One might think that the sainthood cause of Don Luigi Sturzo, a late 19th and 20th century progressive Italian priest who championed the interests of the poor and, later, the anti-fascist cause during World War II, would be a natural for fast-track treatment in the Pope Francis era.
Sturzo was one of the early heralds of modern Catholic social teaching, the origins of which are conventionally traced to Pope Leo XIII and his 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum addressing the injustices of the Industrial Revolution. Sturzo famously once said, “I have no flour in my own sack … I owe everything to Rerum Novarum.”
The diocesan phase of Sturzo’s cause was opened in 2002, and formally came to a close on Friday with a ceremony in Rome’s Lateran Palace. Let no one say the inquest wasn’t thorough – it involved 154 witnesses in Italy, France, England and the United States, with their testimony running to fully 50 volumes.
(By the way, France, England and the U.S. were relevant because Sturzo spent time in those places during a long period of exile under the pressure of Mussolini’s fascist government and with the agreement of the Vatican. In the States, he passed 1940 to 1946 in New York and later Jacksonville, Florida, where his accommodations had been arranged by the legendary Archbishop Joseph Hurley, a staunchly anti-Communist and anti-fascist hawk and veteran of the Vatican’s diplomatic service, who admired Sturzo’s support for the American war effort.)
Born in Catania in 1871, Sturzo came from a staunchly Catholic family, so much so that his brother Mario went on to become an Italian bishop. He was scandalized by the living conditions facing Sicily’s workers, farmers, and urban poor, and developed a passion for politics that led him into directly political roles that would be almost unthinkable today.
For fifteen years, Sturzo served as the pro-sindaco, sort of the deputy mayor, of Caltagirone, the municipality in Sicily in which he grew up, and later as a minister on the regional council of Catania. He took those positions with the explicit permission of Pope Pius X, despite the fact that the Vatican at the time had imposed a ban on Catholics taking part in Italian political life. (The Vatican was still smarting over the loss of the papal states, and officially regarded the new republic as illegitimate.)
In 1919, Sturzo founded Italy’s progressive Popular Party, which for a time was perhaps the strongest political faction in the country, with the leverage to cause governments to rise or fall. He served as the party’s secretary until 1923, when Mussolini was consolidating his grip on power and persuaded allies in the Vatican to compel Sturzo to leave the country.
Sturzo returned to Italy in 1946, and although he didn’t take up any directly political role, he became an elder statesman and point of reference for the construction of the new Italian state. In 1952 he was declared a “Senator for Life” by the President of the Republic, once again with the approval of a pope, in this case Pius XII.
Sturzo’s file now passes to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Saints, and conventional wisdom has it that Francis would like it to be front-burner priority. Not only is Sturzo a role model for bringing Christian values into politics, he faced Vatican disapproval during his long career and was derided by his opponents as a “clerical socialist” – potentially appealing to Francis’s penchant for rehabilitating the reputations of figures he believes to have been unjustly maligned.
As a result, it’s tempting to style Sturzo as a classic “Pope Francis before his time” sort of candidate. On the other hand, in many ways it’s the differences between Sturzo and Francis, not the similarities, which are most intriguing.
For one thing, Francis repeatedly has called on priests to stay out of politics, by which he means avoiding becoming directly partisan and instead maintaining (often ambivalent) relationships with all political players. Famously, Argentinians to this day love to debate whether the pope’s real sympathies lie with his country’s political left or right, and have also made soap operas out of his alleged tensions with both former leftist President Christina Kirchner and current conservative President Mauricio Macri.
Sturzo, on the other hand, was the dictionary definition of partisanship, the founder and leader of a political party. In that sense, Pope Benedict XVI might actually have more instinctive sympathy for Sturzo, since Benedict took great pride in the legacy of his own great-uncle Geörg Ratzinger, the founder of a 19th century political party in Bavaria called the Bauerbund that championed minimum wages and child labor laws to defend the poor against the robber barons of early industrial capitalism.
For another thing, Francis notoriously dislikes abstract humanitarianism, rooted in theory and ideologies rather than concrete action. Sturzo, on the other hand, was very much a man of ideas.
He didn’t work in soup kitchens or minister in refugee camps or hospices (except during his own hospitalization in Florida, when he worked with fellow clergy who were sick.) Instead, Sturzo stayed at his desk and wrote. He penned articles for popular newspapers, both in Italy and around the world; he authored political treatises; and he kept up a voluminous correspondence, almost entirely dedicated to the political causes in which he was so deeply invested.
In that sense, should Francis be the one who ends up declaring Sturzo a saint, one could see it less as an exclamation point on Francis’s vision than an important footnote to it.
In effect, it would be a way of saying that while the ideals of Catholic social teaching remain constant, the right way for any given Catholic to advance those ideals will depend on the circumstances, the particular gifts of that individual, and prudential judgments about what the times demand. It would also reaffirm that Catholicism is the quintessential both/and tradition, in which ideas and action aren’t rivals but partners.
Given Francis’s well-known inclination to pack big moves into small footnotes, perhaps that aspect of Sturzo’s cause may catch his fancy too.