Skip to main content Accessibility help

Democracy, society and truth: an exploration of Catholic social teaching

  • Luke Bretherton (a1)

This article maintains that modern Catholic social teaching took shape by positioning itself between revolutionary ideologies that sought to destroy the church and reactionary forces that sought to instrumentalise it. Among the factors that contributed to this development were the emergence of a theologyical and socio-political conception of the laity, reflection on the question of how humans participate in Christ's rule, the development of a consociational vision of sovereignty in distinction from top-down or monistic views, the importance of labour to a proper understanding of human dignity, and the discovery of ‘society’, as distinct from the market and the state. Appreciation of these factors resulted in the magisterial defence of democratic politics as a necessary condition for telling the truth about what it means to be human.

Hide All

1 Hittinger, Russell, ‘Introduction’, in Witte, John and Alexander, Frank (eds), The Teachings of Modern Roman Catholicism on Law, Politics, and Human Nature (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), pp. 138 ; Rhonheimer, Martin, The Common Good of Constitutional Democracy (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2013); Michael Schooyans, ‘Democracy in the Teachings of the Popes’, in Proceedings of the Workshop on Democracy (Vatican City: Pontificiae Academiae Scientiarum Socialum, 1996), pp. 11–40; Sigmund, Paul E., ‘Catholicism and Liberal Democracy’, in Bruce Douglass, R. and Hollenbach, David (eds), Catholicism and Liberalism: Contributions to American Public Philosophy (New York: CUP, 1994), pp. 217‒41; Bryan Hehir, J., ‘The Modern Catholic Church and Human Rights: The Impact of the Second Vatican Council’, in Witte, John Jr. and Alexander, Franklin S. (eds), Christianity and Human Rights: An Introduction (New York: CUP, 2010), pp. 113‒34.

2 Hittinger, ‘Introduction’, p. 10.

3 Hittinger, Russell, ‘The Coherence of the Four Basic Principles of Catholic Social Doctrine: An Interpretation’, in Archer, Margaret S. and Donati, Pierpaolo (eds), Pursuing the Common Good: How Solidarity and Subsidiarity Can Work Together, Proceedings of the 14th Plenary Session, 2‒6 May 2008 (Vatican City: Pontifical Academy of Sciences, 2008), p. 3 .

4 There is an argument to be made that the ‘discovery’ of the laity as a point of mediation between ‘throne’ and ‘altar’ is an extension and elaboration of a more ancient configuration of the crown and mitre as types and vicars of Christ who are co-responsible for the good ordering of society. Alongside the offices of the clergy and the king, the laity could now take their place as exemplars of Christ within the body politic.

5 In the modern period, concern about the subordination of the church to immanent political ends underlies papal condemnation of Action Française in 1926, the worker-priests in 1954 and Liberation Theology in 1984.

6 Perreau-Saussine, Emile, Catholicism and Democracy: An Essay in the History of Political Thought, trans. Rex, Richard (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), pp. 91‒9, 109‒27; Chappel, James, The Struggle for Europe's Soul: Catholicism and the Salvation of Democracy, 1920‒1960 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, forthcoming).

7 Centesimus Annus, §47

8 Lumen Gentium, ch. 4, ‘The Laity’. Picking up on themes first enunciated by John Paul II, Pope Francis links this temporal service explicitly to evangelisation in his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium.

9 Chappel, Struggle for Europe's Soul, ch. 5.

10 For overviews of the development of Christian Democracy as a political movement, see Fogarty, Michael P., Christian Democracy in Western Europe, 1820‒1953 (London: Routledge, 1957); Kselman, Thomas A. and Buttigieg, Joseph A., European Christian Democracy: Historical Legacies and Comparative Perspectives (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003); Kaiser, Wolfram, Christian Democracy and the Origins of the European Union (Cambridge: CUP, 2007); Kalyvas, Stathis, The Rise of Christian Democracy in Europe (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996); Chappel, Struggle for Europe's Soul.

11 If Rerum Novarum can be read as an initial response to the problems raised by industrialisation, the response to totalitarianism comes to fruition with Pius XII, who in the space of fourteen days in March 1937 issued encyclicals against fascism in Germany, communism in the Soviet Union and atheistic liberalism in Mexico. As Hittinger notes: ‘Totalitarianism prompted Catholic thinkers to support democratic government, to call for domestic and international authorities to be bound by justiciable natural or human rights, and more generally to develop what can be called a bottom-up model of legal, political, and social thought’ (‘Introduction’, 16). See also Chappel, James, ‘The Catholic Origins of Totalitarianism Theory in Interwar Europe’, Modern Intellectual History 8/3 (2011), pp. 561–90.

12 Charles Curran notes that for John Paul II both capitalism and Marxism share the same root problem – materialism. He states: ‘Wojtyla's philosophical personalism opposes the materialism of both Marxism and capitalism. Laborem exercens, the first social encyclical of the Wojtyla papacy continues the same approach by showing that capitalism and Marxism are based on what the pope calls “materialistic economism”, a form of materialism that gives priority to the objective rather than the subjective aspects of work’: The Moral Theology of Pope John Paul II (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2005), p. 219.

