Why do we need a New Christian Democrat if it cannot be a party
Christian democracy is much more than a few degenerate parties. It is a call for nonpartisan politics, in which the republican primacy of the common good meets the Christian obligation to practise love in public, and which does not allow us to close ourselves in comfortable bubbles. Elections cannot be won in this way, but ideas still have the potential to change the world, which is what virtually all of Catholic social teaching calls us to do, including Pope Francis’ most recent encyclical.
Christian democracy evokes certain associations. In me, too. Germany, Angela, the European Union. Salt that has lost its taste, diluted Christian politicking, asymptomatic conservatism. Korfanty and a long, long nothing. The empty electorate of Porozumienie Centrum and the last gasps of Lech Wałęsa’s political ambitions – this is for connoisseurs. Even the unfortunate Mazowiecki used to say that he was a democrat and a Christian, not a Christian democrat. Finally, the EPP, the inept attempts to transform the PSL beyond the format of a class party, Hołownia, and maybe a little bit of Tusk. So again – Germany, Angela, the European Union…
Rerum novarum, forty years and a century (with the exception, of course, of its environmental and generational reading in a spirit of unambiguously free-market apologetics), Catholic Action and the preferential option for the poor seemed to us some kind of superfluous context that we ignored when reaching for high school or university textbooks.
For over a decade I have been around Catholics who are either politically active or passionate about politics. I can name on the fingers of one hand those who have been inspired to live politics – often well, in a republican and Catholic way, understood and realised in the ethos of service! – was prompted by any Christian inspiration. Those in the vast minority who consider Christianity to be their essential identity today are usually hard-core conservatives with a critical view of their former intransigence, softened by life experience, or, more rarely, converted libertarians. Or – this is about us, colleagues! – Republicans who have grown tired of the world’s unwillingness to understand what they are about.
Let us not be afraid to say it bluntly – the beginning of our environmental journey towards understanding and being inspired by Christian Democrats, in which this issue of Pressje is one of the first longer stops, was to some extent rooted precisely in a fatigue with republican identity. The primacy of the common good and the longing for a well-mixed system are shared by many of our closest political thinkers and practitioners, but also by quite a few of our outspoken opponents.
Some of us feel, therefore, that republicanism, which in the conditions of the Third Republic was supposed to be an ideological optimum composed of classical roots, Polish tradition, love of illiberal freedom, healthy institutions, a thriving community and Christian anthropology, has been deprived of content. For some, it has become a gloomy Sarmatian romanticism, while for others it has become a photocopied paleoconservatism of the never-revealed Polish Tea Party.
For the largest group, it is probably – I still say wrongly – republicanism, a trick word devoid of any real meaning, used by those who, for some incomprehensible, perhaps opportunistic, reason, do not particularly like the words 'conservatism’ or 'right-wing’.
At a time of escalating and radicalising hyper-identities, wars of clarity and politicians celebrating narrative triumphs thanks to their mastery of the magical function of language, we too were led to the search for a new kind of Christianity by a desire to find an identity that was easier to communicate. The dream of being able to tell other people about oneself in one or two words. All the more so, because in Polish conditions Christian Republicanism, which is so difficult to communicate with, is precisely Christian Democratic Party.
Hardly a noble impulse, and yet, summing up the first stage of this journey, I am sure it was worth embarking on.
There is no more difficult charge than explaining that politics exists also, or perhaps above all, outside parties and power struggles. The initial enumeration of associations is not accidental – in the vast majority it stems from the full colonisation of the political imagination (sic!) by the reality of party politics. For years we have been proving the importance of the political role of public opinion, social organisations, intellectuals and community workers, we keep convincing ourselves of this and we keep beating our heads against the wall. And yet, there is no better ally in this effort than the social teaching of the Church.
We were not taught at school or at university that Leo XIII first used the cluster of words „Christian democracy” in his encyclical Graves et communi (he was referring at the time to the question of its systemic interpretation, and not to its partyisation, which came later), and wrote clearly: „in our case, it must be understood in such a way as to exclude any purely political meaning and to express only Christian charity on behalf of the people. […] [B]ecause the law of nature and the law of the Gospel are […] and remain independent of all partialities and of all the vicissitudes of events”. (Graves et communi) .
