There seems to be general agreement that liberal democracy in the Western world is in crisis. We can see this in the range of political upheavals over the past few years, from the 2016 election of Donald Trump and the disconcerting reality of an American president expressing open admiration for authoritarian regimes abroad, to the ongoing chaos over England’s Brexit referendum. In American Catholicism, the crisis finds expression in the traditionalist wing of the church. Some traditionalists are now blaming liberal democracy for a host of problems, including the breakdown of institutions, religious disaffiliation, abortion, and indiscriminate sexuality—all traceable to 1960s and ’70s liberalism emphasizing diversity and the expansion of individual rights.

But is liberal democracy really so exhausted that there is no choice but to abandon it? The hopeful answer, of course, is no. This is not to minimize the evident challenges. But by fostering a renewed historical appreciation for the role of Catholic theological and doctrinal development in the rise of democracy through the twentieth century, there may be a way to revitalize it. Key to this development was the transatlantic relationship between Europe and America—and between European and American Catholics—following World War I, particularly as it played out in the flight of Catholics from countries gripped by Fascism and Nazism in the 1920s and ’30s. A critical voice in this period was a well-traveled Italian priest and prolific writer originally from the Sicilian village of Caltagirone, Luigi Sturzo.

The founder in 1919 of Italy’s Partito Popolare, a political exile upon the rise of Mussolini, and author of dozens of books and articles on the links between democracy, internationalism, and peace (including many in Commonweal in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s), Sturzo forcefully and often eloquently articulated the case against the various -isms overtaking Europe, in large part through espousing the idea of Catholics as responsible political actors who should be free of official ecclesial oversight and who were not in need of special protection. He proposed a Catholic vision of politics, society, and the economy built on Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum novarum but sufficient to the task of meeting destructive ideologies head-on. For his efforts he was disavowed by the Vatican, threatened with assassination by Italy’s Fascists, and vilified in the United States both by the burgeoning Italian-American population and public figures like xenophobic “radio priest” Charles Coughlin.

And today? A century after Pope Leo XIII’s tacit abolition of the non expedit allowed Italian Catholics to become openly active in politics, the diocesan phase of the process for Sturzo’s beatification has concluded, with venerabile and possible sainthood ahead. It seems an especially good time to look back at the life and work of Sturzo not only to make sense of the current moment, but also to think about what may yet lie ahead.


Sturzo disabused Catholics of the notion that the Concordat of 1929 had changed the violent nature of Fascism or that it would give the Catholic Church protection.

Luigi Sturzo was born in 1871, and came of age in an era when Italian Catholics were by papal decree prohibited from taking part in the secular politics of the constitutional monarchy established with the creation of the new Italian kingdom. That changed after World War I with the end of the non expedit, an obstacle whose removal seemed to release pent-up demand for participation in political life. Sturzo himself wasted little time, in 1919 founding the Partito Popolare with the aim of encouraging Catholics to become involved in politics. It was only in a 1944 Commonweal article that Sturzo revealed the gritty details behind the party’s creation, which required approval by the Vatican. He got the go-ahead, but along with it a warning: “[Secretary of State Cardinal Gasparri] repeated to me several times: ‘You will never speak in the name of the Church, nor in the name of Catholic Action [the most important organization of lay Catholics, under the control of the hierarchy].... Remember that the responsibility is yours. The Church and Catholic Action will never be implicated in the policies of the party. If you make a mistake, the blame will fall on you.”

The blame fell within five years, Sturzo’s “mistake” being his early opposition to Fascism. Partito Popolare was an obstacle between the Vatican and Mussolini, blocking direct negotiations between the two and defying a church whose main concern was not the Fascists but the Communists, both in Italy and internationally. In 1923, the Vatican forced Sturzo to step down from leadership of the party; in 1924, amid an assassination campaign waged by Fascists against their political opponents, he fled Italy for London. With Sturzo gone, the Vatican officially disavowed the Partito Populare and opened direct negotiations with Mussolini, who in a deal with Pius XI forced the eventual disbanding of the party—the first such action by the Fascists and a key step toward the Lateran Treaties of 1929, which in turn helped preempt any possible political cooperation between Catholics and Socialists in Italian politics.

