Christian Democracy can be described as a political ideology that has largely been shaped by the social teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, which has given rise to political parties representing the middle of the political spectrum, between liberalism and socialism. Although many Christian Democratic political parties became less associated with the Catholic Church over time, such parties have had the greatest electoral success in European and Latin American countries that have significant Catholic populations, such as Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Venezuela. While Christian Democratic ideology and political parties had a significant impact on state and society during the second half of the twentieth century, the end of the cold war and the demise of left-oriented social movements and political parties significantly weakened Christian Democratic parties by the end of the twentieth century. The rise of the Left during the first decade of the twenty-first century in certain Latin American countries raises interesting questions about the possibility of a rebirth of Christian Democracy and a reinvigoration of Christian Democratic parties.
As a political ideology, Christian Democracy originated in response to the rise of liberalism in Europe and Latin America during the nineteenth century. It was subsequently shaped by the spread of socialism in these regions during the twentieth century. Although there is evidence that many Europeans and Latin Americans sympathized with liberals, who argued for an end to monarchies and to the privileges enjoyed by the church vis-à-vis the state, it also became clear that, unlike the radical liberals, most Europeans and Latin Americans believed that religious faith and values deserved a privileged place in society. In European countries such as Austria, Belgium, Italy, Germany, and Prussia, liberals suffered stunning electoral defeats during the late nineteenth century, largely thanks to the mobilizing power of religion.
After it became clear that religion was capable of mobilizing voters, what came to be called or categorized as Christian Democratic political parties were founded by laypersons and some clergy. Contrary to what one might assume, Catholic bishops and the Catholic Church’s hierarchy tried to prevent the formation of these political parties. During the middle of the nineteenth century, Catholic bishops feared that the formation of Catholic political parties would imply that the Catholic Church endorsed democratic political systems that might not give rise to governments respectful of what the bishops considered to be the rightful place of the church in society. By the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, the Catholic hierarchy refused to fully endorse what came to be called Christian Democratic parties, fearing that if these parties lost elections the church would forfeit the few privileges it might otherwise manage to maintain under democratic systems.
Although they officially kept their distance from Christian Democratic parties, church leaders came to recognize the value of, and to provide ideological guidance to, organized Catholic political activity. In 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued an encyclical letter titled Rerum Novarum, which criticized liberalism and socialism. It reaffirmed the right to private property (subject to the good of society), promoted a living wage, defended the rights of workers to organize in order to achieve a living wage, and encouraged the formation of civil society. Essentially, Rerum Novarum reflected and reinforced the principles already promoted by Catholic political parties in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria. After Rerum Novarum, Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quadregesimo Anno (1931) had the greatest impact on the development of Christian Democratic ideology. Quadregesimo Anno reaffirmed the teachings of Rerum Novarum, but it placed an even greater emphasis on the importance of subsidiarity and the rightful role of civil society. According to the principle of subsidiarity, decisions should be made, to the extent possible, by the people whose lives would be affected by the decisions. Thus, while rejecting unfettered free-market systems, it rejected the idea of an all-powerful state and centralized economic planning. Quadregesimo Anno promoted a corporatist framework, according to which there would be institutionalized collaboration between labor and capital within the state in order to prevent class conflict and promote the common good.
The official recognition and guidance offered by Leo XIII and Pius XI spawned further development of the Christian Democratic ideological orientation by Catholic intellectuals. Foremost among them was the French philosopher Jacques Maritain, who, in his book Integral Humanism (1936), argued that a society in which there is political democracy, social pluralism, and religious freedom is the most Christian society.
While Christian Democratic parties have varied greatly in terms of ideological emphasis, they had a significant impact in several European and some Latin American countries during the second half of the twentieth century, particularly Italy, Germany, and Chile. However, most of these parties had become very weak by the close of the twentieth century. In large part, the decline of Christian Democratic political parties may be the result of the end of the cold war and the demise of the radical Left. Christian Democrats have typically attracted people who were wary of polar ideological extremes. With the demise of radical socialism at the end of the twentieth century, Christian Democrats found themselves searching for new ideological positions and new ways to distinguish themselves from political conservatives and social liberals.
The rise of left-oriented and centralizing political leaders during the first decade of the twenty-first century in certain Latin American countries, especially Bolivia and Venezuela, raises interesting questions about the rebirth of Christian Democracy. It is possible that Christian Democratic movements will be born or reinvigorated wherever and whenever the extreme Left or extreme Right gains popularity and power. However, there are many other factors that may affect the feasibility of Christian Democracy, such as poverty, inequality, the vitality of the Catholic Church, the extent to which the church cuts across class, and the extent to which it has been involved in education and the development of intellectuals and politicians. Of course, it is also possible that a new version of Christian Democracy will develop that will be influenced less by Catholic Christianity than by Evangelical Christianity, which has been growing in much of Latin America. For those interested in religion and politics, and more specifically in the feasibility of Christian Democracy, the twenty-first century promises to be an interesting period.
SEE ALSO Decentralization; Socialism, Christian; Vatican, The
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Kalyvas, Stathis. 1996. The Rise of Christian Democracy in Europe. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Mainwaring, Scott, and Timothy R. Scully. 2003. The Diversity of Christian Democracy in Latin America. In Christian Democracy in Latin America: Electoral Competition and Regime Conflicts, ed. Scott Mainwaring and Timothy R. Scully. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Maritain, Jacques. 1936. Integral Humanism. Trans. Joseph W. Evans. New York: Scribner, 1968.
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Sigmund, Paul. 2003. The Transformation of Christian Democratic Ideology: Transcending Left or Right or Whatever Happened to the Third Way? In Christian Democracy in Latin America: Electoral Competition and Regime Conflicts, ed. Scott Mainwaring and Timothy R. Scully. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Robert A. Dowd C.S.C.