This conviction was concretised in subsequent decades. And also in those decades in which Christian political formations (not only in name at first) triumphed. Eventually, we reached the indications of the Council’s Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.
„It is difficult to find a single political position or option that is fully compatible with the requirements of the Christian faith. To claim that any political party or grouping fully conforms to the requirements of the Christian faith and life causes dangerous misunderstandings. A Christian cannot find a party that fully meets the ethical requirements born of faith and belonging to the Church. His membership of a political group should never be ideological, but always critical” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 573) – reads the document of the Pontifical Council Iustitia et Pax, which systematizes social teaching.
„No one should claim the sanction of ecclesiastical authority for his task alone. But let them strive in sincere conversation to enlighten one another, maintaining charity one toward another and concerned above all for the common good,” the Council tells us in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Saint John Paul II, in turn, in his original compendium, the exhortation Christifideles laici, points out: „The style and instrument of a policy that wants to strive for true human development is solidarity. This requires the active and responsible participation in political life of each and every citizen and of different groups, trade unions, parties: together and individually, we are all recipients and actors of politics”. (Christifideles laici, 42).
Teaching radicalism and the rehabilitation of politics
What do these words convey? The critic will perceive in them an asceticism of the Church (we do not like any party!), a fear of the consequences of full engagement (join a party, but critically!) and poetry instead of political guidance (solidarity, concern, mutual enlightenment, all together and each other). The sympathetic reader, even if he or she does not share the religious foundation of the Magisterium’s authority, will see the Church’s unequivocal stand on the side of a pre-modern politicality in which politics is Aristotelian action for the common good as an ideal of the good life of individuals and communities, and not merely a Weberian process of struggle for power or influence. We probably have no doubt that the German sociologist is more respected today than the ancient philosopher.
The universal vocation to politics (including party politics), the call for constant criticism of political formations, the conviction that none of them can fully correspond to the indications of Church teaching, the call to a conversation rooted in mutual love, in which we are to enlighten one another rather than fight one another – this is the real bombshell of today’s political reality.
The subversiveness of the Church’s offer also in the political sphere is simply a natural consequence of the radicalism of the Gospel. In fact, it is no coincidence that in his encyclical Veritatis splendor, dedicated to the radical imitation of Christ, John Paul II pointed out that „the need for a radical renewal of individuals and societies capable of ensuring justice, solidarity, honesty and openness is ever more widespread and urgent”. (Veritas splendor, 98). Ultimately, this is a call for a political revolution in a Christian manner.
But there also seems to be political wisdom in this. After all, the Church is aware of the ambitiousness of her radical exhortations, not only those in the spiritual and moral life, but also the political and social ones that directly result from them. In the indications of social teaching one can also see realism (aideologism and evolutionism of the indications) and humility (space for constant reflection, dialogue and correction), and finally an awareness of risks, dangers and prejudices. „Neither the accusations of careerism, of the cult of power, of egoism and corruption, which are not infrequently levelled at people who make up the government, parliament, the ruling class or a political party, nor the rather widespread view that politics must be a terrain of moral danger, by any means justify scepticism and the absence of Christians in public affairs” (Christifideles laici, 42) – this is how John Paul II commented on the issue in an important exhortation.
It seems that the greatest wisdom is hidden in the conviction that the sphere of activity of Christian democracy is not only, or perhaps not primarily, the space of parties, power struggles and political solutions. It is rather the sphere of civic self-organisation, local communities, charitable activities, trade unions and economic associations, the space of education or the world of the media. Although the Church consciously calls for involvement in party politics as well, she does not agree that it should colonise the entire rules of social coexistence. Do not surrender parties to non-Christian politicians, but do not leave politics to parties either – this is a commitment that has been consistently updated for 130 years by successive popes and church bodies. Pope Francis dots the i’s in his recently published encyclical Fratelli Tutti: „Once again I encourage the rehabilitation of politics, which is a very lofty vocation, it is one of the most precious forms of charity because it seeks the common good” (Fratelli Tutti, 180).
