Washington and the Vatican established full diplomatic relations only in 1984, which means that Joe Biden will be the first Catholic president to appoint an ambassador to the Holy See. Back in the Reagan years, the selection symbolized not only the anti-Communist alliance between Pope John Paul II and the president, but also the full embrace of democracy by the Catholic Church, a process that had begun between World War II and the Second Vatican Council. Since then, however, something has changed: the relationship between American Catholicism and democracy.
Consider chiefly the failure of the American Catholic hierarchy—from the beginning of the Trump presidency through the January 6 insurrection and even up to now—to elevate its voice in defense of the democratic system and the rule of law. The USCCB and most individual bishops have cast GOP attempts to undermine electoral democracy, voting rights, and the moral duty to the common good simply as mildly unpleasant consequences of political polarization, and not for what they actually express: contempt for public institutions and the democratic ethos at the expense of the political participation of those citizens who most need the protection of the law.
The bishops’ silence is all the more disturbing for what it suggests: a complacency toward, if not an endorsement of, the message pushed by important and powerful Catholic interests in the media, business, and politics supporting the Trumpian assault on democracy. That authoritarian assault has parallels with what’s happening now in Russia, India, and Brazil, and influential American Catholics have greeted it with indifference or, in some cases (such as the anti-liberal turn in Hungary), with delight. You’d have thought this kind of thing would have gone the way of twentieth-century fascism and Francoism. I began studying the history of Catholicism at the University of Bologna in 1989, around the time the Berlin Wall fell. Then, the alliance between Catholicism and democracy felt not only very much of the present, but also of the future, while national Catholic or clerical-fascist movements were part of the past. Today that no longer seems true.
Assessing the history of the relationship between Catholicism and democracy in the last three decades could help in getting a sense of where things stand now, and how they got this way. A good place to start would be with a book published exactly thirty years ago: Samuel Huntington’s The Third Wave, which I think deserves more attention from Catholics. Huntington described global democratization as arriving in three waves: the first in the early nineteenth century, the second after World War II and decolonization in the 1960s, and the third mostly in the 1980s. He saw a correlation between Western Christianity and democracy thanks to the religious roots of the concepts of the dignity of the individual and the separation of the spheres of Church and state. The connection between the expansion of democracy and the expansion of Christianity was no longer Protestant-centered but Catholic-centered. During and even after World War II, the Church’s alliances with authoritarian regimes—especially Franco’s—made Catholicism seem antithetical to democracy. But then came Vatican II. It was one of the major factors in bringing about the “the third wave,” in which Huntington saw the contribution of Catholicism to democracy as decisive. Three-quarters of the countries that turned to democracy during the “third wave” were Catholic or home to an important Catholic majority/minority, including the Philippines, Chile, Mexico, Poland, and Hungary. Catholicism had become a force for democracy through two channels. The first was Vatican II and its “political” message: social change and participation, the rights of individuals, the common good. The second were base-popular movements: Base Ecclesial Communities in Brazil, the Christian Left in the Philippines, grassroots politicization of the Church in Poland, Argentina, and Chile. There was a shift in the position of the hierarchies from accommodation to ambivalence and finally to opposition to authoritarianism. The papacies of Paul VI and John Paul II also played a role; the latter’s apostolic trips (beginning with Poland in 1979) were pastoral visits, but they had a political impact as well.