The Church and Democracy

For two millennia the Catholic Church has lived and often thrived alongside political systems of many different kinds. In most of the world, it exists — often congenially, sometimes not — in countries that describe themselves as democracies.

So how does the Church view democracy? The answer — more complex than one might expect — is that it takes a favorable view of democracy but insists that one highly significant condition be met. Pope St. John Paul II spelled this out in 1991.

On the one hand, he said, the Church strongly approves of “authentic” democracy, defined as democracy under the rule of law and founded on “a correct conception of the human person.”

On the other hand, he added, it happens that self-styled democracies sometimes fall short of this ideal. And “a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.” The 20th century, he might have pointed out, saw that happen more than once.

Pope John Paul’s encyclical, Centesimus Annus (“The Hundredth Year”), is the Church’s most definitive word on democracy, and that word wasn’t spoken quickly. As we shall see, there are several reasons for that, among them the fact that democracy in its modern form didn’t emerge until about 250 years ago, when 13 British colonies stretching along the Atlantic Coast of North America audaciously declared themselves an independent nation committed to equality under the law and “unalienable” human rights.

An old way of thinking

Before the genesis of the United States, political life was rarely reconsidered by those other than Enlightenment intellectuals. That was certainly true for the Catholic Church.

The New Testament, to the extent it considers the topic of governance at all, takes for granted the political order of the Roman Empire, the dominant secular power at the time it was written. St. Paul in several places simply tells the early Christians to obey secular authorities and says this is what God wants.

Liberty as a Fundamental Principle
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Archbishop Ambrose Marechal (pictured at left) was the third archbishop of Baltimore, serving as archbishop from 1817 until his death in 1828. In 1818, he sent a report on the state of religion in the archdiocese to the Vatican Congregation de Propaganda Fide (Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith), which at that time was responsible for oversight of the Church in the United States.

The French-born archbishop provided a highly positive assessment of the prospects of Catholicism in the United States. It read, in part:

“There is no region in the world where the Catholic religion can be propagated more quickly or widely and where it exists more securely than in the United States of America. Here there is no danger whatsoever that converts to the Faith will suffer persecution or that their churches will be destroyed by the arbitrary command of some tyrant. ... And since religious liberty is the fundamental principle of the American republic, there is no magistrate from the president to the least official who can with impunity molest Catholics in even the slightest way.

“The only danger that blocks the path of our most holy religion consists in the internal dissensions which divide the faithful against each other.”

Even so, Jesus introduces a novel idea by suggesting something resembling church-state separation when he speaks of giving Caesar’s due to Caesar and God’s due to God (see Mt 22:17-21). This implies a distinction unfamiliar to the Roman mind, which considered semi-divine Roman emperors to be supreme in both spheres, religious and secular.

In his influential magnum opus “City of God,” written early in the fifth century, St. Augustine gives this distinction a twist by unfavorably contrasting the this-worldly City of Man with the heavenly City of God.

God’s city, he writes, is humankind’s ultimate destination — indeed, the only one that deserves truly serious attention. For a religiously serious person, man’s city is little more than a source of distraction and temptation. Whatever else might be said of that view, it doesn’t offer Christians much encouragement to think deeply about the political order.

But St. Thomas Aquinas, writing in the 13th century, took the political order very seriously. And although he regarded monarchy as the best system of government, he didn’t leave it at that.

Declaring in his Summa Theologica that “all should have some share in the government,” the great Dominican theologian recommended a system in which a virtuous king would preside over a governing structure that other virtuous leaders shared in ruling. Such a system, he said, would be a mix of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy — the latter “in the sense that leaders can be elected from among the populace.”

So much for theory. As a matter of fact, the Church for many centuries took for granted rule by kings and princes — an arrangement that clearly had its ups and downs for religion and often led to a power struggle between secular and religious authorities.

For centuries, too, the Church sought and enjoyed the preferred status of an established church wherever it could. But this also had its dark side. Consider the famous treaty of 1555, the Peace of Augsburg. This was an agreement that halted Catholic-Lutheran warfare on the basis of cuius regio, eius religio— a territory would have the religion of its ruler. Whatever practical advantages that formula might have had, it had the negative effect of subordinating religious affiliation to political authority.

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Revolutionary ideas

In 1789, the seismic event known to history as the French Revolution not only overthrew the old order in France but ushered in everywhere an era of new thinking about political life and the church-state relationship. Unfortunately, much of the new thinking saw the Catholic Church as an unwelcome holdover from the past and had a decidedly anticlerical tone.

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Pius IX

In Italy, nationalist forces seized the Papal States from the papacy and in 1870 took over Rome itself. The pope of that day — Blessed Pius IX — declared himself “the prisoner of the Vatican” and retired behind the walls surrounding the few acres he still controlled. Popes stayed there for half a century until the Vatican and the Italian government finally negotiated a settlement of their differences.