13 Centesimus Annus, §5. The inter-relationship between truth and freedom and how these are grounded in the Gospel was a central theme in many of John Paul II's encyclicals, see especially Redemptor Hominis (1979), Veritatis Splendor (1993) and Evangelium Vitae (1995). Likewise, Benedict XVI's Deus Caritas Est, with its emphasis on the centrality of the love of God and neighbour to authentic charitable service, can be read as a profound reaffirmation of John Paul II's link between the Gospel and the ‘social question’ (see in particular Deus Caritas Est, §§33‒8). This linkage was developed further in Caritas in Veritate (2009).

14 Redemptor Hominis (1979); Dives in Misericordia (1980).

15 Christifidelis Laici, §14; Lumen Gentium, §31 and §36.

16 Hittinger, Russell, ‘Social Roles and Ruling Virtues in Catholic Social Doctrine’, Annales Theologici 16/2 (2002), pp. 385408 ; idem, ‘Coherence of the Four Basic Principles’. On the definition of munus see Benveniste, Émile, Indo-European Language and Society, trans. Palmer, Elizabeth (Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami Press, 1973), p. 150 .

17 See e.g. Divini Redemptoris, §31, and Pacem in Terris, §68 and §77.

18 For a critique of Maritain's work along these lines, see Cavanaugh, William, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1998).

19 Johannes Althusius, Politica, ed. and trans. Frederick S. Carney (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1995), I.1. It is probable that Althusius derived his use of the term from Cicero (De re publica 1.25–7), although in Cicero's usage its meaning is restricted to the legal bond for the organised conduct of public life rather than an all-encompassing term for social relations.

20 As Latham, Robert notes: ‘While commentators since the seventeenth century have read Althusius as an early formulator of ideas about popular sovereignty, they have generally overlooked how he was actually vesting sovereignty or supreme power in the webs of relations that shape the possibilities for agency across a body politic . . . rather than a collective of persons’: ‘Social Sovereignty’, Theory, Culture and Society 17/4 (2000), pp. 118 , 6.

21 Maritain, Jacques, Man and the State (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951); idem, Integral Humanism: Temporal and Spiritual Problems of the New Christendom, trans. Joseph Evans (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1968), pp. 162–76.

22 Maritain, Integral Humanism, pp. 163 and 171.

23 Ibid., pp. 169–71, 186–95. A parallel distinction is made by Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno (1931), §§ 94–6, as a way of distinguishing a Christian corporatist vision of politics from fascist ones. On the Christian account corporatist and personalist forms of civic association and economic organisation are precisely a means of preventing the subsuming of all social relations to the political order.

24 Echoing Maritain, Pius XII declared that the state is an instrument rather than an end. Its role is to facilitate the ‘natural perfection of man’ and that the purpose of a juridical order ‘is not to dominate but to serve, to help the development and increase of society's vitality in the rich multiplicity of its ends’ (Pius XII, Christmas Address, 1942).

25 It should be noted that Catholic social teaching is insufficiently attentive to distinctions between ‘work’, ‘labour’ and ‘action’ in the generation of a common life and the realisation of personhood in relation to others. A contrast can be drawn here with the work of Hannah Arendt. See Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998 [1958]).

26 This is set out explicitly in John Paul II's encyclical Laborem Exercens (1981), which sees the nature and purpose of human work as the key to what it calls ‘the social question’; i.e. how, in the modern period, to make life more human. For an early statement along these lines see John Ryan, Distributive Justice (New York: Arno Press, 1978 [1916]).

27 Laborem Exercens, §5.24.

28 Christian democratic parties across Europe understood this well, if not theologically, then in practice. Instead of either complete laissez-faire economics or the nationalisation of industry and the formation of command economies, they advocated for the codetermination of the firm by workers and management. This could entail a variety of means of ownership ranging from shareholder to co-operative and mutual ownership. Codetermination and economic democracy was the new ‘third way’ between ‘Manchester’ and ‘Moscow’, allowing for both the independence of the firm and the participation of the worker within the firm's management, without involving the state as an overseer. See Chappel, Struggle for Europe's Soul, ch. 5; Glasman, Maurice, Unnecessary Suffering: Managing Market Utopia (London: Verso, 1996).

29 Pacem in Terris, §67.

30 Centesimus Annus, §46, frames support for a democratic system of government in the following terms: ‘The Church values the democratic system inasmuch as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices, guarantees to the governed the possibility of both electing and holding accountable those who govern them, and of replacing them through peaceful means when appropriate.’

31 Ibid.

32 Broadly stated democratic/civil society serves three inter-related roles: it is protective (securing space for the development of different forms of consociation), integrative (enabling the integration and communication between different associations) and transformative (generating critique, resistance and new ideas and inclusions).

33 Ibid.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Scottish Journal of Theology
  • ISSN: 0036-9306
  • EISSN: 1475-3065
  • URL: /core/journals/scottish-journal-of-theology
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed