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The Failure of Christian Democracy by Charles A. Coulombe

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The Failure of Christian Democracy

Detail of an early Christian sarcophagus, located in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum.

Photo: Courtesy of Nick Thompson, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The parting of the ways on March 20, 2021 between Hungarian ruling party Fidesz and the European People’s Party is an extremely painful one for me. You see, I was a correspondent of Archduke Otto von Habsburg’s from the time I was in high school. I remember well the hopefulness with which he entered the European Parliament in 1979, and the formation of the European People’s Party. The material he sent me about it, both then and subsequently, was thrilling. Imagine, for a Catholic American teenager (who had already read Belloc’s The Servile State and had rejected the idea that the Faith must be kept separate from the political sphere) what a charge it was to read political material talking about the Christian roots of our culture and quoting Papal encyclicals! The Archduke had a great effect on my political formation, and the idea of a United, Free, and explicitly Christian Europe standing between a Soviet Union and a United States suffering from the post-Vietnam blues was alluring. 

Alas, the EPP’s rejection of Fidesz is a rejection of a lot more than Viktor Orban. It is the seal on the party’s decades-long rejection of its heritage, of any effective allegiance to either Christianity or democracy. Fidesz’s real crime was its adherence to both.

The explosion of infanticide, euthanasia, and gender confusion that has engulfed the West in the past five decades was neither originated nor (save in Ireland) sanctioned by the majority of the people of the formerly Christian world. In most jurisdictions it was imposed by judicial and occasionally by parliamentary fiat—and the reaction of the various Churches has ranged from flaccid disapproval to avid acceptance. Nevertheless, to the believing Christian, murder of the unborn, the elderly, and the infirm on the one hand and overturning of both marriage and sexuality itself can never be other than sins—crying out to Heaven for vengeance, in biblical terms. Never can such a one be content with a State that does not stop at merely tolerating such things, but actually promotes them as equal to or better than the things established by God. 

With the approval of the majority of the Hungarian electorate (there’s that democracy thing) Fidesz has done the unforgivable—it has attempted with some success to live up to what the originators of Christian Democracy stood for as regards social issues. Worse, it has clipped the wings of the judiciary, which in modern times is used to exercising absolute control over “democratic” countries. The judiciary has been the primary agency by which the aforementioned evils have been imposed. 

It is easy to understand why the EPP leadership would be scandalised by all this. There is nothing so appalling as someone else living up to the beliefs what one claims to hold and thereby exposing one’s hypocrisy. Despite the EPP’s literature’s lovely references to Europe’s Christian roots, culture, and values, the leadership has made no attempt to implement those values in EU legislation and bureaucratic decisions; instead, the leaders condemn those who do.

To be fair, the EPP are far from alone in their flight from Christianity. In 1999, the Christian Democrat International (comprising CD parties from Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere) changed its name to “Center Democrat International.” In 2002, the Belgian Francophone Christian Social Party abandoned its formative principles to become the Humanist Democratic Center. Their Flemish counterparts retain the “Christian” label. Although some of their member parties have been infected with Liberation Theology, the Latin American Christian Democrat Organisation of America also holds on to the name.

To understand just how far mainstream Christian Democracy has failed and what a glorious heritage its leaders have turned their backs on, one must grasp where it came from and how it got here. Its origins lie in the reaction to the mad, brutal French Revolution on the part of thinkers and political figures all over Europe, from Ireland’s Edmund Burke to Russia’s Alexander I. In that company are such names as de Maistre, Chateaubriand, Gentz, Haller, von Baader, and on and on—and obviously many in that list hail from the Conservative wing of the Romantic movement. As the 19th century wore on, Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants alike were confronted by the monstrous twin offspring of the Industrial Revolution: centralising classical Liberalism and collectivising Socialism. As with the French Revolution, both of these cloaked their real intentions—conscious or otherwise—in lovely talk. The language of classical Liberalism still beguiles many on the Right and Left, and today we see more and more young folk inclining towards the soft words of Socialism. But the result of these two movements proves to be the same as that of the French Revolution: the destruction of Europe’s life-giving religious and cultural traditions, and their replacement with a weird dehumanization, at once radically individualistic and completely herd-like. 

There were reactions to all of these: the Legitimists, Carlists, and Miguelists unsuccessfully combatted liberalism in France, Spain, and Portugal, while Austria and her allies opposed the centralising (and recently liberalized) Monarchies of Prussia and Sardinia in Central Europe. The Catholic Church and many of her children addressed the burgeoning social question in Catholic countries, as did the Dutch Neo-Calvinists. Scandinavia and Prussia saw Conservative parties wrestle with the same issues, while for the same reason the British Tories produced at different times during the century such concerned spin-offs as Young England and the Third Party. Russia’s Slavophiles attempted to do the same from an Orthodox point of view, eventually producing and being transcended by such figures as Soloviev and Bulgakov. 

