Luigi Sturzo – The Philosophic Background of Christian Democracy (1947)

Don Luigi Sturzo

[Servant of God Don Luigi Sturzo (1871 – 1959) was an Italian priest, Christian Democrat, and founder of the Partito Popolare Italiano (Italian People’s Party). More can be found on Wikipedia.]

[Originally published in The Review of Politics, Volume 9, Issue 1, January 1947, pp. 3 – 15. Current text taken from The Image of Man: A Review of Politics Reader (1959).]


It is common to confuse Christian democracy with the social movement of Catholics on behalf of the working classes, according to the papal teachings, among which the most noted are taken from the encyclicals Rerum Novarum of Leo XIII and Quadragesimo Anno of Pius XI. (I do not cite the Graves de Communi of Leo XIII because it is superseded by the Quadragesimo from the point of view of social questions). In fact, Christian democracy, having assumed a political character, with the formation of Christian Democratic or Popular Parties (and the adhesion given by the old Catholic parties which were orientating themselves toward democracy, adopting broad social programs), has passed the stage of simple activity on behalf of the working classes and placed itself on the political plane with its own program and action. This program and action are quite distinct from those of other Catholic nuclei, for the most part conservative, interested—either as a party or party pivots, or as participants in other parties, or merely as eminent and independent personalities—in the public life of their particular countries, concerning themselves in a special way with the religious interests endangered by the liberal and socialist parties of anti-clerical flavor.

To arrive at the technical plane of Christian democracy, it is necessary also to distinguish it from the Catholic Church as a teaching hierarchy and as the mass of faithful. The Christian democrats have been and are, in their largest majority, faithful Catholics devoted to the Church and attentive to the observance of Christian precepts; they have had the help of bishops and of popes, according to time and place; they have also been held in suspicion, criticized, eliminated from positions of responsibility in the Church or in Catholic Action, always according to time and place. (Whether through their own fault or the fault of others makes no difference). It is enough to cite the French Abbé Naudet who was prohibited from writing or speaking in any way; his obedience was total for the twenty years before he died. It is enough to mention Marc Sangnier of Paris, who endured the condemnation of his association “Le Sillon” (soon changed into an organization dependent upon bishops), to which is due the flowering of Christian democratic youth in France from 1900 on. In the same way, reviewing history, we find likewise the condemnation of the Avenir of Lammenais and Montalembert in 1832, the exile from Rome of Father Giachino Ventura (then General of the Theatines) in 1849; also, in Italy, the condemnation of Don Murri (who left the Church, but was reconciled in 1943); in Argentina, the old bitter struggle against Monsignor Michele de Andrea (Bishop in partibus).

All this is cited, not to justify those who come under the provisions of Church discipline, or to cast any shadow on the hierarchy of the Church, but to show how the Christian democrats shaped their experience and created a basic theory which, although always in the framework of Catholic thought, was actuated in a proper form.

Indeed, without the basis of Christianity a true form of Christian democracy could not develop, particularly because modern democracy is the fruit of Christian civilization and has little in common with the pre-Christian classic-Mediterranean forms of democracy. In the second place, because it gave prevailing value to morality in public life, it was natural, indeed, that Christian democracy should found itself on the Judaeo-Christian tradition of thought which is the historic and ideological basis of modern civilization.

The problem which confronted Catholics in the nineteenth century and which still confronts them even in our own century and after the tragic experience of two world wars, is precisely that of morality in public life. The problem presents itself to us, from period to period, as unsolved in its practical applications, and even in the theorems which influence resolutions, notwithstanding the fact that, ascending to general principles, it finds perfect coincidence with the teachings of Christianity. The reason for the disparity between the general principles of public morality and their practical applications, is derived above all from the complexity of political questions, and from the conflicts of the rights and duties of the individuals and social nuclei among themselves and in their concurrent relationship with the various communities to which, of necessity or freely, they belong. From this springs the difference not only in accentuation on one or another social problem, but also the difference in theorization, to the point of finding bearable today that which tomorrow will be esteemed unbearable, and of regarding as not repugnant to nature (for instance, slavery) that which tomorrow will be judged against the rights of the human personality, as that which is most elevated in nature itself.

