Friday, March 18, 2011

The Example of Giorgio La Pira

Pope Benedict XVI, in a recent meeting with the National Association of Italian Local Authorities, mentioned Giorgio La Pira as a positive model for mayors. Similarly, his predecessor, the great Pope John Paul II also held up the former Mayor of Florence as an exemplary Christian and public leader. On this, the 150th anniversary of Italy's unification, we can only hope that the country that gave birth to La Pira will find inspiration for the future in his life and works. Today's ruling in the European Court of Human Rights allowing Italian public schools to continue to display the crucifix is a great sign. However, more work must be done to strengthen Christianity in Italy and in the West in general.

To be sure, while Giorgio La Pira represented a political tradition that was strongly Christian in its economic and social/cultural values, La Pira was always respectful of other cultures and peoples. La Pira was famous for his activities promoting peace in the Middle East and Vietnam and between cultures generally. After La Pira's death, Italian, Israeli, and Palestinian children placed a lamp upon his tomb bearing the words "Peace, Shalom, Salaam," a clear indication of La Pira's lifelong campaign to promote peace between peoples. The fact that the last two popes have held up such a man as a model for public figures everywhere should give pause for thought to the Dawkinsites and others who constantly attack the Holy See for its supposed bigotry and intolerance.

Indeed, the political thought of La Pira is exactly the opposite of the caricature of political Catholicism as a hopelessly reactionary and benighted tradition. For example, La Pira embraced Keynesian economics and the necessity of full employment in order to preserve the dignity of the worker. As La Pira himself once remarked:

"If I am a man of the State, my rejection of unemployment and of neediness must imply this: my economic policies must strive towards blue-collar employment and the eradication of poverty: this is clear! No specious objection emerging from any so-called "laws of economics" can detract me from striving towards this objective."

What a stark contrast to today's politicians who simply ignore the unemployed, forgetting how many lives will be ruined by the recession and the cowardly refusal to intervene on behalf of the victims of private avarice. While La Pira was extremely humble in life, often giving his clothes away to the homeless and sleeping in an unheated monastery cell, his spirit towers like a colossus on the horizon, putting to shame the small men of the neoliberal order and presenting the bright example of a viable Christian alternative to today's selfish and uncaring socioeconomic system.


  1. Interesting stuff as always John.

    From people to La Pira to people like Berlusconi... what went wrong?

    PS: Thanks to your blog I started reading the 'Distributist Review.' I have since read 'The Outline of Sanity' and the 'Servile State' by Chesterton and Belloc. I find that most of thier ideas are just as relevant today and I feel that the key ideas of Distributism will be useful tools or those willing to solve the problems of today.

    As someone who obviously knows thier stuff on this subject, I would like to ask your opinion on Distributism and Social Democracy. I am sympathetic to both ideals, as are others, but Distributism alos sets itself up as an alternative to Socialist-inspired systems. To what extent can elements of Social Democracy and Distributism be combined and to what extent are they mutually exclusive?

    PPS: I have just read 'The Spirit Level', a book about inequality and its negative consequences. I can heartily reccomend it if you have not read it yet.

  2. Czarny Kot,

    Thank you very much for the kind words. La Pira and others like him were always a small minority in Italian politics. Truthfully, La Pira’s own Christian Democratic Party was riddled with corruption, although La Pira had impeccable ethical credentials himself.

    La Pira was probably the most successful of the Italian Social Catholics when it came to actually implementing the idealism of the movement. Others, such as Amintore Fanfani and Aldo Moro, gained higher office at a national level, but they had to compromise more often with the rest of the Christian Democratic Party.

    I would agree, though, that Berlusconi has been especially embarrassing. He just might be the worst Italian leader since Mussolini, and I say that with all seriousness.

    Regarding Social Democracy and Distributism, I believe both philosophies can coexist, and indeed, they may have to in all practicality. As I see it, Distributism is strong when it comes to the microeconomic level of analysis (i.e., the firm), whereas Social Democracy’s strongest card is its ability to handle the macroeconomic side of the coin (i.e., the economy of an entire nation).

    I think Distributism’s major weakness is that it may not be workable in some areas, for example, I am skeptical of Distributist solutions to things like universal healthcare and old-age pensions.

    On the other hand, Social Democracy has sometimes ignored the issue of the mode of production, that is, how production is organized at the level of the firm. In most historical social democratic/welfare state systems, most productive enterprises were still run hierarchically. The owners of corporations or the board of directors could always take the company’s profits and spend them on political campaigns to reverse the restrictions placed upon them by the State, or cut down the welfare state, or bust unions, etc. This is essentially what happened in the United States and some other Western countries in the last forty or so years.

    Distributism, by seeking to democratize the economy through widespread ownership of productive property, would, in my view, help to reduce the risk that powerful private businesses will hijack the State, as has continually occurred under conventional capitalism.

    I think Social Democratic macroeconomic policy ultimately requires a more democratically-run microeconomic system in order to survive, or else we just end up getting something like neoliberalism, which is a kind of Keynesianism for the rich (a term I stole from John M├ędaille!).

    Under neoliberalism, Big Government has essentially been turned into the insurer for private capitalists. For example, the big banks are recording high profits right now largely because they feel that if they run into trouble again, the State will just bail them out and then turn around and use austerity to force the working masses to pay for the bailouts, which is already happening in some countries.