To the degree that there could be political consensus among such disparate folk, it was roughly fourfold: Altar—that is to say, the country’s dominant Church acting as the source of authority and legitimacy, as well as guiding public morality; Throne—an executive Monarchy grounded in the country’s religion and national tradition, endowed with sufficient power to maintain equilibrium in the state and check its politicians’ excesses; Local Liberties—the autonomous life and self-rule of cities and provinces, or what we would to-day call “Subsidiarity;” and Class Cooperation—each social class fulfilling its proper role toward each other and society in general out of mutual love and loyalty, or what is now referred to as Solidarity.

In Catholic countries, the result of all of this was the formation of a network of Catholic parties who drew their inspiration from the Church’s social teaching as outlined above. Too often, however, these four ideals did not sit comfortably together, as in France (to take just one example). Desirous of maintaining the Church’s Concordat with France’s increasingly anticlerical Third Republic, Leo XIII called upon French Catholics to abandon the second point, while holding on to all the rest—especially the idea of the Catholic confessional State. This had the unhappy effect of splitting the Church in that country and pitting its foremost activists against each other. Eventually the Republic did void the Concordat, seized the Church’s property, expelled the religious orders, and in general acted piggishly toward the Church until her children were needed as cannon fodder in the First World War.

That war was a travesty, slaughtering millions and ending the existence of three major confessional Monarchies (Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Germany). But, in a strange reversal, it also ushered in a golden age of Catholic political thought and action. More Catholic parties—often under the direct leadership of priests—sprung up. From Great Britain’s Guild Socialism, Ruralism, and Distributism, to Catholic Germany’s Solidarism, to the Catholic Corporatism attempted in Austria, Lithuania, Portugal, and elsewhere, a whole family of Catholic economic ideas emerged. Overseeing the whole was Pope Pius XI, particularly with his social encyclicals Quas Primas and Quadragesimo Anno. Skilled as he was with theory, the Pontiff sometimes mishandled concrete situations, as with the Cristeros in Mexico and the Action Francais (with the latter of which kerfuffles, so reminiscent of Leo’s Ralliement, being put to rights immediately upon his accession by Pius XII).

For a brief moment, modern Catholics had more or less reliable political leadership, upon whom they could depend to eventually make a right decision. The subtleties of the interwar era, so well personified by the struggle over Action Francais, pointed out a problem for socially minded Catholics and non-Catholic Christians alike. On the one hand, Maurras, despite being an unbeliever (until his conversion a few years before his death), saw Catholicism as essential to France’s well-being and glory, and so had many Catholic followers; but Pius XI feared that this reduced the Faith’s importance to being merely a religious sanction for national idolatry.

The interwar period also saw the birth of many other ideologies in response to Communism and the economic collapse. How congruent with the Faith were they? The fertile mix of cultural, social, and political ideas in the German “Conservative Revolution” attracted many devout Catholics and Protestants alike (such as Stauffenberg and Jünger); it also appealed to various Neo-Pagans and other—ah—interesting types. What united them was a deep desire for a new order that would encompass all the best of European tradition and bring it into the modern world. But what would that look like? How would one get there? And what to make of Fascism, National Socialism, and the other new cognate ideologies in every European country and Latin America that claimed to be able to accomplish the longed-for synthesis of old and new? 

Pius XI would condemn the errors within both the Italian and German nostra—errors that in the end revealed their Left-wing origins and practise; it was no coincidence that Mussolini was named after Benito Juarez and started political life as a Socialist. But World War II and its horrors faced the kind of folk of whom we have been speaking with a terrible dilemma. Those who, on the basis of their principles, believed they could collaborate with the Axis found themselves politically (and often physically) destroyed by the end of the war, no matter how much they had tried to apply those principles where they could. Those whose reading of the same ideals led them into the resistance alongside their old enemies, the Liberals and Communists, very often survived—but after 1945, they faced a new dilemma—one predicted by Paneuropa founder Coudenhove-Kalergi after World War I.

Not only had the Iron Curtain descended across the Continent, Free Europe’s survival was suddenly contingent upon the semi-occupation by and good will of the United States, whose own classical Liberal principles were largely at odds with those of the traditional European Christian Right. Outside of Spain, Portugal, and to some degree the nascent Irish Republic, the surviving Christian politicians had to come to terms with this new situation. There could be no thought of Monarchical Restoration. The idea of the Confessional State—Catholic or otherwise—had also been severely damaged. This was partly because the American guarantors opposed it, but also because of the shared experiences of the resistance by Catholics and Protestants—and Liberals and Socialists. So while Subsidiarity and Solidarity remained in the playbook, aspirations for restoring the Throne were replaced with an embrace of liberal democracy—that is to say, rule by politicians, and ultimately by judges. Instead of the Christian or Catholic Confessional State, the ideal would be the “confessionally neutral state nevertheless illumined by Gospel values,” in the pithy phrase of Pope Benedict XVI—a vision seemingly incarnate in Eisenhower’s America. Thus was born, in the immediate post-war era, Christian Democracy in the form which it held until recently.