This is due not only to the usual difficulty of overcoming social prejudices based on established facts and the effects of traditions themselves, but also to the somewhat slow and insecure process by which the human understanding makes practical truths its own and brings them into complete correspondence with theoretical principles. What we have here is video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor (I see the better and I try it, but I follow the worse) which torments us even in the quest for truth; it is also that dark zone which separates the two extremes of intellectualism and pragmatism, and which often makes incomprehensible the connection between “theoretical reason” and “practical reason.”

It is not to be wondered at if, even today, there are those who do not take account of the ethical value of democracy, ideally conceived, because they do not see the possibility of the practical realization of true democracy. They are bound down under the weight of rationalism or intellectualism or even scholasticism. As yet there has to be dispelled the influence of those who stand against political or social democracy, who have upheld and defended the authoritarianisms of absolute monarchies, the monopoly of historical aristocratic governments, who have chained the destinies of the people to the patrimonial rights of dynasties, and who have condemned the representative forms of government actuated by the bourgeoisie of the last century and have feared the advent of another estate (the working classes) either because they considered it a social extremism or because they judged it inactualizable, and hence anarchistic.


Historical events were stronger than theories; the American and French Revolutions marked a new phase in the history of humanity.

nch Revolutions marked a new phase in the history of humanity. Unfortunately, before a permanent political separation between Church and state was brought about, there was ripening a profound separation between public morality and Christian thought. The modern democracies were born under the stars of humanitarianism, naturalism, and positivism. American democracy itself (which was not, in fact, conceived as true democracy until later), although it maintained a Deistic inspiration in the Declaration of Independence and a widespread religious tradition among the people (a thing which, aside from anti-clericalism, a reaction connected with historic facts, was not lacking in France), suffered the effects of rationalist and even positivist political philosophies.

In the practical field there was on one side the separation of the state from the Church (a step which was historically implicit in the denunciation of the regime of the absolute monarchies bound to the established churches), which had, as its result the development of religious agnosticism in the ruling classes and in the schools, the abandonment of the conception of a natural ethics and religious morality, and a veering in the direction of the theories of historical, relative, fluctuating morality, independent of religion in general and of positive religion in particular.

The process was neither rapid nor constant, nor, in various zones, perceptible. But permeating the intellectual or professional milieu in the teaching of sociology and of political sciences and in the prevailing social conceptions, it invaded the realm of legislations, took the place of Christian traditions and created its own public and private morality which was defined as the “way of life” of each people or nation.

Nevertheless, the patrimony of Christian morality was not completely lost; it still lived as a natural morality in the premises of the codes and laws of each state, connected with those of the ten commandments concerned with commutative justice, with certain aspects of family life, and certain spheres of social life. From the Christian spirit (consciously or not) were being imbibed not a few of the modern social institutions dealing with the relationships between capital and labor, and with public institutions of assistance and social welfare.

But three modern heresies combined to make public morality more and more precarious and unstable: that of the independence of man from God either in the name of Hegelian idealism, or under the spreading influence of Comtean positivism; that of the historical materialism of a Marxist character; and finally that of agnostic pragmatism and historical relativism, which strip human acts of all ethical value.

Consequently, there was the search for a political absolute as an anchor to the wavering bark of society. First in the order of time, the state: the absolute state as an expression of the collective will: inspiration for this was found in Rousseau. Placing the state outside all ethical limits, it was then made a font of ethicality; either the ethical state or the Hegelians, of which (under Fascism) the philosopher Giovanni Gentile was high-priest—or the national state preached by Charles Maurras in France. The second absolute was the proletarian class, as the unifier of all political interests, re-expressed in economic terms: Lenin was its prophet. But with this the Russian communist experiment ended; Stalin’s continuation of it is already on the nationalist-imperialist plane. The third absolute was the race, deified in the German conception: Fichte was its prophet and Hitler its demon. Public morality, in the three cases, identifies itself respectively with the divinity of the state or nation, of the class, of the race, subjugating the individual to the totalitarian and uncontrollable will of the dictator.