The Christian Democrats will not win the election
The conviction of our sinful nature frees Christian democracy from the illusion of one-sector progress and the utopia of unequivocally perfect solutions. Just as our sinful human nature compels us constantly to discern good and evil anew in our conscience, to perceive ever new dangers and errors as the circumstances of our lives change, to make the effort of private conversion again and again from the beginning and on a daily basis, so we can see the encouraging maturity of the Church in relation to social reality. „Christian hope gives great impetus to commitment in the social field, awakening confidence in the possibility of building a better world, with an awareness of the fallacy of imagining the existence of an infinitely happy life on earth” are again the words of the Compendium.
Catholic social teaching does not promise to solve all the problems of this world. It is based, and thus differs from ideology, on the conviction that even if we solve some problems with its help, new ones will arise which we will have to confront from the beginning.
From the workers’ issue to the message of peace to integral ecology, the call of Christian democrats was and is to see problems and challenges in dialogue with the world. Facing them is the current challenge of the common good. A characteristic feature of Christian Democracy should be humility – towards (sic!) man and God. From the first relationship stems openness to the fact that the world on the Aeropagus, that is, the world symbolising non-Christian civilisation, is often quicker and better able to perceive the challenges of the temporal world. From the second relation – openness to God – stems, on the other hand, the awareness that many questions we as people, but also as the Church, do not know how to answer easily.
„Each generation must identify with the struggles and achievements of previous generations and steer them towards even loftier goals. This is the way. The good, like love, justice and solidarity, is not achieved once and for all; it must be earned every day. One cannot be satisfied with what has already been achieved in the past and stop at enjoying it,” Francis reminds us in his encyclical on fraternity and social love, published during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Finally, the Church teaches us that the necessary search for these answers, and even the conviction of being right in a given dispute, cannot be a justification for deepening divisions. This applies to the relationship between Christian politicians, between the Church and the world, within societies and on the international stage. „It is indeed human to be uncertain about many things and to differ in judgment: those, however, who with all zeal of spirit strive to know the truth, should preserve, in the clash of opinions, complete tranquillity, modesty and mutual respect, so that the difference of opinion should not lead to a split in action” – wrote Leo XIII (Graves et communi).
The conviction about the sinful nature of the world and the call not to give in to simplistic ideologies has another consequence. We have to be ready for the fact that spectacular political success – this time understood as a struggle for power and a chance to implement one’s own agenda – is not waiting for us. Calmness, modesty and weighing up one’s reasons on the one hand, and avoiding ideological simplifications, utopian prescriptions and promises of an infinitely happy life on earth on the other, is not a programme for winning elections, a permanent government of souls and political-cultural domination.
After all, success brings the exact opposite. The struggle for power feeds on anxiety, pride, ignoring each other’s sides. Utopias and promises of an imminent end to history once 'our own’ have won. This is particularly evident in moments of spiralling radicalism and political polarisation, such as those of today or the inter-war years.
The Old Christian Democrats in the Second Polish Republic
Let us stop and look at the Polish party cadets of that era. They were not successful. Despite their regional influence, especially in Silesia, they did not even belong to the really key centres – neither the intellectual ones nor the party-election ones. They struggled to survive on the surface. They constantly had to choose between one of the feuding tribes of the time and found themselves in none of them permanently. It is worth briefly recounting the history of their attempts to balance between maintaining political independence and achieving influence by entering into successive alliances.
In Chjena the Christian Democrats had a minority share. Although it is often tempting in retrospect to view the 1922 coalition ahistorically as a Christian-Democratic formation, it should be noted that it was indeed such, but dominated by currents other than Christian Democrats. In the broad centre-right bloc, the dominant role was played by National Democrats and representatives of other currents closer to the traditional right.
This is clearly visible in the structure of the pre-war Sejm of the first term, in which separate clubs were formed after a joint start. The Christian Democratic formation could be attributed, without entering into party nuances, to a change of signboards and an unusually frequent change of club affiliation during this term of office – around 40-50 seats in a 444-seat Chamber. Meanwhile, the right wing of the National Democratic Party and the landowners could jointly allocate 150 seats. The Christian Democrats enjoyed representation similar to that of the PPS at the time, and smaller than that of the two People’s Formations. Naturally, therefore, even in the centre of the political scene, they were overshadowed by the stronger and more identically distinct „Piast”.
