03 June 2021, The Tablet

Luigi Sturzo – for the people and freedom

Catholic history

Luigi Sturzo – for the people and freedom

Don Luigi Sturzo pictured in his Milan studio in the late 1940s.
Photo: Alamy/Farabola


Expelled from his native Italy by Mussolini, with the connivance of the Vatican, and finding himself a minority voice in an English Catholic community with pro-Fascist leanings, Fr Luigi Sturzo used his 22 years in exile to argue powerfully for Christian democracy

On 24 October 1924, a 52-year-old Italian priest with a lifelong passion for democratic politics arrived at London’s Victoria Station. He had been forced out of Italy by the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, under pressure from Benito Mussolini, who had seized power two years earlier.

The priest was Don Luigi Sturzo. Six years earlier, on 18 January 1919, he had founded the Italian Popular Party at the height of a long period of political activity, which had included a 15-year stint as mayor of his home town of Caltagirone in Sicily, during which time it became one of the best-run municipalities in the region.

The foundation of a political party by a Catholic priest had been a bold move. The Vatican was yet to abolish the decree banning Catholics from political life and elections. Inspired by Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, encouraging Catholics to social action, Sturzo championed a more open dialogue between Catholic Social Teaching and contemporary political and philosophical thought. His decision to start a party was the clearest answer to the so-called “Roman question”: whether the Church should accept the legitimacy of the new Italian state or instead oppose it and try to resuscitate the political authority of the Pope. At its first Congress Sturzo reaffirmed the party’s secular and non-denominational character. For the first time since the unification of Italy in 1871, Catholics could actively and openly engage in political life.

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