As nature has its forces which work together against all illnesses (except the last and the mortal one), so also in totalitarian experiments the interior forces of opposition and of revolution are influential (here more, there less) in diminishing the ethical and political effects, and in creating healthy reactions, as soon as the play of opposing forces produces the margins of evasion or resistance. It is because of the strength of such natural forces of resistance that even totalitarianisms cannot create true, stable, and profound pantheistic convictions of the state, nation, race, or class. Human reason seeks by instinct those ethical laws which are based on the rights of human personality, and goes even more deeply to the roots, asking for that principle which is the animator of true personality.


Some believe that the search for a “Prime Ethics” in political relationships would be a return to an obsolete metaphysics, to mediaeval scholasticism, to rationalism, and to the ‘natural law’ of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; a looking backward and not a going ahead. They do not perceive that involutions of thought serve for further developments, in which the past is reflected, under other aspects, in the present, and prepares the future. The search for a “prime ethics” was once regarded either as pure philosophic speculation, or as a spiritual necessity of the individual, and in this second case it was confused with the religious needs of each of us. Today the “prime ethics” is looked at from the sociological viewpoint: if an absolute basis is lacking to ethics, society is without moral orientation; and if the ethics is a pure product of society in the concrete (granted that there does not exist an ideal society outside of our a posteriori abstraction, from fact to idea), the ethics will be variable according to the variety of social nuclei and their development.

Thus we are obliged to review the entire theory of society and to discover that fundamentally society is only the simultaneous and progressive projection of the activity of man’s personality concretized in the multiplicity of individuals who, either necessarily or voluntarily, cooperate among themselves. From such a revision emerges, as a social factor and an ethical constant, the human personality; whence the fundamental problem is, how society can be reduced to human personality, and how personality can be the power animating society. These processes, in their reciprocal influences, acquire balance on cultural, political, and economic planes, when rationality prevails over pseudo-rationality (which plays its social role posing as rationality); and when, in the practical field, the equation between rational law and its ethical application is discovered.

Thus is achieved that transcendence—necessary in the human process of rationality—and that ethicality, which transports the various activities of life in society to their meaning and their permanent and interior value.

The special characteristic of Christian democracy differentiating it from every other political conception of modern times lies, above all, in its particular idea of democracy (some have called it “moralistic” making an unfounded criticism of it), which, theoretically and practically, has a different basis from that of modern democracy, notwithstanding certain historical and technical coincidences.

Let us pursue this special characteristic along certain lines:

1) That modern democracy and Christian democracy coincide in stressing that true democracy is government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

2) That democracy of any kind would not be real without the political freedoms of speech, of press, of assembly, and of the vote, admitting, however, that such liberties must be actuated with proper regulations so as not to become through abuse dangerous to society itself.

3) That modern democracy cannot exist and function without parliaments, and must guard and preserve as distinct the state powers: the legislative, the executive, and the judicial.

4) That real democracy cannot be conceived except as based on social justice, so as to avoid the economic exploitation of certain classes or social groups, and to give to all the opportunity for their well-being and betterment.

This scheme, which all modern democrats hold in common, if analyzed closely, is either formalistic or intentional, to the point of being able to include all forms of democracy, which from the end of the eighteenth century on have been established in all parts of the world; or, on the contrary, (as is done by certain purist democrats, in the manner of Rousseau) it excluded the historical experiments of democracy, thereby denying that true democracy ever existed under the sun.

