Jacques Maritain shaking hands with Monseigneur Roques, Paris, France, 1946 (KEYSTONE-FRANCE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)


Interested in learning more? Editor Dominic Preziosi interviewed John T. McGreevy about Catholicism and democracy for the Commonweal Podcast. You can listen to that episode here:

Should Catholics promote democracy? The answer did not seem obvious in 1941. Exiled to New York City as the Wehrmacht occupied France, philosopher Jacques Maritain, the most important Catholic intellectual of the mid-twentieth century, asked his friend, Yves Simon, also exiled from France and teaching at the University of Notre Dame, for a favor. Could he run to the library and confirm that Thomas Aquinas understood “that consent of the people is required for the legitimacy of the state”?

Simon supplied the citation. Bitterly. Both Simon and Maritain knew that many Catholics during the 1930s had admired Austria’s Engelbert Dolfuss who had dissolved that country’s Parliament in an effort to build a “Catholic” state. Other Catholics lauded Portugal’s dictator, Antonio Salazar, a former church youth leader who declared the obsolescence of political parties based on “the individual, the citizen or the elector.” In France itself, after the German occupation of the country in 1940, many Catholics had rallied to the banner of the authoritarian Vichy government.

To talk of Catholic democracy in this context seemed to Simon “only trash.” The antagonism of Catholics to democracy “is the problem that we are asked to overcome.”


Our own democratic crisis is prompting a scholarly outpouring. Investigators devote special attention to times and places where democracies reverted to dictatorships, such as Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, authors of the superb How Democracies Die, confirm the diagnosis made sixty years ago by Maritain and Simon. They observe how a hierarchical Catholicism often stood aloof from a democratic politics of compromise, negotiation, and unpredictable outcomes. Some Catholic leaders—as in Belgium—resisted authoritarianism and expelled fascists from Catholic political parties. Other Catholics—as in Austria and Portugal—welcomed dictatorial (but “Catholic”) regimes.

A longer chronological view complicates this story. Many Catholics in the early nineteenth century, especially in Spain and Latin America, urged republican governments. After helping draft the first constitution in Spain’s history in 1812, some Spanish priests and bishops required it to be read out loud in Spain’s churches. Their peers in Mexico City did the same with the first Mexican constitution when Mexico gained independence in 1824. When Alexis de Tocqueville shot to fame with the 1835 publication of the first volume of Democracy in America, he identified Catholics as the “most republican and democratic class in the United States.” The equality of all believers within Catholicism, Tocqueville thought, predisposed Catholics to favor democratic government. He rejected the claim made by some radicals during the French revolution that the “Catholic religion [was] the natural enemy of democracy.”

Some of the same Catholics, all educated male lay elites, favored representation within the Church, not just the state. They desired a say in the appointment of bishops—a process then largely controlled by governments, not the Vatican—and even in the appointment of parish priests. In Canada, the leading patriote of the era and a founding figure of Canadian nationalism, Louis-Joseph Papineau, demanded the placement of “notables” on parish councils so as to avoid “taxation without representation.” Priests or bishops spending funds without accountability appalled him. “Can anything,” he asked, “be more anti-national or anti-patriotic?”

In the mid-nineteenth century this nascent alliance between Catholicism and democracy unraveled. Pius IX, whose reign lasted from 1846 to 1878, retreated into a defensive stance after the revolutions of 1848. The need to defend the Church against liberal governments willing to expel priests and nuns or seize Church property seemed more pressing. Authority and justice became the Catholic keywords, not representation or voice. The job of laypeople became to obey priests, priests to obey bishops, and everyone to obey a pope defined as potentially infallible at the First Vatican Council in 1870.

Catholics in much of Europe and South America did form confessional political parties in the late nineteenth century. So famous was the German Center party (or Zentrum) and its leader Ludwig Windthorst, that German Catholic migrants named towns on the Saskatchewan prairie and in the Texas hill country after their hero. In Anglophone countries, especially, Catholics thrived in both local and national politics. One child of Irish Catholic migrants, Al Smith, ran for president as the first Catholic nominee of the Democratic Party in the United States in 1928. Another child of Irish Catholic migrants, James Scullin, was elected prime minister of Australia in 1929.

But Catholic theory lagged Catholic practice. When challenged on Church teaching supporting the unity of church and state, Al Smith famously responded, “What the hell is an encyclical?” A dominant pattern after World War I was for Catholic intellectuals and politicians to express doubts about democracy’s future during a swirl of assassinations, chaotic parliamentary debates, and rotating chief executives. Of the twenty-eight European parliamentary democracies in 1920, thirteen had become authoritarian governments by 1938. Democracies weakened or collapsed in South America’s largest countries, including Brazil and Argentina.

