The New Elites of Italian Catholicism: 1968 and the New Catholic Movements

By Faggioli, Massimo | The Catholic Historical Review, January 2012 | Go to article overview

The New Elites of Italian Catholicism: 1968 and the New Catholic Movements


Faggioli, Massimo, The Catholic Historical Review


After the Second Vatican Council, new movements arose within the Catholic Church. In Italy this phenomenon crossed paths with the movement called 1968 and spawned a new elite not only in the Catholic Church but also in Italian Catholicism. These movements reacted to and participated in 1968 in Italy in different ways, marking the development of a deeply rooted diversity within Italian Catholicism. These Catholic movements represented an initial step in the ongoing replacement of old clerical elites in Catholic Europe.

Keywords: Catholic Action; Italian Catholicism; social movements; Second Vatican Council; social justice

1. A Fatherless Child in the Memory of Italian Church and Politics: 1968

The public debate on the role of Catholicism in Italy's recent history is split into two very different and, in many respects, opposite ways of looking at the subject. Most interpreters of the history of the relationship between Italian Catholicism and the post-1968 cultural and political landscape tend to describe the directions taken by Italian Catholics in two ways - liberal, "Vatican II Catholicism" allied with radical-revolutionary leftists on one side, with "conservative Catholicism" supporting right-wing, Italian political parties of the post- cold war period on the other. However, the ideological contribution of 1968 to the culture of the Catholic Church is much more complex than these two interpretations. The series of events called 1968 played a major role in Italy not only in polarizing the new cultural impulses of the 1960s but also in stopping the successful experiments of the early 1960s and a much-needed turnover of the elites; this affected the social and political history of Italy as well as the history of Italian Catholicism.

The complexity of the ideological and cultural cleavages in the 1960s - especially the period between the end of the Second Vatican Council in 1965 and the first crisis in its aftermath (caused by Hans Küng's book The Church,1 the Dutch Catechism,2 and the encyclical Humanae vitae on contraception and its reception) - still requires much analysis. Such an analysis must include the role of the Catholic movements in Italy.

This rift around the interpretation of the role of Catholicism in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s reflects a deep cultural deficiency in the analysis of the social and political role of Catholicism in twentiethcentury Italy. This situation exists partly because critics of the political role of Catholicism in Italy view the Catholic Church as a vertical institution ruled by the pope and Roman Curia, cardinals, bishops, and clergy. Others view the renewed public presence of Catholicism purely as a right-wing Catholic revanche. Seeing the Church as a social and political player through these lenses is still valid, but they display a sociological approach to Catholicism that requires a complementary historical approach, especially in light of the new faces of the so-called "new Catholic movements" and their role in the creation of a new Italian Catholic "leading elite."3 Via a historical point of view, the picture can be completed, illuminating the historical development of Italian Catholicism and its peculiar features, characters, and culture. Assessing the recent history of Italian Catholicism means taking into account a new category of protagonists that historians of modern Italian Catholicism have underestimated and sociologists of religion and prophets of the "postsecular age" in Italy have overestimated.

This article will attempt to emphasize the role of the new Catholic movements and their rise in the period between the end of the Second Vatican Council and the 1970s in the political, ideological, and sociological framework of present-day Catholicism in Italy. This approach will offer a more nuanced view of the social and political aggiornamento of Italian Catholicism and the opportunity to reassess the often overlooked, changing identity of the Italian Church between 1968 and the 1990s. …

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