06. Religion and student politics: the catholic university

Conflicts within the Catholic World
The occupation of the Catholic University (the ‘Cattolica’) on 18 November 1967 sent shock waves through Italian Catholic society. Until then the university had not been touched by the political ferment of the state-controlled institutions. It was set up by the Church in 1921, as a crucial part of its strategy to create a nucleus of Catholic intellectuals to intervene in lay culture and politics. Secondary education was largely in the hands of the state, so the Church attached particular importance to control over its own university. It had always remained under the close supervision of the bishop, and many of the leading members of the Christian Democrat party were its former students. The authorities reacted to the prospect of ‘subversion’ and the infiltration of Marxist ideas into the cloisters of Sant’Ambrogio by calling in the police. The ‘ringleaders’ were expelled.

However, what was seen by the authorities as an alien intrusion was the product of conflicts within the Catholic world in the 1960s. The student movement at the Cattolica is of particular interest for understanding the change of conscience into political consciousness, and tracing the development of Catholic radicalism.

In the immediate postwar period the Catholic Church in Italy had to defend itself from three chief threats - Marxism, demands for the ending of the Concordat, and the secularisation of society (what Pius XII referred to as lo spirito del secolo). This it did with remarkable success through a full-scale mobilization of the faithful in the parishes - a success which was crowned by the Christian Democrat electoral victory of 1948. The PCI was isolated (Communist voters were threatened with excommunication), the Concordat renewed, and sections of the middle classes previously aligned with the secular Liberal and Republican parties shifted their allegiances, and educated their children according to Catholic principles.

It was not until the thaw in the Cold War and the more liberal policies of Pope John XXIII, who lifted the veto on the Communist vote, that Catholics were able to speak more freely about their tasks in society.

Within the Church the most important developments occurred in Latin America, where some priests were active among peasant movements and theorized convergences between the teachings of the Gospel and of Marxism. Given the especially strong links with Italian missionaries, and the sympathy aroused for Latin American struggles against imperialism they became a point of reference. Exhibitions mounted at the Cattolica in

1967 publicized the suffering and oppression of the Third World, and appealed strongly to themes of social commitment. Dissent within the Church in Italy, however, was marginal and heavily dealt with by the hierarchy. It was only able to come into the open when the ‘ice’ of conformity had already been broken by the social movements. One of the most celebrated cases of dissent was the rebellion of don Mazzi, a young priest at Isolotto, a working-class parish in Florence. When the bishop sent him a letter warning him against the use of the Church for political purposes, radical Catholics occupied Parma Cathedral in protest.

However, the major source of dissent was not within the Church, but among lay Catholics. On the one hand, there were shifts in middle-class opinion away from subordination to clerical influence expressed by the spread of ideas of ‘modernism’ (especially those of the ‘permissive society’), on the other hand, the very success of the Church intervention in politics had had a secularizing effect on its own conduct and image because of its involvement with the Christian Democrat party and big business. The ‘revolt’ among sections of the laity can be seen as part of an older cycle of disenchantment based on the discrepancy between the morality of the Gospels and the activities of the Church. What gave it political significance in the late sixties was the tendency towards independent action by lay bodies with close affiliations with the Church, and towards the setting up of new lay groupings. An inquiry of 1968 into the formation of groups and associations spontaneously set up on direct democratic lines and with left-wing political projects showed that 36 per cent were of Catholic origin.

The CISL, which did not recruit on the basis of religious beliefs, but which had the mass of its support among Catholic workers, had already committed itself to joint action with the Communist-dominated CGIL in response to pressures from its membership. What was more serious for the Church was the radicalization of the Associazione Cristiana Lavoratori Italiani (ACLI) which was the Catholic pressure group within the world of organized labour. In 1968 it broke its links with the Christian Democrat Party. The emergence of ‘class’ and ‘exploitation’ as terms within Catholic denunciations of capitalist society, showed how Marxist ideas were being taken up, sometimes with even greater enthusiasm than within the historic organizations of the Left.