A dominant pattern after World War I was for Catholic intellectuals and politicians to express doubts about democracy’s future.

Democracy was the dog that did not bark in Catholic social thought. In 1922, Pius XI offered a condescending appraisal of “modern democratic states” that were “most exposed to the danger of being overthrown by one faction or another.” Vatican officials withdrew their support from Italy’s Catholic democratic party, the Partito Popolare Italiano, in the mid-1920s and decided to negotiate instead with Benito Mussolini. (The leader of the Partito Popolare, Fr. Luigi Sturzo, fled to London and then New York just ahead of Mussolini’s security forces.) Munich’s Cardinal Michael Faulhaber vigorously opposed the early Nazi movement, but Faulhaber viewed democratic politics with almost equal disdain. Dismayed by the absence of any recognition of God in the 1919 Weimar Constitution, Faulhaber advocated for monarchy over republican institutions in a famous debate with Zentrum leader Konrad Adenauer, then the young mayor of Cologne. Both men left the podium “with bright red faces.”


This was the world Jacques Maritain sought to change. He was an unlikely reformer. In the first years of his philosophical career he saw little merit in democratic government. “The more I think about it,” he wrote to a friend in 1914, “the more I am persuaded that we must have a political doctrine and that this doctrine can only be anti-revolutionary, anti-republican, anti-constitutional, and therefore monarchist.”

In the late 1920s Maritain shifted gears. He published an essay arguing that Thomas Aquinas had favored democracy as a form of government, challenging his onetime mentor, the Dominican priest Reginald Garrigou-LaGrange, the world’s most prominent neo-Thomist philosopher and a top papal advisor. Garrigou-LaGrange thought only “incompetents” ran for office in democracies. In 1940 Garrigou-LaGrange would support Vichy.

In his 1936 masterpiece, Integral Humanism, Maritain outlined his Catholic and democratic vision. The flourishing of the human “person” required respect for her embeddedness in communities such as the family, professions, and churches. Catholics should not translate theological categories directly into politics and should instead welcome pluralism. Democratic governments with universal suffrage followed from this distinction between religious and political authority.

Maritain promoted his version of democratic personalism through ceaseless writing and traveling. In Italy—where many Catholic intellectuals supported Mussolini into the late 1930s—Maritain’s ideas thrilled a cadre of young activists disenchanted with Il Duce, including  Fr. Giovanni Battista Montini, the future Paul VI, whose father had been active in the Partito Popolare. (Montini wrote an introduction for the Italian translation of Integral Humanism.) Maritain also sailed to South America. In Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, his lectures attracted the country’s leading intellectuals. He persuaded the director of Brazil’s most influential Catholic think tank to identify himself as an “open Catholic, democratic and reformist.”

Exile in the United States deepened Maritain’s democratic convictions. In 1941 he defended democracy as a system of government superior to any alternative. “It is necessary to show,” he told Yves Simon, that “St. Thomas was a democrat, in this sense…the Gospel works in history in a democratic direction.” In 1942 Maritain coordinated the drafting of a manifesto, “In the Face of the World’s Crisis,” signed by forty-three European Catholic scholars “sojourning in America,” published first in Commonweal and then translated into multiple languages. (Some copies were smuggled into Nazi-occupied Europe.) It insisted that democracy was the “issue at stake in the struggle.”

Pius XII himself may have drawn on Maritain’s writings. In his 1944 Christmas address, after several caveats, the pope announced that “the democratic form of government” now appeared “to many as a postulate of nature imposed by reason itself.” One of Maritain’s friends, a Swiss theologian, archly noted “numerous coincidences” between the papal address and Maritain’s prose.


Maritain’s ideas helped underwrite one of the key achievements of twentieth-century political history: Christian Democratic parties. After almost a century of doubting the efficacy of democracy, at least in Europe and Latin America, Catholics became its guarantors. For all or part of the period between 1945 and 1980, Christian Democratic parties held power in Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, Brazil, Chile, Venezuela, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Costa Rica. Even parties not formally identified as Christian Democratic—such as the Mouvement Républicain Populaire in France, the Democratic Party in Uganda, the Indische Katholieke Paritij in Indonesia or the Fianna Fáil in Ireland—adopted similar language as they pushed for family allowances, supported trade unions, and urged Catholics to participate in democratic governance.

Not only Catholics belonged to Christian Democratic parties, and they were never controlled by the institutional Church. Maritain himself never deigned to participate in a political party. But the lineage is direct. In Italy, partisans fighting during World War II read Maritain in off moments, amazingly.