In the episodes of the Chjeno-Piast government, the Christian Democrats did play a significant (without them it could not have existed), but not a leading role. In Witos’s second (let us recall – six months) government, they could only boast of one department – the Ministry of Justice, headed by Stanisław Nowodworski. In Grabski’s second Cabinet, the most durable of that era (nearly two years!), they had one representative – the Minister of Railways, Kazimierz Tyszko. In Skrzyński’s Cabinet (a year), the Polish Christian Democratic Party was again responsible for the justice system (Stefan Piechocki). The representative of the National Workers’ Party (a formation close to Christian Democrats, but which until the mid-1930s had followed a path separate from that of the Nationalists, Socialists and Christian Democrats), Adam Chądzyński, was in charge of the railways.
In Witos’s third government, the representation of the broadly defined Christian option, both PSChD and NPR, was the largest of the era. It took nearly one-third of the government, with two ministries each. For four days, let us recall, because the re-formation of the centre-right majority after years of chaos in the Sejm ended in a bloody coup d’état by Józef Piłsudski and his supporters.
The fate of Wojciech Korfanty at this time (with his unfulfilled role in national politics – his unsuccessful government mission, his attempts to build up Christian public opinion through the press, and finally his prosecution by the Marshal’s Court, the then equivalent of today’s State Tribunal) was described in our pages by Michał Muszalik. Korfanty’s biography is a good illustration of the lack of any real Christian Democrat initiative in national politics at an epoch in which, historically speaking, we could see the time of the greatest political influence of Polish Christian democracy.
Just as they had stood in the shadow of the right wing dominated by the National Democrats during the brief episode of full, yet extremely chaotic, democracy of the Second Republic, so they did not play a leading role in the anti-Piłsudski opposition after the May Coup either. The elections of 1928 meant that the Christian Democrats had to build a centrist alliance with Piast, which did not bring a spectacular success – it gained less than 7% of the vote in total and several MPs for each of the centrist parties.
The centripetal episode built on the foundation of opposition to the strengthening Sanacja dictatorship could not bring any breakthrough. The regional, characteristically diversified alliances of successive voters – somewhere with Piast, somewhere else with the National Party, and in some places even with the Piłsudski-ite Non-Partisan Bloc for Cooperation with the Government – brought increasingly unspectacular results and progressive secessions. From time to time, successive groups joined the Sanacja camp, forming thin, minority, insignificant factions.
Political weakness and the strengthening of the Piłsudski-ite regime led to the Christian centrists’ political banishment. The only real success of the Front Morges – an exile platform for cooperation between Ignacy Paderewski, Władysław Sikorski, Józef Haller, Wojciech Korfanty and Karol Popiel, established in 1936 – was the consolidation of the actual remnants of political organisations in the country. The unification of the so-called pure Christian Democrats of the 1920s, the National Christian Workers’ formation and the Hallerians’ Union resulted in the creation of the Labour Party in 1937. However, it was not given the opportunity to make its political presence felt in the reality of an independent state.
Sensitisation of Poles to Christian Democrat parties
I did not cite this story for historical justice. It is, I believe, an accurate exemplification of the fate to which Polish Christian Democrats concentrating on party activity are doomed in principle. An independent entity with support on the verge of being able to survive on its own. With a more realistic approach – a minority coalition partner of one of the two big blocs, perhaps in an optimistic scenario sometimes playing the role of a tongue in cheek. This seems to be the nature of this political orientation in Poland. After all, it looked very similar in the Third Republic as well.
Be it the Christian Democrats (Partia Chrześcijańscy Demokratów) of Krzysztof Pawłowski and Paweł Łączkowski, or Artur Balazs’s subsequent folk-Christian formations, or finally moderate conservative formations close to Christian sensibilities and situated closer to the centre of the political spectrum – from Aleksander Hall’s Democratic Right Faction, through Kazimierz Ujazdowski’s Conservative Coalition, to formations closer to our times such as Polska XXI, Polska Jest najważniejsze (Poland Is Most Important) or Porozumienie (The Agreement) – they were not able to build long-term political independence. And in recent months, the short-lived hope for the emergence of the beginnings of a new, moderately conservative and pro-citizen centre of the Polish political scene has not brought a breakthrough. Awakened by the good result of the alliance of the Polish Stronnictwo Ludowe (People’s Party) with Paweł Kukiz and Marek Biernacki’s group of conservatives, it was extinguished when the author of this agreement, Władysław Kosiniak-Kamysz, achieved a result within the limits of statistical error in the presidential election. This is classic in the Third Republic for the support of the Christian Democrat electorate.