There can be no doubting the integrity, sincerity, nor piety of its originators—men such as Adenauer, Schuman, and de Gasperi, nor of Ven. Pius XII and St. John XXIII who encouraged them. Bound up with the birth of modern Christian Democracy and from the same men was what became the European Union. It was a beautiful dream, to be sure, symbolised to its founders by the Crown of Charlemagne—and to great degree was embraced both by Coudenhove-Kalergi and by Otto von Habsburg himself. For the Archduke, the European Union seemed a way to achieve with what tools were at hand the enduring vision of his House: a great European Christian Commonwealth, a new Christendom. To that vision he remained faithful to the end.

But the foundations upon which he and the Fathers of Christian Democracy and the EU were forced to rely had several fatal flaws. The United States themselves were well on their way to losing the moral consensus which had allowed America’s Catholics, Protestants, and Jews to hold the same values whilst venerating the flag. Concurrently, the same anti-Christian “modernity” that had produced Communism, Fascism, and National Socialism emerged from within Christian Democracy’s Liberal and Socialist partners in Europe. 

Within seven decades, three catalysts radically transformed the scene from that bright beginning to the grey waste we have now. The first was the Catholic Church’s post-Vatican II immolation, which had the effect of immobilizing her. Rather than “guiding” the nations, her hierarchy settled for “accompanying” them—hence the flaccidity earlier noted, most grievously (to date) witnessed in her order to the persecuted underground faithful in China to submit to their Communist overlords’ “patriotic church.” 

The second was the surrender in various ways and times to the “Generation of ’68.” This group of privileged (in America) or perpetually self-pitying (in Europe) children had the unusual experience of growing old without ever growing up. They inherited the reins of power in Church, State, and Culture, and have spent their time attempting to destroy that inheritance in favour of nameless visions. 

The third catalyst, ironically, was the fall of the Soviet Union. Bereft of the need to play masters of the “Free World” any longer, as the elderly “new generation” continues in power they have become ever more dictatorial, imposing upon their hapless subjects the alterations they have chosen for us. 

In the face of that hideous strength, Europe’s Christian Democrats were faced with the same cruel choice their forebears had been dealt in 1939: collaboration or resistance. Fidesz’s exit from the EPP is a clear indication of the path they have chosen.

Unfortunately for us all, the EPP have backed an ultimately losing horse. As the fall of Kabul so graphically illustrates, however effective the Christian Democrats may be in outmanoeuvring divided domestic opponents, they are sadly outmatched when it comes to determined outsiders who have a religion of their own. Whether the future threat be Islamic (external or internal), Chinese, or Russian—that the last must be numbered amongst the foes of the West speaks to the leadership’s diplomatic incompetence—they shall certainly be more than our present masters can handle. At that point, the populace will cry out for alternative leadership, which will be offered, and no doubt they will take it. 

Therein lies the rub. For as with the German Conservative Revolution, there are many strands and bodies of thought within the alternatives to-day, whom the leadership like to lump together as “Extreme Right.” There are—to be sure—Neo-Nazis and Neo-Pagans straight out of any trembling little Antifa’s worst nightmare. Believers in blood and soil who shall know, when the time comes, how to mobilise the fear and resentment of countless Europeans and perhaps other Westerners who, long tired of seeing their most cherished beliefs spat upon by leaders too incompetent and cowardly to act in the face of a real threat, will be ready to embrace them. What might come from turning down that dark road is fearful to contemplate.

But all is not yet lost. Saner leadership seems to be emerging in Hungary and elsewhere in Central Europe. So, too, in Western Europe a new generation is looking for answers. As some of their number embrace Traditional Catholicism, the generation as a whole is encountering the older forms of Christian Democracy or the ideas of Integralism, Monarchism, Distributism, or other elements of the traditional European Christian Right. These youths are laboring to apply old ideas in new ways. It is the duty of us older folk who hold these views to help make them ever more available to the young, and to encourage them in their thinking. From this encounter, we can pray to God that effective action shall issue, when conditions require it.

To be sure, the power of the opposition is enormous and frightening, and one can well understand the wholesale surrender of the Christian Democrats to it—especially if they see politics in terms of mere government employment, rather than as a vocation whose faithful performance shall contribute to their gaining Heaven, and failure may bring Hell. Should our situation become sufficiently unstable as to allow the rise of the groups our rulers fear most, resistance to that darkness will be even more difficult due to the mass ignorance the present system’s education has inculcated. But for the believer, struggle for the right and the true is its own reward—and if the past five centuries have given us one lesson only, it is that history is made by determined minorities.

Charles A. Coulombe is a columnist for the Catholic Herald. His most recent book is Blessed Charles of Austria: A Holy Emperor and His Legacy (TAN Books, 2020). It was reviewed in our Winter 2020/2021 print edition. He is also a Contributing Editor to The European Conservative.


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