Within the Catholic student organization, Intesa, there had been a tradition of cooperation with the Left, which became closer with the increasing disappointment in the government. The Gioventu Studentesca (GS), a Catholic association of students which had no official political orientation, became a cauldron of open debate and discussion at the Cattolica. The return of sponsored missionaries from Brazil, the summer work camps in the poverty-stricken areas of Calabria and the initiation of play projects among the children of the Milanese hinterland - all these experiences, which had been promoted out of a spirit of caritas, excited ‘Communist sympathies’ among students in the context of the growing dissent among Catholic intellectuals and organizations. Humanist and populist ideas linked up with Marxist theories, and evangelism took on the form of overtly political activism.

Mobilizing Moral Outrage
The flashpoint at the Cattolica was the issue of a 50 per cent increase in student fees. The university already had higher fees than the average, and the cost seemed greater because an unusual number of the 20,000 students were from outside the province, and there were 8,500 ‘worker-students’. However, it was not so much the sum of money involved by the autumn rise in fees as the principle at stake which concerned most students. There was widespread anger at what was seen as hypocritical behaviour by authorities who prided themselves on providing an educational ladder down to the poorest parishioners. It was described as an attack on the right to education (diritto allo studio). The student representative body organized an extraordinary general meeting of all student organizations, the publication of a report (libro bianco), a public debate and a demonstration of protest. It won the backing of the youth federation of the Christian Democratic Party as well as that of the PSIUP.

The first protests, in the shape of strikes during lectures and examinations, were not popular because they were identified as ‘left-wing’, and education was not yet seen as political. But. when the rector refused to enter into dialogue with the students, a call for an occupation won the support of two-thirds of the students. When police arrived on the scene, there was outrage at the authorities’ readiness to use force, break the rights of sanctuary, and to involve the state despite the university’s continuous reiteration of its free and independent status. The use of passive resistance, following the example of the US movement, under-scored the legalism and the peaceful intentions of the Cattolica students, and highlighted the hypocrisy of the rectorate. A motion approved by the general meeting of the students in occupation expressed: ‘indignation, suffering and deeply troubled human, civil and Christian feelings in response to the authorities’ behaviour towards the occupation. It went on to say that police intervention ‘is particularly offensive to our university, which likes to regard itself as free and Catholic’. The degree of support for the action, which split the teaching staff, reflected the injured sensibilities of middle-class adults, who resented being treated like children. Had the police not been called, it seems likely that the mobilization would have fizzled out, especially in the absence in mid November of a wider national movement.

The occupation was the form of action that served most to group together the dissident students. The first occupation in November 1967 involved from 100 to 200 activists, who were prepared to defy not only the authorities, but their own families by staying overnight in the university. With the closure of the Cattolica for a week after the eviction of the occupiers, they carried out an information picket (picchettaggio di informazione), and distributed a daily bulletin. The main decisions were taken at the general assemblies of all the students, whilst a committee of agitation ran the everyday activity. ‘Commissions’ were formed to hold seminars and organize specific activities. The movement began a protest guided by the belief that the authorities would see reason, and act according to their educational and moral ideals. However, through the occupation it developed its own structures and independence based on direct democracy and self-managed learning.

A motion put to the general meeting of the Cattolica by students representing the student movement (movimento studentesco) slate in the university elections shows a particular concern for the issues of selection and authoritarianism. It was passed. It lists the demands of the movement as follows:

On Autonomy

1. The recognition of the autonomy and self-government of the student movement.

2. The withdrawal of disciplinary proceedings against activists.

3. Freedom of speech.

4. Provision of facilities and timetabling for student movement activities.


1. The recognition of experimental courses promoted by the student movement.

2. The generalized use of seminars.

3. Free debate within courses.

4. The establishment of inter-disciplinary and experimental courses open to all.

5. The democratization of all controls (over attendance and examinations).

Political Relations

1. The recognition of the power of the student general meeting over all important decisions concerning administration, teaching, etc.

2. The publication of all official documents.

The Right to Study

1. The progressive reduction of all fees

The ideas of anti-authoritarianism and democratic self-management were particularly central to the student movement at the Catholic University. The whole political style was very different to that of the movement at the other institutions. There was no left-wing tradition; no Marxist intellectuals like Stefano Levi, a leader in the architecture faculty of the Polytechnic who was called in to advise during the first occupation; no experience in political organizing. But these deficiencies were made up for in other ways; the politics were less orthodox and more experimental. This can be seen in the charismatic leadership of Mario Capanna. He spoke in a way that everyone could understand and yet his speech was full of irony and vivid imagery. He made people laugh, and made them feel they had something to say. His flair for invention contrasted with the monotonous rhetoric of a Left which aped a humanist model da foro (based on the forum ideal). Capanna succeeded in interpreting an untutored enthusiasm for politics, which expressed itself in a movement and not in a party political form.

