Saturday, January 8, 2011

Giuseppe Dossetti: Partisan, Politician, Priest

Part One in a series of pieces I am attempting to develop on the Italian Social Catholics.

While there were several important figures associated with the left-wing of Italian Christian Democracy, few were as influential on the ideological front as Giuseppe Dossetti. Dossetti was born on February 13, 1913, in the city of Genoa, Italy. Dossetti received a law degree from the Catholic University of Milan and was a member of the lay Catholic organization Azione Cattolica (“Catholic Action”). During World War II, Dossetti joined the anti-fascist Italian resistance, eventually holding a leadership position in the Cavriago, Emilia-Romagna branch of the Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale (“National Liberation Committee” an entity comprised of various factions of the Italian underground). It was Dossetti’s role in the Italian resistance movement that allowed him to rise to prominence within the Democrazia Cristiana (“Christian Democracy” or “DC” for short), the major Catholic political party, following the end of the war.

Dossetti soon made a name for himself as the leader of the reformist “Left” faction of the DC, along with Amintore Fanfani, Giorgio La Pira, and Giuseppe Lazzati. Together, the four men were called “The Little Professors,” because of their backgrounds in academia (Dossetti had taught law at the University of Modena). Although Dossetti was the youngest of the Little Professors, he was considered the leader of the Left faction within the DC, leading many to dub the faction" the dossettiani." The dossettiani were heavily influenced by the thought of French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, whose concept of “Integral Humanism” greatly influenced Dossetti. Furthermore, as a member of the Italian resistance, Dossetti had worked side by side with communists, and although he rejected the materialism of Marxism, he saw a kernel of truth in Marxism’s critique of capitalism and was impressed by the zeal of the communist members of the resistance.

In 1945, Dossetti became vice-secretary of the DC. With the help of his colleagues, Dossetti began a crusade to turn the DC into a full-blown Christian reformist party. Through their association Civitas Humana and their journal Cronache Sociali, the dossettiani advocated various left-wing economic reforms, including land reform, worker cooperatives, public ownership, and Keynesian macroeconomic policy, all within a Christian intellectual framework. Dossetti’s appeal as a champion of the poor and working-class, as well as his credentials as a member of the Italian resistance, helped to secure a DC electoral victory in 1948.

However, tensions between Dossetti and the more moderate party leader Alcide De Gasperi would eventually lead to Dossetti’s exit from public life. By far the largest bone of contention between Dossetti and De Gasperi was the entry of Italy into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Dossetti opposed the NATO treaty, arguing that it was unnecessary as Italy had no external enemies at the time and it would ruin any chance of Italy becoming a Christian light in the world, mediating between East and West. By siding with the United States, Italy would essentially lose its freedom to be an impartial evangelizer on the world stage. Unfortunately for Dossetti, the dire economic situation in post-war Italy and the promise of Marshall Plan aid convinced most Christian Democrats that the pragmatic De Gasperi was right in his support for NATO and a closer relationship with the United States. Italy joined NATO in 1949.

Following the defeat over NATO accession, Dossetti became less and less happy with the situation within the DC. De Gasperi’s pragmatism had curbed Dossetti’s attempt to turn the DC into a force for recreating Italian society along explicitly Christian lines. Additionally, several of Dossetti’s associates, including Amintore Fanfani and Aldo Moro, also decided that a more moderate stance was necessary in order to continue to influence the DC. The uncompromising Dossetti was increasingly losing allies and by 1952, Dossetti resigned from Parliament and active political life, choosing to become a Catholic priest instead.

After 1952, Dossetti rarely engaged in party politics. He founded a monastic community and worked for peace in the Middle East. After 1952, he only ventured into Italian politics twice, first, in 1956 when the DC placed Dossetti on the ballot in a failed attempt to defeat the Communist mayor of Bologna, Giuseppe Dozza, and again in 1994 when Dossetti publicly argued against plans to scrap Italy’s parliamentary system in favor of a presidential one and encouraged Romano Prodi to campaign against Silvio Berlusconi.  Overall, however, Dossetti was no longer enthusiastic about party politics, and most of his post-political career was spent in religious work. Giuseppe Dossetti died on December 15, 1996.

While it may be tempting to dismiss Dossetti’s political career as a fleeting, quixotic attempt to create a Christian utopia in Italy, it is difficult to ignore how prescient Dossetti was when it came to certain facets of the post-war world. For example, while Dossetti was perhaps rightly criticized for describing the Soviet Union as a more “vital” society than the United States, Dossetti’s critique of American-style consumerism has turned out to be prophetic. Many of the anti-Christian values that social conservatives rail against today can be linked to the consumerist, individualist culture that has developed in the West over the last several decades. Indeed, Dossetti is interesting precisely because he was so out of step with the modern world. While he was a strong advocate of the poor and social justice, Dossetti also campaigned in favor of the indissolubility of marriage, religious education and priestly celibacy. And although Dossetti had flirted with Marxism he notably opposed most proponents of Liberation Theology.

For contemporary Christians, Dossetti is an example of a man who, while idealistic, was also keenly aware of many trends in society that more practical politicians were unable or unwilling to see.  His legacy only becomes more powerful as the reality of neoliberalism becomes clearer. All the promises about returning to traditional values, so often repeated by the champions of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, have simply failed to materialize in a world dominated by consumer values and market logic. Dossetti was able to comprehend that simply making Italians prosperous was not enough to preserve the Christian soul of a nation. Ultimately, the political and economic world would have to serve a Higher Calling.  


  1. Excellent post. Look forward to reading more in this series.

  2. Thank you very much, Gregor. I hope to get Part Two finished soon.