Given all this, Church leaders predictably took a less-than-enthusiastic view of the rise of self-proclaimed democracies that observed separation of church and state. In his famous “Syllabus of Errors,” published in 1864, Pius IX rejected the idea that separation of church and state was a necessary condition of modern life.

And, meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the American experiment in democracy and religious liberty was taking shape under the aegis of religious separation.

Catholics were few in the original 13 states — only numbering about 25,000 immediately after the Revolutionary War. Reflecting the religious prejudices of the Old World, the handful of Catholics were commonly regarded with hostility by their Protestant neighbors.

One notable exception to the pattern of exclusion was Bishop — later Archbishop — John Carroll of Baltimore, the first U.S. bishop and a member of a prominent colonial family that included a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll of Maryland. In the new, post-revolutionary, democratic setting, Archbishop Carroll concentrated on winning acceptance for his co-religionists and their Church.

A cloud on the horizon

It was left to a Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, to argue the theoretical case for the compatibility of Catholicism and American democracy. This he did in 1835 in his famous book “Democracy in America,” written after an extensive tour of the United States and still considered one of the finest analyses of the American character ever penned.

Rejecting the idea that Catholicism is “the natural enemy of democracy,” de Tocqueville held that the Church’s belief in human equality made Catholics particularly open to the democratic principle. “America is the most democratic country in the world, and it is at the same time ... the country in which the Roman Catholic religion makes most progress,” he wrote.

But de Tocqueville discerned a cloud on this horizon: “[E]quality makes men want to form their own opinions. ... Men living in democratic times are therefore very prone to shake off all religious authority.” The future would show how this might play out in America.

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Another early Catholic endorser of democracy was Archbishop John Hughes, New York’s feisty first archbishop, who served as archbishop from 1850 to 1864. In a long 1858 report to skeptical officials of the Roman Curia, the Irish-American prelate strongly defended the understanding of liberty that prevailed in the United States. He contrasted it favorably with Europe, where liberty was identified with the violent overthrow of monarchical governments.

In America, Archbishop Hughes wrote, liberty signified “the vindication of personal rights; the fair support of public laws; the maintenance ... of public order, according to those laws; [and] the right to change them when they are found to be absurd or oppressive.”

True as that may have been, Rome had its reasons for fretting about the situation of the Church in America.

One of these by no means was the fanciful fear that the model of Protestant congregationalism might exert an unhealthy influence on susceptible Catholics — as indeed appears to have happened in the case of lay trusteeism, a movement that led rebellious Catholics to claim the right to hire their own pastors. Trusteeism was to plague the Church in the United States for much of the 19th century.

Americanists vs. the Roman curia

The argument for and against American democracy was framed with notable clarity in an exchange of letters between Father Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulist Fathers, and Orestes Brownson, a writer and editor who was the leading American Catholic intellectual of his day.

Father Hecker, an ardent proponent of evangelizing America, had gone to Rome during the First Vatican Council. In January 1870, he wrote his old friend Brownson, telling him of the “increased interest and appreciation” he’d encountered for the United States and “the relations of the Church to our free institutions.”

Though at one time sympathetic to Hecker’s views, Brownson was not buying them now. In America, he complained, Catholics “imbibe the spirit of the country, imbibe from infancy the spirit of independence, freedom from all restraint, unbounded license. ... The whole influence of democratic ideas and tendencies is directly antagonistic to Catholicity. ... The conversion of our republic will be a far greater victory than the conversion of the Roman Empire ....”

Over time, of course, it was Americanists like Isaac Hecker who won this argument. Nowhere was their positions spelled out more emphatically than in a sermon preached on March 25, 1887, by Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore in Santa Maria in Trastevere, his Roman titular church, on the occasion of receiving the red hat.

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With Vatican critics of the American church-state arrangement clearly in mind, Cardinal Gibbons, de facto leader of the American hierarchy, said this:

“Our Holy Father, Leo XIII, in his luminous encyclical on the constitution of Christian states [Immortale Dei, published in 1885], declares that the Church is not committed to any particular form of civil government.

“She adapts herself to all. She leavens all with the sacred leaven of the Gospel. She has lived under absolute empires, under constitutional monarchies, and in free republics and everywhere she grows and expands.

“For myself, as a citizen of the United States, and without closing my eyes to our defects as a nation, I proclaim, with a deep sense of pride and gratitude, that I belong to a country where the civil government holds over us the aegis of its protection without interfering with us in the legitimate exercise of our sublime mission as ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

These Americanist sentiments were to remain the rarely questioned consensus among American churchmen for decades to come. But Rome wasn’t convinced.

'A Free Church in a Free Country'
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Likely the most enthusiastic prelatic supporter of American democracy of the late 19th and early 20th century was Archbishop John Ireland, who headed the Archdiocese of St. Paul from 1888 until his death in 1918. Archbishop Ireland (pictured at left), son of Irish immigrants, believed firmly and said frequently that Catholicism had a uniquely congenial home in this democratic setting.

