SOME HIDDEN CONSEQUENCES OF SECOND WAVE LEFT CATHOLICISM

Dutch civil society, for instance, prior to the sixties, was one of the most socially and culturally conservative national communities in Europe. In the late 1960s and beyond, the Netherlands became one of the most permissive societies in all of Europe. It would be too far-fetched to ascribe this massive switch entirely, or even primarily, to the small-scale revolution carried out within the Dutch Catholic church. But the remarkable change of direction carried out by an unusually progressive Dutch hierarchy in conjunction with a grassroots flock largely supportive of such changes surely must have contributed its own fair share to this drastic reorientation of the cultural climate in the Low Countries in subsequent decades.

The radicalization of significant sections of grassroots Catholic communities in post-1965 Italy was probably on a scale unprecedented in postwar Europe, leaving aside the case of Spain under Franco. To be sure, here too, the New Jerusalem remained out of reach. Yet, by the mid-1970s, the impact of such sentiments could be felt in unforeseen, if refracted, ways. Leaving aside the highly polarized electoral contest of 1948 where the Italian Communist Party (PCI) obtained 31.0 per cent of the popular vote, the highpoints of postwar election results for the flagship party of the Italian secular Left, the PCI, were the elections of 1976 and 1979, in which the PCI obtained 34.4 per cent (1976) and 30.4 per cent (1979). The mid-to-late-1970s were precisely the years when many Catholic activists, previously concentrating their efforts on the battalions of the Italian New and then Far Left, began to switch their allegiance (and, often enough, their membership) to the only remaining game in town, the PCI. Thus, the successes of the flagship Eurocommunist party in the second half of the 1970s probably in no small part occurred as a result of the redirected energies of the forces emerging out of the disintegration of the Catholic Left.

In France, one of the regions which underwent a most profound political mutation in the postwar period is Brittany. A traditional stronghold of Catholic conservatism ‘since time immemorial’, Brittany had for a long time been a safe reservoir for electoral successes by conservative parties. Since the 1970s, this constellation of forces has been spectacularly reversed, and Brittany has become a bastion of the political Centre Left.[1] Again, it would be wrong to ascribe this role reversal of Brittany’s politics to the impact of radical Catholics in the post-Vatican II era alone. But the bitter contestations of Left Catholic forces in Brittany in the long sixties must surely be counted as one of several important factors.

And how can one explain the fact that Belgium, a country which had a rock- solid conservative Catholic pillar, certainly in its northern half well into the 1960s, has in recent decades become one of the socio-culturally most liberal countries in Europe? In the 1950s, Catholic conservatives twice almost brought Belgium to the brink of civil war, first during the controversy surrounding the return of Leopold III to the Belgian throne, then on the question of state support for Catholic education. Today, issues such as gay marriage, which give rise to huge controversies elsewhere in Europe, barely raise an eyebrow and certainly lead to no visceral and divisive national debates. Once again the explanation cannot be exclusively sought in the legacy of radical Catholic movements erupting in Belgium in the wake of Vatican II. But perhaps enough has been said to suggest that the medium-to-long-term impact of such sudden paradigm shifts within (in this case, Belgian) Catholicism should become an object of historical and social scientific study.

  • [1] On the vicissitudes of Catholicism in Brittany, see Brigitte Wache (ed.), Militants catholi-ques de I’Ouest. De I’action religieuse aux nouveaux militantismes (Rennes: Presses Universitairesde Rennes, 2004), and Yvon Tranvouez, Catholiques en Bretagne au XXe siecle (Rennes: PressesUniversitaires de Rennes, 2006).
 
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