Some Catholic thinkers, in the face of the prevailing naturalistic theorization of modern society, have been inclined to condemn those tendencies which are called liberal and democratic, often confusing the philosophical theories with political institutions. From this it has followed that the representative and democratic regimes have been realized outside the influence of the Church, making their own experiments, through a series of crises, now in conjunction with and now in opposition to certain Catholic-political wings. The usual Catholic criticism (transferred from the field of principles to the polemic field of daily politics) has been credited, in many instances, with being a denial of political liberties themselves and of democratic forms of government.

This unfavorable position of Catholics was influenced by the fact that their greatest writers have been men of the Church, who because of their mental training are more given to logic than others (and are sometimes even in some degree Consequentiarii , as scholars call them, being accustomed to evaluate facts from the pure viewpoint of principles). Thus, given that Rousseau was the father of democracy, there are those who have prejudged French democracy from 1789 on, as an application of a mathematical theorem (outside the realm of historical events), in the light of the words and ideas of the Social Contract.

In America, the idea prevails, in Church circles, that the democracy of the United States is not derived in any way from Rousseau but from the Christian spirit of the Founding Fathers, who were most felicitous in including theistic phrases in the Declaration of Independence. Thus American democracy, which has not many fundamental differences from European democracy (government of the people, freedom of speech, press, and assembly, and the vote) and which differs from it only in mechanism, has had the open support (although expressed with theoretical qualifications) of Catholic thinkers. I say “expressed with theoretical qualifications” because, given the attitude of the Papacy during the European and American revolutions, and the religious struggles which followed in Catholic countries, it was natural that many should have the attitude of looking more upon the past which they wished to preserve than upon the future to be won.

On the other hand, those Catholics who participated in the public life of free countries, whether in representative or governmental posts or as exponents of parties, realized the importance of the new popular institutions and the advantages which religion might derive from them, if the Church or the local clergy would abandon negative criticism and the conservative concept of a past which could not return. These were called, in the last century, “liberal Catholics” from the political viewpoint, and “Christian Socialists” from the social viewpoint. Only after the publication of the encyclicals of Leo XIII (especially Libertas, Humanum Genus and Rerum Novarum), did there spring forth the courageous movement of Christian democracy which inherited the spirit of the liberal (in the sense of popular government) and social (in the sense of economic reform) currents of the progressive Catholic wing. Personalism, Pluralism, Institutionalism, mark this beginning of the revision of political thinking.

For this very reason, we have had, and have, even today, a cultural and practical separation of the Catholics on political questions, with some crises, and at the same time with intense revision of the philosophical positions of Catholic thought. Such thinkers as Maritain and Blondel, who have not directly participated in political movements and in Catholic social activity—have largely contributed (each from his own viewpoint) to the philosophical re-examination of traditional theories.

One of the points granted today in Catholic thought is that of the right of the human person, which has caused the coining in France of the word “personalism” and also has given rise to a “perisonalist” group as well as a somewhat personal group. In the main, it has served to clarify some aspects of the ethical problem of society. In face of the state-worshiping tendencies of the nineteenth century and the totalitarianism of our own times, this revaluation of the person, not only in the purely naturalistic sense, but also in the historic-Christian sense (which has synthesized the natural with the supernatural), has been a step forward in human accomplishment and a positive affirmation against monistic theories of the Spirit, in the manner of Hegel, or of Humanity, in the manner of Comte, or of historical materialism, in the manner of Marx.

The fundamental revaluation of personality is indeed due to the great Christian tradition; but politically this value was obscured by the absolutism of the monarchs of the “ancien regime,” by the political conception of the state-religion, by the economic exploitation of the working classes, by the theory of a democracy in the manner of Rousseau, based on the tyranny of the supposed collective will.

Liberalism meant the liberation from such a past, but it tended to disorganize society, resolving it in the individual; so that afterwards to reorganize that society it had recourse theoretically to the system of an omnipotent state, and practically accentuated the defense of the bourgoisie [sic] as the ruling class, identifying the economic interests of such a class with those of the nation as a whole, whence the strong and decisive socialistic reaction. The personalist theory utilizes, out of liberal and socialistic experiences, those which are sound, and synthesizes their contrast in the prevailing value of human personality, seeking to actualize them with essential reform of the social organisms and to make them interdependent and effective.

