Luigi Sturzo and the Limits of Politics

By Flavio Felice, Full Professor of History of Political Thought at the University of Molise and President of Centro Studi Tocqueville-Acton

Luigi Sturzo was born in Caltagirone on November 26 1871. In 1894 he was ordained a priest of the Catholic Church. He later moved to Rome, where in 1898 he graduated with a degree in philosophy from the Gregorian University.

Returning to Caltagirone, his religious and social commitment began to take shape alongside his teaching of philosophy. He founded a diocesan committee, opened committees of workers and of farmers, created a rural bank to combat usury, and began a newspaper, “The Cross of Constantine,” to spread the ideas of Rerum Novarum.

On January 18, 1919 he pursued what appeared to be, in Italian politics, a project even more significant than the unification of Italy. With “An Appeal to Free and Strong Men,” Sturzo launched the Popular Party.

The experience of Sturzo’s popularism was an attempt to conceive a coherent social order guided by the teachings of the Social Doctrine of the Church, a political and economic order inspired by a Christian personalism that searches for answers to the concrete problems of human beings. The characteristic feature of Sturzo’s appeal is the belief that—over the dirigiste, centralized, and monopolist processes of the State—a competitive system that takes account of the contingencies and limitations that characterize the physical and moral constitution of the person is much to be preferred. It envisioned a new order at the center of which, in tune with the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, is placed the spontaneous and creative work of civil society, an order able to increase the range of choices for individuals and associations.

In April 1923, during the National Congress of Turin of the Popular Party, Sturzo denounced Mussolini and fascism. Mussolini from that time identified him as the “main enemy of fascism.” Mussolini would go on to speak with Cardinal Gasparri to force Don Sturzo first to resign from the party and then to abandon Italy. The exile of Sturzo would last 22 years. He lived in London until September 1940 and then in the United States until September 5, 1946, whereupon he returned to Italy. His most important works on political and sociological theory came to light during the period of his exile. While in London, he supported various Italian political groups that had escaped, and in 1936 he founded the “People and Freedom Group”.

Resettled in Italy, Sturzo undertook his last battle, one for a constitution more inspired by freedom, at once secular but respectful of Christian inspiration in its basic components. Sturzo defended and promoted an articulation of social-economic matters that recognized the primacy of the person and the fundamental role of civil societies: the family and free-associative bodies, including political parties, trade unions, and the Church. He engaged in the promotion of freedom of education and educational choice, and in the defense of private property, savings, free enterprise, and the participation of the worker in corporate capital.

These activities led him to produce writings of great theoretical and political impact which butted against the so-called “three evil beasts of democracy”. In the economic sphere, Sturzo’s critique focused on the undue intrusiveness of the state and bureaucracy into a private initiative. Here, we find his concern with the first of the three “evil beasts” of democracy: “statism,” which he alleged went against freedom.

In the political sphere, Sturzo complained of the established practice of “partisanship,” the second of the three “evil beasts,” which, for our author, went against the principle of equality. He used the Italian word “partitocrazia,” which in English would be ‘party-cracy’. By this term, Sturzo meant the irresponsible interference of political parties and trade unions in the functions of a legislature.

What we have said so far in regard to the economic and political fields, may be extended also to ethics and the right use of public money. In this context, as a result of particracy and statism, Sturzo sees the jaws of the third “evil beast”: the “waste of public money” that would prevent the pursuit of justice. Particracy and statism, through the misuse of public money, strip the body politic of any sense of responsibility and empties human action of any ethical meaning. (Sturzo, 1998, 298-299)

In December 1952 Sturzo was appointed a senator for life by the President of the Republic, Luigi Einaudi. He died on August 8, 1959 in Rome. He left behind a legacy rich as much for his development of political theory as for his vision of political action understood as a high form of Christian charity: “Politics is a civic duty, an act of love of neighbor.”

According to the opinion of Professors Russel Hittinger and Joseph Komonchak, and Sturzo influenced Fr. John Courtney Murray, one of the main drafters of the declaration Dignatatis Humanae of the Second Vatican Council.

Murray tells us that the pursuit of the common good is an activity inherent in society as a whole and all its institutions, according to the principles of subsidiarity and justice. In short, the concept of “common good” should be distinguished from that of “public order,” as a result of the distinction between “society” and “state.” As held by Hittinger (in his essay Introduction to Modern Catholicism, Columbia University Press, 2007), and Komonchak (in his essay Religious Freedom and the Confessional State. The Twentieth Century Debate, in “Revue d’Histoire Ecclésiastique”, 95, (2000)), Murray, influenced in particular by Sturzo’s work Church and State (already translated into English in 1939), shows why the “Church-State” dispute was irreducible to a monistic field. That is, it cannot be reduced to the subordination of society to a single, undifferentiated citizenship, lived under the state’s authority and presence in every sphere.

A reading of Murray’s and Sturzo’s works brings out a subsidiary and polyarchycal socio-political paradigm, a paradigm irreconcilable with the statist or corporatist solution. By contrast, it postulates the non-hierarchical plurality of institutions and social powers, irreducible solely to the concept of government while open to that of governance—institutions created by men for other men, and, thus, contingent, historically determined, and independent.

Furthermore, Murray, in an exceptional convergence with Sturzo’s position, comes to define the state as “an order within society: the order of public law and policy administration.” Rather than viewing the state as a hierarchically higher entity, he insists that the task of civil authorities would be to perform some limited functions for the benefit of society. Ultimately, says Murray, “‘society’ means an area of freedom […], while ‘state’ means the area in which the civil authorities can legally exercise their coercive powers. To deny this distinction means accepting the concept of totalitarian government.”

The lesson from intellectuals like Sturzo and Murray allows us to awaken, or to arouse further, interest in the relationship between religion and economic and political institutions, as well as to understand in an even deeper way Pope Francis’ words, when, in his first encyclical Lumen fidei, he shows how the light of faith does not found the city of God on earth, but, rather, it offers a Christian perspective on the institutions that men will be able to build for themselves and for other people, in a ceaseless work of reform.