This is because true identity is cultivated over a sustained period of time, and because right now the true identity of Europeans themselves is in regression in the face of the levelling anti-culture currently demoralizing our civilization.

What makes the history of the European Union so fascinating is how its founding organizations and
agreements were able to overcome the nationalistic passions and divisions that had characterized European relations since the Thirty Years War and which had finally exhausted themselves in the two world wars. Supranationally organized 'communities' such as the ECSC and the EEC were effective in replacing them with a spirit of peace and unity through an almost imperial order that, in spite of its new democratic principles and institutions, cannot fail to remind the historian of the Habsburg Empire in a variety of ways. There are the structural parallels, for instance, with each territory being afforded room to follow its own independent political destiny and create its own identity.

More importantly there is the same commitment to the spiritual principles that are responsible for everything great about Europe, indeed for everything that Europeans really have in common. The Habsburg Emperor Charles V fought the German princes to preserve the religious unity of Christendom, and his House seldom wavered on questions of the faith till its downfall in 1918, being known as the penultimate 'reactionary' political presence in Europe. Likewise the key founders of European union, Konrad Adenauer, Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Alcide de Gaspari, were all devout Catholics with political visions shaped by their understanding of Catholic Social Teaching, specifically its principle of subsidiarity and the role of the family. They knew the responsibility they owed to the people of Europe to be bringers of peace and defenders of the faith.

Since the Maastricht Treaty, however, and the formation of the European Union we know today, these parallels have become increasingly obscured. The bureaucratic and centralized agents of Brussels nosily insert themselves into the economic and cultural realities of whatever member state may not be acting as they would like; the most obvious example of this is the migrant quotas where more prudent nations who would rather not invite thousands of foreigners into their lands are forced to do so anyway. As for the parallel of a Christian kinship, in all the documents and treaties involving the EU there is scarcely a mention of God, let alone the foundational religion that created what we know as 'Europe' and to which the majority of Europeans still adhere. Instead there is the creed of 'human rights,' which includes sexual rights, meaning that any advocates of the traditional Christian position on sexual deviancy are harassed as obsolete hate-mongers for their attempts to curtail the 'freedoms' inherent in the sexual rights of the EU citizen.

In conclusion, it is, we repeat, to our great benefit that we moved away from the bitter and 'heroic' nationalism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; far from the life-affirming deeds valorized by its preachers, nationalism only resulted in the life-denying cataclysm of total war. The move towards supranational communities may have been inevitable in our progressively open and cosmopolitan world, but it nevertheless required the ability of men who could see beyond their own borders to realize them.

We must not let this move go too far, however, and eradicate all the particular idiosyncratic habits and customs that belong to the individual cultures and nations. Globalism is a very real threat because, having lapsed in our faith and having become sterile in the arts of civilization, we are so terrifyingly vulnerable to the alternatives of the monolithic anti-culture it pushes in our face. If European union is ever to realize its true self, as it was envisioned by many of the Christian democrats in the early postwar period, it can only do so by remembering the principles that sustained them through their trials and accomplishments, by protecting the small from the pressures of the great, and by cultivating the rich history of Europe in ways that apply to the 21st century.

If the ruling bodies continue to mechanically interfere in the affairs of the local bodies, continually manipulating them according to secret plans of the European Commission or other sinister institutions, then the European Union will find itself being no less totalitarian than the societies which men like Adenauer, de Gaspari, and Schuman led Europe out of, and all the good work achieved by Christian Democracy will have been for nothing.

Boyer, John W., ‘Catholics, Christians and the Challenges of Democracy: The Heritage of the Nineteenth Century,’ in Kaiser and Wohnout (eds.), Political Catholicism, 2004
Conway, Martin, Catholic Politics in Europe 1918-45, 1997
Conway, Martin, 'The Age of Christian Democracy. The Frontiers of Success and Failure,' in Conway and Gotovitch (eds.), European Christian Democracy, 2003 
Kaiser, Wolfram, Christian Democracy and the Origins of European Union, 2007