Another step was taken in order to affirm the principle of liberty without falling into theoretical agnosticism and into practical individualism; this occurred in France after the first World War when the theory of pluralism was accepted by Catholics as a characteristic of modern society. It is not opportune here to analyze the juridical or legislative basis of this theory, or to discuss it from a sociological viewpoint. The point, above all, to be disputed is the affirmation that only modern society can be called pluralistic; all complex forms of society are in a certain sense pluralistic. It is also to be disputed that society can function without the process of dualization of social forces and without the tendency towards unification. Pluralism is an analytical formula (happy enough) of the nuclear state of society and of the need of individual initiative to form always a new series of nuclei, in agreement or in opposition. This is a centrifugal dynamism truly necessary to counterbalance centripetal dynamism. That which liberalism interpreted as a purely individual right (which, if it were really pure as certain liberal thinkers conceive it, could be a pure anarchy), pluralism analyzes more realistically and justifies more rationally. Catholics, on their part, (after a century of incomprehension of the true historico-sociological essence of liberalism, and after so many direct conflicts especially with naturalistic premises and with the agnostic consequences of liberalism) prefer to speak of pluralism, which contains a principle of social organicity, and which can have as presuppositions both theories, the naturalistic of the liberals as well as the ethico-sociological of Christian tradition.

Another theory, also of French origin, which has played a part in the revision of modern thought is that of institutionalism: that is, of the organic value of the social institution (juridico-political), which transcends individuals and continues, in time and space with its own character and vitality, as an extra-personal reality. This theory must also be revised to be in full agreement with that of personalism and that of pluralism. The writer has presented his criticism of the extra-personal character given to the institution and has specified the importance of personal and voluntary activity in the creation of social organs. The question warrants a much deeper study, as a real contribution to the revision of modern sociology and also of the traditional positions of Christian philosophy.

It is an urgent necessity to dispel the misunderstanding between Christianity and modern society and to arrive at a just and sound evaluation of present social and political institutions and of their ethical quality. But no theoretical revision whatsoever has any real importance in life if it remains in the purely speculative field and lacks the proof of its concretization in the practical field.

Insofar as the political, economic, and social currents prevailing in modern life are imbued with materialism or are inspired by a relativistic and basically hedonistic moralism, the corresponding actualizations, notwithstanding the high-sounding names of liberalism, democracy, radicalism, or socialism, will remain within the circle of naturalism and can pass into the sphere of permanent human values only through extrapolation, or through the traditional habits of thought and life.

From the other side, Christian theories will bear no weight, even as theories (apart from school exercises) if there are no politico-social currents which give them actualization and experimentation. The action of Christian democracy has contributed, in the present field, towards carrying the masses of Catholic people into political life, without diffidence or “arriere pensee” or recriminations for the past; it has enabled them to face with courage, strength, and personal sacrifices modern leftist or rightist totalitarianisms, even when the opinion expressed by the Catholic press was (either with few reservations or many eulogies) on the side of the dictators; and to accept the way of liberty and modern political institutions as a common basis for reform according to Christian ethics.

If there is still among the progressive groups of Catholics on one side a certain poverty of thought and on the other uncertainty of movement, this is due in part to the fact that the most noted writers have looked on Christian democracy with contempt, preferring polemics against the enemies of the Church to the slow and practical construction of a modern and democratic society. Catholic education has not contributed to the best preparation for political life because of the very fact that, to the principles of individual morality and traditional principles of society, it has not added the intellectual and practical formation suited to the needs of a new democratic society.

In view of the destructive effects of the Second World War, a larger and more generous contribution must be drawn from the studies of ethics and the philosophy of society, which inform the ideals of Christian democracy and which serve for a Christian reorientation of modern society, without laments for the past and without antihistorical wishes for a return to the Middle Ages.