By 1960, observers could compile a long list of Catholic presidents and prime ministers influenced by Maritain and the broader Christian Democratic movement. It included Konrad Adenauer (West Germany) and Alcide De Gasparri (Italy), leaders of Europe’s most prominent Christian Democratic parties. It included Robert Schuman (France) who also served as head of the European Parliamentary Commission and Charles de Gaulle (France) who corresponded with Maritain while mobilizing Free French forces in London during the war. It included Léopold Senghor (Senegal), raised in the French empire and Benedicto Kiwanuka (Uganda) raised in the British empire. It included Ngô Đình Diê.m (South Vietnam), although Diê.m’s commitment to democracy was at best partial. By 1970 the list included Eduardo Frei (Chile), Rafael Caldera (Venezuela), and Pierre Trudeau (Canada). It did not include John Kennedy (United States), whose intellectual formation was innocent of Catholic social thought, but it did include his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps and the War on Poverty and Minnesota senator Eugene McCarthy. It even included Joseph R. Biden, Sr., father of a future U.S. president.


Maritain found vindication at the Second Vatican Council, in part because his old friend, Paul VI, guided the discussion of the final conciliar document, Gaudium et spes (1965). The document sketched the importance of “all citizens” taking an active part in “public affairs.”

This commitment to democracy was not abstract. Jonathan Earle and J. J. Carney have recently told the story of Benedicto Kiwanuka, the longtime head of the Democratic (and deeply Catholic) Party in Uganda. Kiwanuka studied law in London in the 1950s and came to see himself and his party as embarked on a project paralleling the Christian Democratic Union in West Germany or the Catholic party in the Netherlands. After Ugandan independence Kiwanuka was elected chief minister in 1961 and then prime minister in 1962. He welcomed the work of the Second Vatican Council. When the suspension of Parliament in 1966 plunged Uganda into strong-man rule, he protested. “A country’s Constitution,” he wrote, should not be “thrown away by a single person as easily as throwing a dirty handkerchief in a bedroom basket.”

Idi Amin’s leadership, beginning in 1971, propelled Uganda into disarray. Kiwanuka had cautiously accepted Amin’s offer of an appointment as chief justice. (The two men and their families shared one Christmas dinner). Catholics were never a particular target of Amin’s wrath, but independent sources of power were, and Amin soon embarked on a campaign against foreign influence in Uganda that extended to Catholics as pawns of a global Church. He expelled fifty-five priests from the country and arranged for the kidnapping and murder of Kiwanuka as he left morning Mass. (Amin may have pulled the trigger himself.) Amin later ordered the assassination of the priest-editor of the country’s leading Catholic newspaper, in part for his investigation into Kiwanuka’s death.

“A country’s Constitution,” he wrote, “should not be thrown away by a single person as easily as throwing a dirty handkerchief in a bedroom basket.”

Outcomes in East and Southeast Asia were happier. Seoul’s Cardinal Stephen Kim, appointed by Paul VI in 1968, became the titular leader of the resistance movement to the authoritarian government. Kim had grown up in a poor family, entered the seminary and then spent several years in Münster, Germany, obtaining a sociology degree and ministering to migrant Korean miners and nurses and their families. He expressed passionate support for the Second Vatican Council and saw it as his mission to cultivate the public engagement championed in Gaudium et spes. He regretted that the Church in South Korea had for so long been focused on “its own good while neglecting other affairs in the world.” Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul became a sanctuary for the pro-democracy movement in the 1980s and thousands of citizens and students camped inside and outside the cathedral. Kim informed government leaders that police attempting to arrest protestors would have to “trample on me first, priests secondly, and then sisters.”

In the Philippines, the 1983 murder by security forces of Filipino senator Benigno Aquino, the leader of the opposition to Ferdinand Marcos, prompted Catholic leaders, notably Cardinal Jaime Sin, to turn to electoral politics. (The Manila archdiocese controlled the one radio station able to evade government censorship.) Sin openly supported the presidential candidacy of Corazon Aquino, the devout wife of the murdered opposition leader. Marcos’s attempt to steal the 1986 election prompted Sin to mobilize crowds of up to two million people in a “people power” revolution that eventually overthrew the government, with pro-democracy Catholics such as Corazon Aquino at the center of the resistance. “If we did nothing,” the bishops wrote, “we would be party to our own destruction as a people.”

The most thrilling events occurred in Poland. Six months after his election in 1978, Pope John Paul II returned to his native country. The crowds packing every event—25 percent of the Polish population attended a papal Mass in person during his visit—signaled not only a disenchantment with the Communist regime but the role of Catholicism in articulating demands for democratic governance. This “most fantastic pilgrimage in the history of contemporary Europe,” in the words of the secular activist, Adam Michnik, became a tutorial on nonviolent resistance to the Communist state.