Anti-authoritarian politics was especially important at the Cattolica because it related directly to the students’ resistance to surveillance and control by the authorities, who were concerned about the souls of their pupils as well as about their education in a narrower sense. Much of the student movement’s stress on free speech and debate within courses was informed by a struggle against religious dogma. This concern with the religious question was peculiar to the movement at the Cattolica. It is worth considering not only as a special issue, but in relation to how politics itself was invested with ‘religious’ meanings.

The challenge to Catholicism by the students was aimed against the Church as an institution rather than against religion. Students occupied churches and interrupted masses with iconoclastic enthusiasm. Censorship and the sterility of cultural conformity were attacked in Dialoghi,a student paper; one issue protested against interference by consisting entirely of blank copy. Demands were made for the end of Church juridical control over the university, and for the abolition of the requirement that entrants should be Catholics. A student leaflet pointed out that, in the Gospels, it was the poor and oppressed who were the chosen ones. Students demanded the right to control Gioventu Studentesca, the student organization, without interference from the bishop. Proposals were also put for seminars on the Faith to replace the theology lectures. Demands focused on the accountability of the hierarchy, and on the need for the Church to fight oppression in the world. However, it is notable that the movement made no mention of the Church’s crucial role in the regulation of sexuality in the university and in society generally. Rigorous moral codes were applied within the institution; lecturers and students found to be ‘living in sin’ were expelled, and women students living away from home were placed with families to prevent them falling into sin. Although women participated in the movement (a fact which shocked the authorities), there is little sign that feminism played any part in the demands or actions of the movement.

The simplest course open to dissident Catholic students was to resolve or relegate the religious question as a priority by ceasing to attend Mass. Thereby, belief was either made personal and withdrawn from the Church’s tutelage, or it was discarded. This step was one taken by many young Italians in the 1960s, and was one aspect of the secularization of the society. However, in the late sixties, energies and enthusiasms that had previously been channelled through the Church’s organizations took political forms. This development has already been mentioned in relation to the radicalization of the Catholic-based lay bodies such as ACLI, the CISL and various community ventures, but it was also a more general phenomenon that affected secular politics. This can be shown by looking at ‘Letter to a School-teacher’, which was possibly the single most influential text in the student movement, and by showing how radical Catholic and Marxist ideas converged in this period.

Letter to a School-teacher denounced the selective and discriminatory nature of education, using the experiences of the small Tuscan village school at Barbiana. The themes being dealt with had a direct relevance to a movement which was fighting for everyone’s right to education, and which had made teaching into a political issue. Indeed the book anticipated the movement. lt was easily translatable into Marxist terminology, and was adapted and selectively used by its extensive readership.

However, much of its appeal derived from its difference from standard Marxist accounts, which spoke of the objective mechanisms whereby capitalism reproduced its labour power (for example, the Pisan Theses).The Barbiana letters focused on the individual experience of education and spoke through the voices of children excluded not only by economic but by cultural processes. Tullio de Mauro has suggested that don Milani’s discovery of the politics of grammar, and of the knowledge and use of words resulted from his critical appropriation of his priestly functions. Firstly, the Church taught don Milani ‘intimately to adhere to linguistic obedience’; the Church’s language, which served to bring individual consciences into conformity with etiquette and principles of belief and to free its own functionaries from the ties of social and geographical origin, taught don Milani about the power of words. He rebelled against that use of language, but with the power of having mastered it.

Secondly, don Milani, according to De Mauro, was above all a preacher, who wanted to change things. In this respect too, the ‘linguistic school of the Evangelists’ prepared him in that it insisted on the power of ‘the word’, and on the need to emancipate the oppressed from the burdens of cultural deprivation. For don Milani it was vital that the poor should rely on their own powers to speak and write, and should free themselves from the oppressive notion of ‘correct Italian’;

We need anyway to understand what is correct language. The poor create languages and then continue to renew them. The rich crystallize them so that they can take advantage of whoever doesn’t talk like they do. Or they fail them in exams.

In his work at Barbiana, he attempted to overcome these inequalities by encouraging collective authorship and linking learning to a participatory notion of democracy.

