For those of us following the crisis in Europe with any degree of intensity, it’s difficult not to sense an absence of hope among even the most sincere continental technocrats. This absence extends beyond the moralizing response to sovereign debt (which faults national “greed,” “recklessness,” or a type of gluttony for and comes paired with a call for penance and purging, and which subconsciously echoes the grammar of a Christian worldview, with its language of sin and atonement), which is far less appealing than it ought to be in Europe. Calls for the imposition of even modest limitations (say, hiking the retirement age from 60 to 62) have resulted in riotous outbursts by ordinary citizens unwilling to concede an inch of entitlement, and led to dramatic depositions in electoral contests. But there’s something else missing in Europe, beyond a willingness to confront overindulgence, beyond proclamations of doom and their accompanying remedies of shame. A positive alternative voice, that of Christian democracy, so vital in the twentieth century, seems also to have faded.
Much of postwar European recovery and development came under the aegis of Christian democratic political parties. While these groups trace their origins to the late-nineteenth century, they really only came into their own as formidable political forces at the end of the Second World War, after other, inverted religious responses to modernity had been exposed as radical and dehumanizing. In Italy, Alcide de Gasperi’s Christian Democrats shepherded the nation through years of slow rebuilding and social tumult. French Gaullists, though of course different in important ways, founded Rally for the Republic, the first serious, widespread attempt by the French right to come to terms with democracy by embracing and redirecting rather than plotting its overthrow. Germany witnessed the rebirth of the Christian Democratic Union, and many of the architects of what would eventually become the European Union were devout Catholics who saw their actions through a rich theological lens.
Over time, though, Europe’s Christian Democratic parties became markedly less Christian and more like generic center-right-liberals. True, they retained traditionalist wings and, for the most part, continued to extol the importance of “Christian [and 'humanistic'] values,” or “our national and continental heritage,” but by and large they secularized as economic comfort set in and the threat of communism diminished. Then, in many cases, the parties went extinct or completely rebranded themselves (Rally for the Republic is now “Union for a Popular Movement,” and their Cross of Lorraine logo has been swapped for an oak tree; the Italian party fared even worse, suffering embarrassing scandals in the early 1990s before being overtaken by Silvio Berlusconi’s newer, more populist and blatantly right-wing “Forza Italia”).
It’s hard not to have a strange sense that history is regurgitating itself in the current meltdown. Analogies to the 1930s abound; some are calling for a new Marshall Plan; others for the revival of a currency last seen in the Holy Roman Empire. But as an idea-starved continent exhausts most of its remaining energy pursuing better managers and unsinkable technical solutions, perhaps a renewed summons to the noble project of Christian democracy, strangely absent of late, would ultimately return many more talents to the treasury.