John Paul II did not cause the formation of an independent trade union, Solidarity, a year later. But the “awakened consciences” of Polish workers, in the words of a contemporary analyst, stemmed in part from the papal visit. Within a year, the Solidarity movement mobilized a stunning ten million workers. At shipyards in the port city of Gdańsk, the epicenter of the movement, workers celebrated daily Mass around an altar inside Gate #2. On the gate they pinned a large color photograph of John Paul II. Polish bishops sent out communiques invoking Gaudium et spes and the “right of workers to free association in unions which genuinely represent them.”

The collapse of communist rule in Poland and Eastern Europe rested more on Mikhail Gorbachev’s unwillingness to send tanks to Warsaw, Prague, and East Berlin than on efforts by Polish activists or John Paul II. Still, the Catholic role was vital. As the Polish economy crumbled in the late 1980s, desperate communist leaders permitted free elections and the political party formed out of Solidarity registered stunning triumphs. (The party did best in regions where Mass attendance was the highest.) In September 1989, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, friendly with John Paul II since the 1950s, a close observer of the Second Vatican Council and a founder of Solidarity, became the first non-Communist prime minister of Poland since before World War II.

In the 1950s intellectuals had questioned the capacity of Catholics to sustain democracies. By the 1980s scholars marveled at Catholicism’s role in fostering them.


These late–twentieth century triumphs—Catholics demanding democratic governments and even, as with Benedicto Kiwanuka, becoming martyrs for that cause—now seem as if from another world. Isolated, inspiring figures, such as Sr. Ann Rose Nu Twang, photographed eighteenth months ago standing in front of tanks in Myanmar to block the arrest of pro-democracy protesters, or Hong Kong’s Martin Lee, a leading critic of that city’s repressive government, cannot obscure a wider malaise.

In Europe and South America, Christian Democratic parties have gone into eclipse. In the heavily Catholic Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte ran roughshod over the constitution during his term in office. In Europe and North America some Catholic intellectuals speak admiringly of Hungary’s Victor Orbán and his so-called “illiberal democracy.”

In the United States, the most significant democratic crisis since the nineteenth century envelops the country. A few Catholic voices such as Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich have addressed the issue. But the overall response has been muted.

Why? Too many Catholics have forgotten what Maritain taught them. In the 1970s, skepticism about “bourgeois democracy” came from the left. Latin American liberation theologians, especially, chided Maritain and leaders of Christian Democratic parties for supporting “naïve reformism.”

Now a far greater threat comes from the populist right. Many Catholics embrace the Republican Party because of its position on abortion, even as the party’s candidates routinely deny the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election. One avowedly Catholic representative from Arizona, Paul Gosar, peddles the false narrative of election fraud at every opportunity. A recent Catholic convert and current Ohio senatorial candidate, J. D. Vance, called presidential candidate Donald Trump “reprehensible” in 2016. Now he professes his admiration.

Some of the same figures trampling on democratic norms in the public arena oppose the efforts of Pope Francis to reconsider representation within the Church. One of Francis’s ecclesial antagonists, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the onetime Vatican nuncio to the United States, called on Francis to resign and has released a series of unhinged letters and videos supporting former President Trump. Viganò feverishly connected a “deep state” with a “deep church.” He recently praised anti-vaccination Canadian truckers. He justifies Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Francis has made synods central to his papacy, picking up a thread left dangling by Paul VI. A synod is not a legislative assembly. Its participants are not elected and do not pass laws. But they exist as a mechanism for allowing a more diverse set of voices to participate in Church governance.

In the early nineteenth century, Catholic reformers drafting some of the world’s first constitutions transferred ideas about representation and voice from the political to the religious sphere. They wondered how laypeople might be represented within a Church led by ordained clergy. Derailed in the nineteenth century, that movement was resuscitated at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s and is now again taking center stage. National synods are underway in Germany and Australia, and the Germans in particular build on a long tradition of clergy, nuns, lay leaders, and bishops gathering for discussion. A massive synod is planned for Rome in 2023.

Francis believes that contemporary Catholics can develop new ways to discuss the problems and opportunities that confront them. Unlike some of his co-religionists in the United States, he has also been vocal in his support for democracy and democratic procedures. Perhaps the direction of the early nineteenth century can be reversed. Could the synodal experience in the Church lead to political spin-offs? In 1941, Jacques Maritain considered writing an updated version of The Federalist Papers, applicable to the “entire world.” We could use such a document now, as Catholics ponder how to repair fractures within both Church and nation.

This article is excerpted from Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis, to be published in September by W.W. Norton.  

Published in the July/August 2022 issue: View Contents

John T. McGreevy is the Charles and Jill Fischer Provost and Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.

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