The largest voting bloc in the European Parliament is the European People’s Party. It is a collection of European political parties, many of which accept the description Christian Democrat. Roughly speaking, those European political parties that describe themselves this way, including the German CDU led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, tend to adopt a broadly conservative stance on social and moral issues and a broadly liberal one on economics and foreign policy.
There is, of course, much variation across the board. The Irish Fine Gael party has long been associated with Christian Democracy, but is hardly conservative on moral issues, as demonstrated by their leader, Leo Varadkar, who vigourously championed liberalising Ireland’s abortion laws. But whatever their particular policy commitments, whether more liberal or more conservative, many have lost sight of the reason they associated themselves with Christianity in the first place.
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In 1878, the Catholic Bishop Vincenzo Pecci was elected Pope and took the name Leo. Already aged 67, many expected his was to be a quiet Papacy. But not a bit of it. His regular tipple was a cocaine-infused tonic called Vin Mariana and he lived to 93, full of energy, with a particular concern for the condition of the poor.
In 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued the ground breaking encyclical Rerum Novarum – the first time a Pope had intervened directly, not on a churchy issue, but on the subject of economics and labour relations. Rerum Novarum means New Things, and the news things the church was responding to was industrialisation, the rise of the factory system, and the increasing mobilisation of the working class.
In Rerum Novarum, the Pope set out the broad outlines of Catholic Social Teaching with respect to economics – emphatically neither socialism nor free-market capitalism, about which he was especially scathing. Those who think that the present Pope’s lefty prognostications make him an exception among Popes ought to read a few lines from Rerum Novarum:
“Hence, by degrees it has come to pass that working men have been surrendered, isolated and helpless, to the hardheartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition. The mischief has been increased by rapacious usury, which, although more than once condemned by the Church, is nevertheless, under a different guise, but with like injustice, still practiced by covetous and grasping men. To this must be added that the hiring of labor and the conduct of trade are concentrated in the hands of comparatively few; so that a small number of very rich men have been able to lay upon the teeming masses of the laboring poor a yoke little better than that of slavery itself.”
This could almost be from the pen of Karl Marx himself. Except, Pope Leo had little good to say about socialism either. Whereas laissez-faire capitalism promotes the freedom of the individual to make as much money as he or she likes, and often to the detriment of others, socialism seeks to redress that injustice by giving too much power to the state to intervene in our lives.
In order to protect human beings from an overly intrusive state, Rerum Novarum insists upon the importance of private property. The home was to be the safe space for the family, protected from rapacious capitalism and interfering socialism alike (both, of course, equally products of the Enlightenment).
Among the several interesting features of Rerum Novarum, one is its nostalgia for the medieval guilds as models for new forms of associations – or unions – for working people. This is important because it sets the tone for a fundamental principle of Catholic social teaching, that the basic unit of social and political concern should not be the atomised, free individual, nor big business, nor the over mighty state – but rather the small human collective, somewhere in scale between the family and the village.
This is, of course, a value judgment – that the proper site of human flourishing is the family and the local community. And part of the reason Catholic social teaching was so suspicious of industrialisation is that it disrupted and destroyed the basic building blocks of community life: living in one place over a sustained period of time alongside others doing the same; job security; and the communal trust that this security brings.
A number of theologians picked up on the themes of Rerum Novarum. In England, G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc developed a version of Catholic social teaching that came to be called Distributism, a rather ugly word that none of its advocates were especially happy with. They celebrated the political scale of co-operatives and friendly societies, insisted on the right of all people to have a home of their own, and railed against the large-scale forces of alienation, whether of the Left of the Right.
Rerum Novarum also set the tone for a number of Papal letters that built on its insights. In 1931, Quadragesimo anno developed very similar ideas, introducing what were to become the two central themes of Catholic Social teaching: solidarity and subsidiarity. Both ideas came to exert a strong influence over later twentieth century politics.
Solidarity is a belief in the importance of thick, strong and stable communities. It is a belief in what we have come to call social capital – the sort of capital that is built up over time, in which people come to trust and support each other. It is typically in such communities that the elderly and vulnerable are looked after. And it is such communities that can readily organise themselves to resist the dehumanising forces of political tyranny.
It was this sense of solidarity that the Polish workers of the Gdansk shipyards appealed to in naming themselves Solidarnosc (Solidarity). Gate 2 of the shipyard, a symbol of the struggle against communist oppression, came to be decorated with flowers and a portrait of Pope John Paul II and the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. Solidarnosc was as much a theological and a political movement as a labour union. And a direct outgrowth of Rerum Novarum.
Subsidiarity is a term that has come to be associated with the European Union, introduced by the Treaty of Maastricht and now enshrined in Article 5 of the Treaty on European Union. But it began life as theological term, to describe a presumption of the moral priority of the small and the local over the large, the national and the transnational. In the EU, it becomes the idea that actions should only be taken at EU level that cannot be effectively taken at a lower level.
The principle of subsidiarity is a means of resisting the centralisation of power and harks back to the preference Rerum Novarum has for small guilds and workers’ unions. Subsidiarity is, for example, the central principle that animates a great writer and ecologist like Wendell Berry when he complains that the “locally understood interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy, and local nature” built up over time and sustained by the bonds of affection, is “being destroyed by the desires and ambitions of both private and public life.”
Europe’s Christian Democrats were supposed to have been founded on the back of Catholic social teaching. But very little about the current ambitions of the European superstate, and its Christian Democrat backers, conforms to the vision of mid-scale social politics expressed in Rerum Novarum and its successors.
Indeed, the more convincing argument is surely that of the exponents of Brexit, calling for a repatriation of power to the local – they have understood more clearly the basic Catholic principles of solidarity and subsidiarity. It is the Christian Democrats who must rediscover their founding principles. Small is beautiful.