Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Frank Brennan on John Molony's Don Luigi Sturzo: The Father of Social Democracy



Speech by Frank Brennan at the launch of John Molony's book Don Luigi Sturzo: The Father of Social Democracy

ANU, 22 July 2016

I ask you to join me in acknowledging and celebrating the first Australians on whose traditional lands we meet, and paying our respects to the elders of the Ngunnawal people past and present.

Frank Brennan and John MolonyWhat a delight it is to see Emeritus Professor John Molony back here on the ANU campus for the launch of yet another fine history tome bearing his mark of scholarship, passion, and no nonsense style. And how appropriate that we gather in the Molony Room of the Emeritus Faculty Office, together with so many luminaries from this fine university. This political biography of Luigi Sturzo, the father of Italian social democracy in the pre-Mussolini era is the fruit of John's lifetime reflections on the Catholic Church, democracy, politics and the state. It was first published in 1977. This is how he starts the book:

Luigi Sturzo was an old man of 81 when I met him in Rome in 1952. It was just prior to his nomination as senator by the President ... To my intense surprise he knew more about Australia and its political system than I had anticipated or indeed dared to hope. I put to him the question 'Do you think a Catholic political party would have a future in Australia?' His negative reply was immediate, direct and decisive. He went on to explain that in a society where the democratic process worked satisfactorily and where the people differed in their religious convictions it was much more reasonable and positive for everyone to work within the already established party system. I then asked him 'Why did you yourself found a Catholic party in Italy?' Again he was quick to answer, 'I did not found a Catholic party. It was a party of Christian inspiration with no direct ties with the Church.'

64 years after that meeting, John tells us: 'I resolved that I would go back to that time and place and, if possible, live again that story.' (ix) And he has. Sturzo was a Catholic priest who dreamt of an Italian democracy for the good of all the citizenry – a democracy inspired by all that was finest in the Christian tradition and ably assisted by a political party which was principled and pragmatic, consisting mainly of Catholics but in no way directed by the Church hierarchy.

The Italian People's Party (Partito Popolare Italiano, PPI) was born in December 1918 and John tells us that 'its day of death can be fixed as 9 September 1924 when Pius XI made it clear that it could no longer function as an autonomous body of Catholics in Italian life.' (237) Six weeks later Sturzo left Italy at the request of the Pope, not to return from his exile for another 22 years.

John traces the political ascent and descent of Sturzo whose first public office was as mayor of his own town. The chapter headings mark each step up and down the Everest of Italy's experiment with democracy and fascism: the emergence of political Catholicism in Italy; the dream takes shape; democracy without direction; democracy in decline; the search for a leader; the stick and the carrot; the voice of the watchman; and enter the night. Sturzo goes into exile; Mussolini takes over; and the Vatican is well pleased because the Roman Question is finally resolved in 1929 with the Lateran Treaties negotiated by Mussolini and Pope Pius XI, each of whom got what they were looking for.

Sturzo was to learn the hard way that it was one thing to oppose the socialists. That could be done with Vatican approval. It was another thing to join with the socialists so as to oppose the Fascists. That could not be done without incurring the wrath of the papacy and the scorn of the Jesuits. Sturzo succeeded in having the Vatican lift the 50 year old Non Expedit but with the proviso that the candidates be 'sincerely disposed to conserve the laws of God and his Church'. Mussolini thought the spectacle of this mediocre little Sicilian priest meddling in low politics instead of caring for souls was mortifying. (125) Molony tells us, 'Sturzo had a concept of politics that transcended the power struggle in which the country was then immersed and he looked to a future in which men might come to realise that true power implied human and individual responsibility.' (125)

The Jesuits writing in Civilta Cattolica, and thus with papal approval, were adamant that Catholics could support neither socialists nor fascists. Molony is unsparing in his assessment of this political folly: 'It was a singularly unfortunate position into which Catholics were thus forced by the logic of the Jesuits because to refuse to work with the socialists was to ensure a fascist victory.' (157)

And so it came to pass, but not without the strongest protest on principle by Sturzo. At the PPI's Turin Conference on 13 April 1923, Sturzo did not name Mussolini nor the fascists but he left people in no doubt about his position on this violent populist phenomenon. Sturzo was adamant that his party stood inflexibly 'against every type of centralising perversion attempted in the name of the pantheistic State or of the deified Nation'. He affirmed 'even after the recent political happenings' the character, spirit, substance, autonomy and finality of his party. He pledged 'solidarity with those who knew how to suffer for an ideal and for internal peace'. Sturzo was all for his party standing on its own feet rather than lying down in the face of the rise of fascism. Molony rightly asserts: 'From 13 April 1923 Mussolini, had he been in any doubt previously, knew exactly where Sturzo stood because he was acute enough to realise that the cold, measured terms of Sturzo were as emphatic a rejection of himself and fascism as he was likely to hear.' (195)