All these initiatives merged, formed alliances, separated, gained influence for a while in the moment of general unity against the post-communists, and then fell into oblivion again. A group of perhaps a few hundred people constantly rotated, looking for an opportunity, but unable to find an electorate. In the last two decades, politicians of such formations who wanted to remain politically active had to join one of the two great camps. The two camps, which in a way were built at their origins on Christian Democratic roots, rejected in solidarity various elements of the Christian Democratic identity.
The most influential Christian Democrat formation of the 3rd Republic of Poland, Porozumienie Centrum, had to abandon its moderate identity together with its leaders and transformed into a conservative-socialist, centralist Law and Justice party, which developed various shades of populism. Civic Platform, although formally belonging to the Christian Democrat European family, quickly forgot about its ideological roots from the time of the Ideological Declaration – „to restore the splendour of traditional republican ideals”, „the Decalogue is the foundation of Western civilisation” or par excellence the Christian Democrats’ „Civic Platform wants to be a place of meeting and common activity for members of friendly associations and organisations, for people who share our ideals, but who devote themselves not to political activity, but to work in their profession or environment”. (PO Programme, 2007) and the Krakow Declaration – „we will defend the rights of religion, family and traditional customs, because these values are particularly needed in contemporary Europe”.
Let us be clear about this. If Jarosław Kaczyński’s and Donald Tusk’s parties had not abandoned their founding ideals, but had tried to exist on the political scene with a consistently Christian method and content, they would probably not have divided the Polish political scene among themselves and the Poles for two decades. They would rather share… the fate of the aforementioned rachitic groupings of the moderate centre-right. The path of the radical, populist social centre-right on the one hand, and the ideology-free party of power with inclinations towards the neo-liberal centre-left on the other, turned out to be electorally much more effective.
The way to political domination turned out to be conflict, polarisation, escalation of differences instead of cultivation of common points. If, in 2005, Kaczyński and Tusk had been thinking in terms of Christian politicking, in all probability their personal impact on the politics of the last dozen or so years would have been much smaller, although we would probably recall that episode with nostalgia.
Strength in weakness
I think this retrospective was necessary to understand why Christian polity has approached partisanship with so much skepticism from its inception. The Church, in her centuries-old wisdom, knows that principlism and integrity are not a path that can, in principle, lead to the acquisition and consolidation of power. If Catholics in politics following the guidance of their Church are not to be deceived, then the Church cannot promise them a guarantee of temporal success. This is why Catholic social teaching simultaneously calls the faithful to transform the world, also in its political dimension, and places the emphasis on other areas of politics – public opinion, the activities of associations, involvement in the life of smaller communities.
It also carries a powerful ideological baggage, which fortunately permeates the most diverse circles of hard-line politicians. Subsidiarity, solidarity, action for peace, the dignity of labour, the ethical dimension of free enterprise, concern for the environment, a just international order – these are all, in some sense, components of political consensus.
How is it that, despite their unrealised nature, many of the above categories integral to Christian Democrat reasoning have founded the post-war thinking of European democratic politicians? Andrzej Kohut describes this in our pages. This was possible in view of the unprecedented hecatomb brought about by two wars and two 20th century totalitarianisms.
Prophets without arms
Leopold Caro, a pre-war professor of economics at Lvov University, of Jewish origin, and a promoter of social solidarity, was an intellectual who shunned political realism, and not only in its bad sense. In his writings, he consistently presented idealistic visions with the utmost seriousness and uncommon pathos. At times he even verged on the grotesque. All the more so when one reads his last and most mature essay, the brochure Problem społeczny w katolickimświeteniu [„Social problem in Catholic illumination”] (published in 1936 by Catholic Action), one is inclined to reflect and is surprised by the accuracy of his predictions.