Although not exclusive to a Catholic culture, don Milani’s sensitivity to certain forms of oppression was perhaps best represented by radical Catholic currents. It was characterized by attention to culture as a political problem which required specific forms of action and analysis and by its focus on experience and the personal dimensions of oppression. More-over, don Milani’s example stood out for its moral commitment and appealed to feelings among students that the culturally privileged should ‘go to the people’. Rossanda wrote that the letters from Barbiana were perceived as evidence of the need for an Italian version of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Yet, by contrast with appropriations of Chinese slogans and sloganizing style, don Milani offered a vivid insight into the lived experience of injustice. The book touched a generation’s sense of moral outrage and had echoes far beyond the world of the university activists. It showed the power of a religious culture to generate and activate moral standards of condemnation.

There were specific reasons for the popularity of the Letter to a School-teacher, but these need to be placed in the broader context of the convergence of radical Catholicism and Marxism in the late sixties. This relationship has not received much critical attention; Catholic intellectuals have perhaps shown more interest in the interaction of religion and politics (or in the similarities of political and religious militancy) than Marxists, who have been anxious to defend ‘science’ from ‘contamination’. Whilst it is true that many of the overtly religious elements that appeared in the movements of opposition were of tangential significance, the ‘religious structure of feeling’ was of considerable importance in the making of 1968. This structure of feeling had been a part of Marxist and Socialist movements from early in their history, but it had been contained and marginalized by parliamentary parties that feared uncontrolled enthusiasms. In 1968 it was recreated and reactivated in the student movement.

In this light it is possible to understand how the radicalization in the Catholic world could lead to a rapprochement with Marxism, without requiring the total abandonment of a structure of feeling based on faith and commitment to an ideal. Indeed, it could be argued that politics offered even greater possibilities for self-sacrifice, the service of others and for apostolic militancy and, therefore, for being a more genuine Christian. However, the majority of new adherents to revolutionary politics experienced their conversion as a break with Catholicism and with their own pasts. They turned religion on its head, and dismissed it with Marx’s peremptoriness as an opiate. This had serious consequences for the student movement, and generally for the relations between Catholic and Marxist cultures in the subsequent period. The moment of rapprochement was succeeded by one of division and mutual animosity.

The crisis and decline of the student movement at the Cattolica was bound up with this breakdown in dialogue between Marxists and practising Catholics among the students. In the early stages of mobilization in 1967-8 the militant and politicized minority had been sensitive to religious feelings and beliefs. Thus, after the clashes with the police in March 1968, meetings were held of the Assemblea Ecclesiastica, and care was taken to elaborate biblical justifications for rebellion and for the use of violence. However, splits developed among activists on whether to continue to organize around religious issues, and between the politicized minority and the mass of students at the university. By the end of 1969 religion was no longer a terrain of struggle between dissident students and the authorities, largely because radicals directed their attention to other problems without linking them up to Catholicism. Above all, they abandoned the university and student struggles in favour of political agitation around the factories, which became the centres of social conflict from the autumn of 1968. Thus, the movement evacuated its own stronghold and left a free hand to the authorities to restore the status quo.

The rector at the Cattolica had consistently opposed the student movement, and had frequently resorted to repression in attempts to root out dissent. Over two years tens of students were expelled from the university. The police barracks, which conveniently faced the main entrance to the university, acted as a constant pillar of strength to the authorities. There was no question of giving way to the student movement and allowing the university to be subverted from within. There was too much at stake. The importance of the university to the Catholic Church was evidenced by the national annual Giornata della Cattolica, a day given over to collecting funds from the faithful to support their institution, and by its function in educating its lay political elite. The weakening of the students’ movement was therefore seized on by the authorities to drive it from Sant’Ambrogio as Christ had driven the money-lenders from the temple. Over a two year period it disappeared from the Cattolica and Catholic dissent irremediably lost a crucial stronghold. Instead the university became a springboard for the launching of Comunione e Liberazione. This was the Catholic Church’s successful youth organization, which showed a skilful adoption of themes and structures developed by the student movement for the purposes of re-establishing the role of religion in daily activities. Although Catholic dissent continued to grow in the wake of the social movements, and gave rise to organizations such as Christians for Socialism, the cruel irony of the dramatic echoes of the student rebellion at the Cattolica was that the Church learnt more from it than did its opponents.