From his relatively safe vantage in London—where he would remain until 1940—Sturzo was able to reflect not only on the rapidly developing political picture, but also on what the future might hold for the international order. He developed connections with the Round Table movement, which at that time was advocating collaboration among dominions of the British Empire as a “commonwealth of nations,” and with the Royal Institute of International Affairs, also known as Chatham House. Following the debate over how to imagine a world in which Great Britain could no longer rely on the militarily imposed loyalty of its colonies, he soon published, in English, The International Community and the Right of War (1929). Here he articulated his vision of the links between democracy, internationalism, and peace, a vision that found receptive audiences in France and Spain (where translations were quickly published), as well as in the United States. A capsule review in Foreign Affairs said the exiled Italian Populist leader was “quite as vigorous in the field of thought as he formerly showed himself in the field of action.” It called his treatment of the philosophical question about the necessity of war

pronouncedly Christian and Catholic…. Don Sturzo finds no difficulty in disposing of the usual arguments advanced in favor of war as an instrument of justice, as a necessary attribute of state power, or as a purely biological factor, and comes to the conclusion that the idea of the necessity of war is a pure illusion.… As the social system changes and the tendency towards international organization replaces the purely national system, the ideas of moral constraint will inevitably prevail over the ideas of force.

The book wasn’t translated into Italian until 1954; it was never translated into German, despite multiple attempts.

Italy’s entry into the war in June 1940 turned Sturzo’s “relatively safe” perch in London into something less so. The British by then were coming to see the Italian exiles in their midst as enemies or possible spies. In September of that year, Sturzo left London for the United States. His belief in “ideas of moral constraint” might still have been a factor in his not being convinced of the need for the United States to enter the war against Fascism and Nazism. Yet he’d also come to America at a time when there remained among certain sectors of the populace something of a fascination with Fascism. This included the emergent (and largely Catholic) Italian-American immigrant community. But it also included the national audiences of public figures like the anti-Semitic, Mussolini-defending Charles Coughlin. There were also Catholic authors like James J. Walsh (What Civilization Owes to Italy, 1923) and John Gibbons (Old Italy and New Mussoliniland, 1933), who dedicated their books to the Italian leader. Columbia University historian Carlton J. H. Hayes exalted the Lateran Treaties of 1929, and in a two-part article in Commonweal (March 27 and April 3, 1929) talked about the “liberal principles” (sic!) of the Concordat signed between Italy and the Fascists on February 11 that year. “If Fascism eventually disappears,” Hayes wrote, “changes of detail may then be effected in the concordat—changes about education, about property, etc.—but hardly changes in the liberal principles which underlie the present document.”

But Sturzo’s reluctance to call for war against Fascism was balanced by the writing he had already done to introduce American Catholics to the danger it presented, even prior to the rise of Hitler in 1933. Much of this work appeared in Commonweal, including the 1927 essay “The Problem of Italy.” Here Sturzo put the Italian situation into historical perspective: “Italy’s institutional problem will have to be brought back into the foreground; it will be necessary to face in its entirety the unsolved problem left by the Risorgimento—the problem, that is, of the complete participation of the people in political life.” Sturzo’s view of Mussolini and Fascism was also clearly different from that of many American Catholics, which he made plain in Commonweal a decade later. In “Communism: Fascism” (published in April 1937), Sturzo disabused Catholics of the notion that the Concordat of 1929 had changed the violent nature of Fascism or that it would give the Catholic Church protection:

At the moment, relations between Fascism and the Vatican are good, partly because the Vatican has sought to avoid further motives of dispute, in view of the very grave ones it has with Hitler’s Germany, but given the Fascist spirit of domination, pride and violence, it should be no surprise if the Church were to be subjected to persecution or humiliation…. The real fact is that Fascism paves the way for Communism or for something of the kind, and that Communism paves the way for Fascism or for another regime of the same type.