Meanwhile most of those wearing the red, the ermine and the purple saw no need for such a prophetic counter-cultural stand. Cardinal William Henry O'Connell pondering the situation from the security of his cathedra in Boston was quoted in The New York Times on 29 February 1924: 'Italy has undergone a profound moral, economic and social transformation since Mussolini was named Prime Minister. There is order, loyalty, industrial development and cleanliness everywhere.' (220) The election which was to turn the democratic experiment to ashes was called for 6 April 1924. A week before the election, the influential Jesuit G. Galloni, wrote an appeasing article in L'Osservatore Romano. Molony is right to assume that Galloni's sentiments were in accordance with the Pope and the Vatican Secretariat of State. The Vatican was going into the election with the assurance that the Roman Question would be promptly resolved once Mussolini's hold on power was firmly assured. Galloni praised Mussolini for having 'had the good sense to reject sectarianism and to turn more to religion'. He asked his readers to 'salute the noble intentions' of Mussolini and to pray that 'they may endure and be efficacious' and be fulfilled 'in a great act in which our fatherland and our religion embrace and say to each other "Peace be with thee".' (222) Catholics had only to follow the clerical injunction and vote for their new saviour who would deliver to the Vatican all it wanted in resolving the Roman Question in return for the sealing of Mussolini's fascist dictatorship.

Molony tells us: (x)

Essentially this is not merely a story about politics. It is a story of an ancient people who had come relatively late to democracy and who failed to respond to its ideals. The men of the Risorgimento had bequeathed to Italy all the outward forms of a modern democracy but the one basic thing they were unable to impart was its spirit. Thus in a land weakened by war, ravaged by ideological ardours, embittered by poverty and rendered aimless in its search for national identity, democracy went to the wall.

Now isn't that classic Molony. The young man from Ballarat who has lived in Rome, fallen in love with the culture and the deep history, sympathetic to the people's depradations, steeped in the ideals and spirit of democracy, and armed with the piercing insight and no-nonsense bush style culminating in the definitive judgment: democracy went to the wall.

It comes as no surprise to those who have known John Molony in the pulpit and at the lectern that the book ends with Sturzo's heartfelt credo from exile:

If we believe in the Church it is not because of the merits of Pius XI or of any other pope, nor will we leave it because of their unworthiness. We believe in the Church because Jesus Christ himself founded it. (241)

These are words that could well have been spoken by our esteemed Australian author. Ladies and gentlemen, let's salute John Molony – an icon of democracy, an exemplar of the academy, a loyal son of the Catholic Church in season and out of season, and one very tolerant of Jesuits whatever our meddling foibles.

On arrival this evening, I spoke to John's young grandchildren, Monica and Vincent. They told me that they were very proud of their grandfather. I now invite them to launch their grandfather's latest book, with justifiable pride.


John Molony's Response

It is my pleasing duty to thank those who have made this function possible. I congratulate Anthony Cappello of Connor Court who has published a fine book. I am indebted to Cardinal George Pell for having recommended the book to Anthony which entailed its being revised and expanded. Anthony also insisted that there be a launch graciously accompanied by a case of wine kindly given by his friend, the vinter Dr Aniello Iannuzzi.

Jim Fox and his committee generously agreed that the premises of the Emeritus Faculty were appropriate for this event while Adrian Gibbs advertised it with his usual thoroughness and John Nethercote is admirably guiding us through our paces. Any worthwhile occasion at which good order, gentility and generosity of spirit are demanded only comes to pass when graceful women, in this case Di Riddell and Verna Rosling, make it happen. I thank you all as well as those who have braved the elements to be here.

How can I thank Father Frank? We all rejoice in and are grateful to you Frank that, in the manner of the founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius Loyola, you have based your life on fundamental principles. In your public utterances you never deviate from those principles even though doing so entails stepping onto arenas, perhaps even minefields, on behalf of the Aborigines, the refugees and all those sections of our society exposed to injustice. Again like Ignatius you have been given the courage to persevere in your unwavering pursuit of justice. May you stick at your last for many years to come. I am of course also thankful that you made time to be with us and for the kind words you have spoken about the book and in your own imitable fashion, even of me.