In a much-quoted speech in Paris in June 1892, he proudly declared that in America, Catholics had “a free church in a free country, and the Church is happy in her freedom.” Reviewing the progress of Catholicism in America — a dramatic rise in numbers, impressive institutional growth and much else — Archbishop Ireland said:

“If in America the Catholic Church does not make progress, it is not the fault of the republic. The republic allows the Church the fullest liberty; and the Church, conscious of her divine mission, feels within herself all the vital forces necessary to grow and conquer without alliance with, or aid from, the state.”

In an 1895 encyclical called Longinqua Oceani, directed to the Church in the United States, Pope Leo XIII told Americanists not to speak as if every country should practice church-state separation on the American model. And in Testem Benevolentiae (“Witness to Our Goodwill”), dated Jan. 22, 1899, the pope condemned heretical views that he called “Americanisms.”

The “Americanisms” troubling Leo XIII may have had more to do with ideas circulating in progressive Catholic circles in France at that time than with American Catholicism. Still, the papal criticism targeted trends that were eventually to be real problems for the Church in the United States, such as picking and choosing among doctrines and preference for activism over contemplation in religious life.

But Leo XIII said nothing against democracy or American-style separation of church and state, and his silence itself provided the Americanists with a measure of vindication. And so it was to remain for the next half-century.

Vatican II and acceptance

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Sandra Goetz Sellers of Atlanta attends a religious freedom rally in 2012. CNS photo

In the 1950s, a Jesuit theologian, Father John Courtney Murray, began publishing articles in which he developed a theological case for religious liberty in a pluralistic setting like the United States.

Complaints from other theologians and eventually from Rome that his ideas conflicted with established Church teaching moved his Jesuit superiors to suggest he stop writing on this subject. At first Father Murray complied, but in 1960 he published a book called “We Hold These Truths” setting out his views at length. Today, it is considered a minor classic.

As an adviser to Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York, he helped shape Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis Humanae, which was adopted at the council’s fourth and final session in 1965. Basing their argument on the dignity of the person, the council fathers insisted that both individuals and groups have a fundamental right to freedom from state coercion in religious matters.

As for democracy itself, that was left to the council’s Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes. In a brief passage the bishops declared that citizens have a right to elect their leaders and added that “All citizens, therefore, should be mindful of the right and also the duty to use their free vote to further the common good” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 75).

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President George W. Bush and Pope St. John Paul II meet at the Vatican in 2004. CNS photo

Moving beyond this simple affirmation, Pope St. John Paul II in 1991 coupled praise for “authentic” democracy with a warning against “democracy without values.”

In the encyclical Centesimus Annus (“The Hundredth Year”), he warned that human rights are imperiled when “agnosticism and sceptical relativism” are considered necessary to democracy.

Pope John Paul II returned to this subject in 1995 in another encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”). While calling the “almost universal consensus” in favor of democracy “a positive ‘sign of the times,’” he insisted that “the value of democracy ... depends on conformity to the moral law” (No. 70). When democratic structures and processes are employed to legitimize an immoral practice like abortion, he added, the result is a kind of democratic tyranny (see No. 70).

John Paul II hardly was the only one to see the problem of democracy without grounding in sound values. Father John Courtney Murray spoke of it in 1960 in deploring the collapse of the natural law tradition in America in “We Hold These Truths,” and Notre Dame philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre made the same point in 1981 in his influential book “After Virtue.” Today, many thoughtful observers warn of the dire consequences of the decline of moral values in secular, democratic America.

Thus, the story of the relationship of democracy and the Catholic Church is still being written, but at least one thing is clear: The Church has been around a lot longer than any political system, democratic or otherwise.

“She saw the commencement of all the governments ... that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all,” British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote of the Catholic Church in 1840. If Macaulay — no friend of Catholicism — were alive today, he might still say that.

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.

The Call for Authentic Democracy
The most extensive treatment of democracy by any pope to date was that of Pope St. John Paul II in his encyclicals Centesimus Annus (“The Hundredth Year”), published in 1991, and Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”), published in 1995. Pope John Paul II rendered a mixed verdict: authentic democracy is certainly a good thing, but “democracy without values” certainly is not. The following from Centesimus Annus suggests his line of thought:

“Authentic democracy is possible only in a state ruled by law, and on the basis of a correct conception of the human person. ... Nowadays there is a tendency to claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life. ... As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism (Centesimus Annus, No. 46).

“It is therefore urgently necessary, for the future of society and the development of a sound democracy, to rediscover those essential and innate human and moral values which flow from the very truth of the human being. ... Consequently there is a need to recover the basic elements of a vision of the relationship between civil law and moral law, which are put forward by the Church, but which are also part of the patrimony of the great juridical traditions of humanity” (Evangelium Vitae, Nos. 70, 71).