Two years after the anti-Semitic “racial laws” were passed by the Fascist regime in November 1938, Sturzo wrote about the relationship between Mussolini and Hitler in an article titled “Hitler’s Teacher” (January 10, 1941). Then, in “Italy at the Crossroads” (February 21, 1941), Sturzo made clear that there was no easy parting of the ways between Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, now allied in the war: “It is painful for an Italian to write such a diagnosis of the situation: but it is what it is, as I have pointed out in the previous article and in this. Fascist Italy will remain with Germany in victory or in defeat: their destinies are bound together.”

World War II had pushed Catholics to see Fascism and Nazism as the only available counterweights to Communism. In 1941, after the Russians and Germans went to war, Sturzo warned in his Commonweal article “The Ways of Providence” (November 21, 1941) against the illusion that Nazism and Communism would destroy each other. Nor would the destruction of Communism by Germany usher in the political participation of the people as a solution to economic and social issues. He wrote:

In one of the beautiful churches in the heart of Paris a preacher was speaking with a good deal of efficacy against communism, demonstrating its descent from liberalism, its relationship to democracy, describing with lurid touches its effect upon the working classes, which had become materialistic and revolutionary. Not to touch upon the question of whether such a sermon be opportune in connection with a liturgical celebration, we observe that the congregation belonged to the world of fashion. This elegant world of the aristocracy and rich bourgeoisie must have felt happy at the thought of indicting the masses as responsible for all the evils threatening the France of Saint Joan of Arc and of Saint Louis.


With the collapse of Italy’s Fascist regime in July 1943, Sturzo anticipated an opportunity to rejuvenate the mass participation of Catholics in politics.

In his anti-elitism, Sturzo was one of the early proponents of popolarismo, the Catholic intellectual force connecting Leo XIII’s vision of politics, society, and the economy articulated in the encyclical Rerum novarum to the Christian-Democratic parties that forged post–World War II Europe. In the same November 1941 article, he developed Rerum novarum further, toward a concept of Catholic political activism characterized by Catholic agency and responsibility, and without ecclesial and clerical protection:

But how many were the Catholics who fought Christian syndicates as if they were dangerous novelties and who denounced Christian democracy as a heresy? The consequence was that the little done by Catholics at the issuance of Rerum novarum could never satisfy the needs of the working classes drawn toward religious apostasy, nor could it offer a sane and adequate remedy for the economic needs brought about by an excessive capitalism.

Sturzo was not about to indulge the anti-democratic, pro-Fascist forces that had permeated Catholicism in the interwar period:

With reference to the Action Française [the right-wing political movement condemned by Pius XI in 1926] and to Nazism we must add that, either when they were under ban or afterwards, although their principles were openly anti-Christian, there never was a lack of Catholic newspapers and journals, writers and speakers, teachers in both men’s and women’s colleges, who were (and some of them still are) in favor of the Action Française and in favor of Nazism.

During the war, with signs of the eventual defeat of the Axis already emerging in 1943, Sturzo returned to the issue he had worked on since the beginning of his exile: the new international order. In his Commonweal essay “The Coming League” (March 5, 1943), Sturzo imagined a new “League of Nations,” using the term “United Nations” in the framework of a “new covenant”:

All states may become members of the League; but only those will be admitted which are willing to accept the spirit and the letter of the new covenant…. Every country will have the government it will choose. The League will be interested in seeing to it that the moral, legal and cultural principles for which we are fighting today will be at the basis of the League—political and religious freedom, independence, rights of human personality, justice, protection of the rights of racial, religious and linguistic minorities, ultimate attainment on the part of colonies of their political and economic personality…. To build a new edifice on Christian ethical principles and on the principles of international law is the aim of the war which is being fought by the United Nations.