I met Luigi Sturzo in Rome in 1952. Two years later the Split in the ALP took place and the Democratic Labor Party was founded which thus ensured the continuation of a Coalition government for another two decades. I had visited Father Sturzo at the behest of Bob Santamaria whom I had never met, but Bishop O'Collins of Ballarat had put him in contact with me. Bob wanted to know what Sturzo thought of the idea of the founding of a Catholic political party in Australia. Sturzo's vast experience of political systems, his thorough knowledge of Australian politics blended with his innate prudence and he was visibly appalled at the idea which he rejected out of hand. In his judgement such a step would be socially divisive in a country where the citizens were free to vote for political parties of their own choice. Most of us are painfully aware of the consequences of mixing politics and religion to the grave detriment of both State and Church in Australia in that period.

I make no pretence at being even a pale image of the frail Sicilian priest whom I greatly admired. But, because I wrote this book, you are entitled to ask of me, as I did of Don Luigi, 'Watchman, what of the night?' Please remember that I am a simple historian. I am not a prophet. Yet is it not the case that the night follows the pattern of the day?

I feel only sorrow when I realise that the blueprint I have tried to sketch out in this book explains how fascism can rise on the ashes of a failed democracy. So it was in Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal and in closer times in some democracies in Latin America. That finest embodiment of the high values of both West and East Europe, Kemal Ataturk, founded a democratic republic in Turkey. As has become starkly clear this month Ataturk's great work is now almost totally undone and the fatal contours of a fascist state are being erected on its ruins. I was deeply shocked when the leaders of many nations rushed to applaud Turkey's president, as they had done when Mussolini came to power in Rome in 1922 thereby helping to condemn Italy and its people to groan under the yoke of fascism for 21 long years. And in parts of Europe, including France and some segments of northern Europe, as well as the United States, the baleful influences of debased nationalism blended with vile racism are strengthening. They are only strengthened further when another element, religion of whatever stripe, is added to the mix. Can we not perceive faint streaks of that same evil coming together and mingling in our own night despite the stars of the Southern Cross guiding us?

I can only end by saying 'I beg of you to watch the night. At all times and in all circumstances remain ardent democrats whose basic principle is the equality of every human being. Stand on that and light the darkness with the flames of freedom, justice and unflinching integrity.' Come then what may. You will awake to a blessed dawn.

But should I end with words only on this campus which is devoted to the preservation of the highest principles of our profession? Do we not tremble with anxiety at the attacks on the Turkish legal and education institutions as well the armed services, all of which have helped to preserve the legacy of Ataturk through the decades? If so, is there nothing we can do except lament?


Topic tags: Frank Brennan, John Molony, Don Luigi Sturzo, Democracy



submit a comment

Existing comments

I love this. I recall Drs. Rikki Kersten, Jim Masselos and John Wong at Sydney University in the 1990s. Their course on the comparative democratic histories of India Japan and Ihe USA was beautiful.

Louise | 26 July 2016  

A flawed analysis. The real and looming alternative to fascism in 1920s Italy was not liberal democracy with respect for human rights, but the hard-Left atheist Stalinist-controlled Marxism of the so-called "socialists" who wanted to finish the Garibaldi/Cavour project of exterminating Christianity, the family, private property etc. Fascism today unfortunately is spoken of as if it were similar to or even synonymous with Nazism. On the contrary, the relatively benign Mussolini regime initially opposed Hitler and could have been encouraged to continue doing so had not the situation been handled so badly by Britain and France (inadvertently) and the USSR (deliberately) in the 1930s.

Peter Kennedy | 01 August 2016  

Great to see John Molony still active in his lifelong critique of Political Catholicism and, in doing so, to be so ably, unequivocally and eloquently esteemed and supported by our very own Frank!

Michael Furtado | 25 September 2016  

Similar Articles

Different country, different culture (or how different legal systems view deal-making)

  • Frank Brennan
  • 11 October 2017

In the 16th century it was the Dominican friars like Vitoria, Las Casas and Montesino in Salamanca who confronted the state and challenged public opinion about the rights of the indigenous peoples in Spain's newly colonised lands. Not even the most nostalgic and forgiving Jesuit would opine that the modern practitioners of Morality with a capital M challenging the powers of the market and the state would be found in a modern monastery.


The Catholic Church's view on human rights

  • Frank Brennan
  • 04 September 2016

'I am a Jesuit amongst Dominicans contemplating the Church's view of human rights. I am a human rights practitioner rather than a theologian, aware that human rights discourse is increasingly more universal and secular. Contemplating, preaching and enacting human rights in the 21st Century Church and World, I come asking two questions.' Frank Brennan's keynote presentation in Salamanca Spain to the International Congress of Dominicans in the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights: Past, Present, Future on the occasion of their 800th anniversary.