One of the most troubling developments in the current debate on religion and politics is the renewed characterization of liberal democracy as a bigger threat to Christian morality than any other political system. This is not just a return of the old legitimist doctrine that nondemocratic systems and monarchies are more Christian than democracies; rather, it’s a general crisis of the theological-political alignments of the twentieth century. Catholic anti-liberalism is trying once again to cast serious doubts on the idea that democracy and Christianity are even compatible. This is a sign that what Ross Douthat has called “the John Paul II synthesis” is in crisis, while demonstrating as well that John Paul II was not a neo-conservative pope.
In Tertio millennio adveniente (1994), his apostolic letter introducing the church to the third millennium, John Paul II wrote that “the Second Vatican Council is often considered as the beginning of a new era in the life of the Church. This is true, but at the same time it is difficult to overlook the fact that the Council drew much from the experiences and reflections of the immediate past, especially from the intellectual legacy left by Pius XII” (italics in the original).
In that legacy there is also Pope Pius XII’s radio message of December 1944, what French historian Jean-Dominique Durand has called the pontiff’s “baptism of democracy.” Delivering it on the eve of the last Christmas during World War II, Pius XII said:
[U]nder the sinister glow of the war that surrounds them, in the burning heat of the furnace in which they are imprisoned, the peoples have awakened from a long torpor. They confronted the state and faced their rulers with a new, questioning, critical, wary attitude. Tempered by a bitter experience, they oppose with greater impetus to the monopolies of a dictatorial power, unquestionable and intangible, and demand a system of government, which is more compatible with the dignity and freedom of citizens.
Pius XII quoted Leo XIII’s encyclical Libertas (1888), which affirmed that “it is not of itself wrong to prefer a democratic form of government, if only the Catholic doctrine be maintained as to the origin and exercise of power. Of the various forms of government, the Church does not reject any that are fitted to procure the welfare of the subject; she wishes only—and this nature itself requires—that they should be constituted without involving wrong to any one, and especially without violating the rights of the Church.”
Less than four months after the death of Pius XII, his successor, John XXIII, announced the Second Vatican Council—whose teachings on the social and political message of the church are often ignored or avoided by Catholics who talk about the church’s disposition towards the political question, even though Vatican II is integral part of the Catholic tradition and of the official teaching of the church. For neo-traditionalists, the problem is that Vatican II substantially redefined “the rights of the church.” It elaborated a theology of the secular world and founded on the Catholic “baptism of democracy” celebrated towards the end of World War II—while adding significant new elements to it, especially freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, and a post-Hiroshima theology of war and peace. Building on John XXIII’s last encyclical, Pacem in terris (April 11, 1963), Vatican II ushered in a new understanding of the Catholic view of the secular nation-state, democracy, and individual rights, especially in the pastoral constitution Gaudium et spes and the declaration on religious liberty Dignitatis humanae. It was a theology growing out the defeat of totalitarianism and authoritarianism (which, until the war, many Catholics supported) in Western Europe and the rejection of communism dominating Eastern Europe, Russia, and China. The Catholic Church came to terms with the new international, post-colonial, liberal-democratic order: it was officially post-fascist and anti-communist, despite the institutional church’s support for some fascist regimes (Spain, Portugal, Latin America) even long after the end of Vatican II, and despite the fact that millions of Catholics in Western Europe voted for communist parties.