With the collapse of Italy’s Fascist regime in July 1943, Sturzo saw a new page in European history about to be turned, anticipating an opportunity to rejuvenate the mass participation of Catholics in politics: “What a surprise for many in Europe and America when they heard that, as soon as Fascism had fallen, one of the political groups that emerged in the lively manifestations of the end of July and the first days of August, 1943, was that very group called Christian democratic!” Sturzo sought some continuity with the pre-Fascist period—the autonomy of the party of Catholics from the Vatican, for example—but also acknowledged the need to preserve certain changes brought about by Fascism, especially the Lateran Treaties of 1929. His positive assessment of the treaties was evident in a review of the book Church and State in Fascist Italy, by D. A. Binchy, that appeared in 1943 in the Catholic Historical Review:

The problem [of] whether, and to what extent, the Lateran Treaty during this first decade served the cause of the Church better than the preceding situation between 1870 and 1922, has today but a speculative interest…. Every practical solution has its failings and weaknesses. But the advantage for Italy, as well as for the world, of having the Roman Question closed and a Pope theoretically claiming a political temporal state, is far superior to all the inconveniences which have arisen or may arise.

Surprisingly, on this particular point, Italian Catholic politicians were able to win over Socialists and Communists at the constitutional convention that led to the new Italian constitution of 1948.

But post-war Italian politics did not have a place for Sturzo. He was marginalized from the new Christian-Democratic party, which would be the pivotal player in Italy through the fall of Communism and on up to the ascent of Silvio Berlusconi in the early 1990s. It was not just a generational issue, though the new leaders of the party were younger; it was also the fact that a new political culture had emerged. Democrazia Cristiana relied far less on the leadership of the social and political elites that Sturzo had in mind, and was more open to popular participation. The party was not exclusively oriented toward the Western geopolitical realm—as represented by participation in NATO—and was more open to pacifism, “Thirdworldism,” and the Arab states of northern Africa and the Middle East.


Sturzo saw the Church as “globally Catholic” ante litteram, that is, before a notion like “globally Catholic” really even existed.

Now, a century after the foundation of Partito Popolare and sixty years after the death of its founder, what is the relevance of Sturzo, beyond the ongoing process of his beatification and potential canonization? What can Catholics trying to make sense of the current crisis of democracy take from the life and work of this priest, sociologist, and politician?

Mainly, that in the Catholic experience, there is a need to think and act politically. But such a Catholic engagement requires the church to be more than just “the church.” Sturzo envisaged a political presence of Catholics in a political party. The problem is that Catholic or Christian-Democratic parties have disappeared even from those countries where they were the single most important force for the reconstruction of democracy after World War II, with Germany’s Christian Democratic Union the only exception. In this sense, Sturzo belongs to the past. Even Pope Francis has distanced himself—in a significant break from his predecessors, dating to Pius XII—from the idea of “Catholic parties.”

Yet for politically minded Catholics today, Sturzo’s story provides several other important things to think about. The first is that reflections on the role of Catholics in politics over the past century have in general been characterized by socioeconomic considerations—but in particular by the link between internationalism and peace. Sturzo’s most important book of the interwar period was probably The International Community and the Right of War, which well before World War II and atomic weaponry suggested the need to outlaw armed conflict, and thus clearly contradicted the traditional Catholic doctrine on war. In developing and going beyond Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum, the book brought Catholic political thinking into an undeniably new era.

The second important idea is that Sturzo understood the necessity of a political system and culture that could conceive of and deal with an ideological other. Even in his day, Catholicism could not seal itself off politically and ideologically, could not exist in a world unto itself. So for Sturzo, Catholic political action had to be “ecumenical.” He saw the need for and value of cooperating with political and cultural forces that were not Catholic—or not even Christian or religious—at both the national and international levels. Sturzo saw the Church as “globally Catholic” ante litteram, that is, before a notion like “globally Catholic” really even existed.

The third important idea is that he demonstrated how a faithful and obedient Catholic could respectfully, but clearly, challenge the hierarchical church to let Catholics assume direct responsibility for their political engagement. One result of this was to help bring about the rejection of Fascism in Italy; another, it must be said, was to help bring about autonomy from the institutional church.

As to the institutional church, Sturzo knew its limitations. It might be able to act politically in the broad sense, perhaps even to acknowledge the long-term promise of democratic principles. But he never harbored the illusion that this could substitute for the political engagement of Catholics in their own name, who would thus also take on the responsibilities that come with being granted the agency to act.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is The Oxford Handbook of Vatican II, co-edited with Catherine Clifford (Oxford UP). Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the October 2019 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.