„The mad hatred among the European nations, the greed, the lust for power and conquest in all, have not calmed down after the great world war. […] We have every reason to fear the arrival of Japan and a reconciled China on the globe, and the invasion of the Arab world the day after the new European war which hangs in the air, if today’s Europe does not quickly understand that its only salvation, its last resort, is in a return to a living faith in God and Christ, and thus in a solution of the social question with its help. Today’s Europe, divided along national and class lines and mostly pagan, will certainly succumb, especially if exhausted by yet another war, to a foreign invasion that would only be a repetition of the Tartar and Arab invasions of old. Only a Europe in Catholic solidarity will be able to stand against it. And who will reconcile the nations, who will bring together the different social strata, if not the supreme shepherd with the help of Catholic Action? – wrote Caro (Caro, 1936: 14-15) .
Eight years later Jerzy Braun, another Polish dreamer, leader of the Federation of National and Catholic Organisations „Unia”, a Christian organisation of the wartime, the last Delegate of the Government for Poland and editor of Testament of Fighting Poland (more about the post-war fate of his milieu has been written by Bartosz Wójcik), created a maximalist programme not only for post-war Poland, but for Europe and in fact the whole world.
Braun pointed out: „The Second World War is drawing to a close. […] The old world of materialism and amoralism, hounded by the principle of force before law, is collapsing into ruins. What will rise in its place? What moral and political-economic system will the United Nations consolidate? The initiative for a great Change must come from somewhere […] Political and social amoralism has led to such an aggravation of class and racial egoisms that humanity has reached, in the heights of material civilisation, a barbarism and cruelty unknown directly in history. The only way out of such a blind alley – is to extend the Christian moral imperative to the whole field of public institutions and socio-economic relations” (Braun, 1942).
At the time, Caro’s pre-war forecasts might have seemed like a cassandra-like cry of despair from an unheeded idealist. It is striking how accurate he was with his predictions, including the fact that after the Great War it was the Christian Democrats who were building the foundations of both European solidarity and a new economic order.
Braun’s comprehensive proposal, written down in the pamphlet Unionism. Basic principles of the doctrine, did not live to see its implementation in its Christian version. However, in its bizarre-sounding postulates we can find a number of accurate predictions of the shape and challenges of the post-war order.
An example? When Braun postulates a fourth ideological and managerial authority, we see totalizm. However, when we reflect on what was meant by the statement that „it cannot take part in the direct governing of the state, because its only task is to guard the truth, to set the direction towards the highest goal of the state and of man, and to watch that the government and the political parties do not deviate too far from it”. (Ibid.), we will understand that in the vision of the Polish messianist we will find a prediction of the universal establishment of Kelsenian constitutional courts in post-war Europe.
„Today’s world, too, needs the witness of prophets without arms, who are, unfortunately, the object of jokes in every era”, the Church reminds us (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 496). The history of the twentieth century shows that the Christianists were often laughed at, while over time reality admitted them to a surprising degree.
Salt in the eye of modernity
The program of the Christian Democrats, although it did not prove capable of triumphing in the new democracies moving towards totalizm, and did not have the power to stop the madness of war, turned out to be a deposit which it was possible to carry (thanks also to the principled integrity of its depositors, which is a daily inconvenience in politics) across the sea of war blood, and to build on it, at least for a time, a genuinely fairer and safer world. Through no fault of our own, this could not happen in Poland, but it did shape the order in Europe in which we too function today.
Perhaps, then, that is what the Christian Democrats are for. So that, on a day-to-day basis, as the salt in the eye of modern politics, we carry this deposit through the decades to come.
We are to try to live it, to implement it, to practice it in its various political dimensions according to our possibilities and personal vocation. We are to interpret it, update it, adapt it to ever new challenges.
This is the role of social poets, as in Fratelli Tutti Pope Francis calls the non-party popular movements important today in South America, vividly reminiscent of the Polish Solidarity. „Although they irritate, although some 'thinkers’ do not know how to classify them, we must have the courage to recognise that without them democracy disappears, turns into a slogan, a formality; it loses its representative character and becomes disembodied, because it leaves the people in their daily struggle for dignity, in the construction of their destiny”, argues the Holy Father (Fratelli Tutti, 169).
The universality of the Pope’s message leads us to look to these words for inspiration in all the forms of civic politics available to us. From secular Christian communities to urban movements, from charities to political parties, from universities to the media, from kindergartens to workplaces, from parishes to employers’ associations. All so that we ultimately know what to build and how to build it after our civilisation’s next, probably inevitable suicide attempt.
Polish version is available here.