When many conservatives hear of “European integration,” they roll their eyes. The term evokes sclerotic, secularist Brussels bureaucracy out of touch with ordinary Europeans that wants to control every detail of nominally sovereign member-states’ lives. Recently, Pope Francis has vowed to speed up the cause for beatification of one of the European project’s founders Alcide de Gasperi (1881-1954), a devout Catholic committed to the principle of subsidiarity. Perhaps this gesture may remind us that the problem isn’t with European integration itself, but with its having wandered so far from its roots.
In January, Pope Francis met with Maria Romana de Gasperi. Since 2003, the beatification caused of her father, Alcide de Gasperi, has been put on hold after his postulator, Father Tito Sartori, resigned from his position without a new one being assigned. Maria Romana de Gasperi has stated that Francis had promised her he would speed up the cause. Although the Italian press wrote about this meeting, it went unnoticed in English-language publications.
Alcide de Gasperi was born in 1881 in Pieve Testino in the northern Italian Trentino region. It was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1919, although most of its inhabitants were Italians. The future prime minister was deeply influenced by Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), which gave birth to Catholic social teaching, and as a high school student became involved with the nascent Christian social movement. After receiving his doctorate in 1905, de Gasperi became a journalist for La Voce Cattolica (later renamed Il Nuovo Trentino). In 1911, he became a deputy to the Austrian parliament, later co-founding the Italian People’s Party, which based its platform on Catholic social teaching, along with Father Luigi Sturzo.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
By 1922, Benito Mussolini’s Fascists came to power in Italy. If for the Nazis nation and race were supreme, and for the communists class was, the Fascists deified the state. Initially, de Gasperi supported cooperation between his party and the Fascists, yet as Mussolini started creating a violent statist police dictatorship and ultimately dissolved de Gasperi’s party by force, de Gasperi joined the anti-Fascist movement. As a result, he was sentenced to prison in 1926, but was released due to the intervention of Pope Pius XI, who employed him in the Vatican Library. He spent the war fighting in Italy’s anti-Fascist partisan movement.
Shortly after the Allies liberated Rome in 1944, de Gasperi became a minister in the new Christian Democratic government, becoming prime minister a year later. He served in that capacity until 1953. Seeing the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe and the rise of the Italian Communist Party, de Gasperi believed that Western Europe must unite against communism.
This was by no means easy. Just a few years before de Gasperi’s proposal the bloodiest war in human history, whose victims counted at least 50 million, had ended. Much of Europe hated the Germans. How could Europeans cooperate with a nation that had devastated so much of the Old Continent?
Alcide de Gasperi knew that the Christian heritage was what united all Europeans. What’s more, de Gasperi realized that forgiveness is a key Christian teaching. Indeed, that Western Europe, destroyed by fratricidal war just a few years earlier, was able to reconcile was a true miracle. De Gasperi believed that a return to Christian ideals was the best protection against World War III. Starting in 1950, de Gasperi worked closely with French foreign minister Robert Schuman to create the European Coal and Steel Community, which ultimately came into existence in 1951. This association, the blueprint for today’s EU, was an association for economic and political cooperation, fostering peaceful relations between Europeans.
Alcide de Gasperi’s devout Catholicism was not unusual. The other founding fathers of post-war European unification—Schuman, French diplomat Jean Monnet and West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer—also took their faith seriously; Rome has opened beatification causes for all of them except Adenauer.
These statesmen were most influenced by the principle of subsidiarity. This idea, which originates in Rerum Novarum, states that policies are best enacted at the most local level, and if a smaller structure (such as a national legislature) can perform a function, it should perform it instead of a larger one.
Boy, has the European project deviated from these ideals! First, the EU has largely thrown its Christian heritage out the window. During the drafting of the European Constitution (an ultimately abandoned project) a decade ago, the proposal to make mention of Europe’s Judeo-Christian roots was scoffed at by Brussels. Instead, the preamble mentioned ancient Greece and Rome and the Enlightenment as the main sources of European identity, as if nothing significant had happened in Europe between 313 and 1789. Then-French president Jacques Chirac and his successor Nicolas Sarkozy—both self-professed Catholics from a supposedly center-right party—criticized the notion that Europe’s religious roots should be alluded to in the document.
Today, the European Union’s institutional culture is anti-Christian. In 2004, Italian philosopher Rocco Buttiglione, a devout Catholic, was rejected as a candidate for European Commissioner for the “crime” of believing that homosexuality is immoral. Meanwhile, the European Parliament constantly passes resolutions pressuring conservative East-Central European member-states like Poland, Hungary, and Croatia to legalize homosexual “marriage.”
Not surprisingly, the EU’s rejection of its Christian identity has coincided with the marginalization of the principle of subsidiarity. While de Gasperi opposed Mussolini’s statism and proposed European integration based on cooperation, not on domination by a small elite of bureaucrats, today’s EU has become a superstate structure hostile to national sovereignty.
Currently, two-thirds of EU member states’ legislation is made in Brussels, not in their national capitals. The EU constantly tries to impose its will on member-states, even if it is contrary to the desires of their populations and national interest. For example, during the ongoing “migrant crisis” the EU has tried to force member-states to accept fixed quotas of immigrants with often-hostile cultural values, against the wishes of many Europeans. Although the euro has been an economic failure and many economists believe that returning to the drachma could bring long-term prosperity to Greece, EU bureaucrats are spending trillions on preventing such a scenario. While several less prosperous ex-communist member states’ economies are dependent on coal, the EU tries to limit carbon dioxide emissions to advance a green agenda that could impoverish many Europeans. Ironically, center-right governments, such as those of Hungary and Poland, that oppose the intrusion of Brussels into every aspect of their internal politics are criticized as “anti-democratic” by bureaucrats like European Parliament head Martin Schulz.
Things could have turned out differently. First, if Western Europe’s religious culture would have remained intact, then possibly the idea of subsidiarity would not have been abandoned. Especially since the 1960s, Western Europe has experienced secularization. In addition to a decline in religious practice, this has led to the triumph of the notion that one’s faith should be as private as possible. This also applies to nominally center-right parties: in Britain, it was the Tories who legalized same-sex “marriage,” while in 2014 the “conservative” government of Spaniard Mariano Rajoy abandoned pro-life legislation proposed by a staunchly Catholic justice minister for fear of losing popularity. If even nominally Christian democratic politicians can’t defend basic anthropological truths, how can we expect them to, like de Gasperi, look to Catholic social teaching for inspiration?
Second, the 1992 Maastricht Treaty radically changed the nature of European unification, completely departing from de Gasperi’s vision. Maastricht changed the European Community’s name to the European Union, transforming the structure from an association of nations that cooperate with each other and do not seek to dominate (as de Gasperi had envisioned) to a superstate structure. Maastricht was a complete rejection subsidiarity that drastically changed the nature of European unification, and paved the way for the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, which subordinates national legislation to European dictates, the polar opposite of the principle of subsidiarity.
The idea of European unification is inspiring. From Charlemagne to Alcide de Gasperi, it was Christianity that inspired European harmony. However, today’s European Union is a satire of the united Europe’s founding ideals; its only ideal is statism. If Brussels doesn’t return to its roots, it could become the victim of its own myopic policies: polls indicate growing support for a British withdrawal from the EU ahead of next year’s referendum on the matter, while Eurosceptic parties are growing in strength. If Pope Francis succeeds in speeding up Alcide de Gasperi’s cause for sainthood, perhaps he could remind the EU of its roots, possibly the only way to prevent its collapse.