4.4.1 How CST does and does not argue for democracy

Back to 4.3.9

Unit 4 Contents


Here is a short summary of what we have looked at in this unit, so brief it no doubt oversimplifies.  In the two centuries from the French Revolution to the papacy of Pope John Paul II, the Catholic Church’s teaching about democracy developed as follows:

from clear opposition to the version of democracy advocated by the radical French Revolutionaries (4.2.4), especially after the Civil Constitution of the Clergy of 1790 tried to subject the Church to direct state control,

through Leo XIII’s affirmation of democracy as one legitimate form of government among others, in line with the Church’s longstanding relative indifference among those forms (4.2.2),

to Vatican II’s ‘preferential option for constitutional democracy’, premised on recognition that this makes political participation possible (4.3.4),

– with this now qualified by what one writer calls “a degree of disenchantment”, expressed in the argument by John Paul II and Benedict XVI that Western democracies are losing sight of the dependence of human freedom on truth.1

How should we assess Catholic teaching on democracy?  What we could benefit from at this point is a clear and concise academic article which makes just such an assessment.  However none exists that is suitable for our purpose (at least not that I have been able to discover).  Therefore I shall point towards some lines of critical assessment that arise quite readily from all we have looked at.

At the end of the last screen, you were asked to consider whether there are any significant aspects of the whole subject of democracy which the CST statements studied in 4.3 do not discuss.

Here are three possible answers to this question:

  • political parties / pressure groups / political campaigning in general
  • the idea of consent, i.e. democracy as government by the consent of the people, and the related idea of ‘popular sovereignty’
  • the issue of whether there should be democracy within the Catholic Church itself.

None of these is addressed, except briefly, in the documents of CST we have looked at.   Maybe you thought of other important issues to do with democracy that have not come up either.  If so, you could post on the Unit 4 Comments page.

In relation to the first item in that list, political parties were in fact mentioned in the last reading under the heading ‘Instruments for political participation’ (Compendium, #413).  The main reason we have not discussed them (or other such instruments) is simply that we shall do so later in the module (in Unit 8).  Much of this will be about the practicalities of what democratic politics actually requires and, therefore, how to get involved.

On this and the next screen, we shall look at the second item in the above list, democracy as government by the consent of the people. After that we shall give attention to the question of whether there should be democracy in the Church’s own structures.

In order to focus on the issue of democratic consent, we shall bring in again the distinction of three different kinds of argument for democracy which was introduced just before we started to look at CST texts (in 4.2.5).  In summary, these three kinds of argument are:

(i) The classical republican argument for democracy

The republican way of arguing emphasizes two main things, first, that good government comes about when citizens actively participate in political deliberation and decision-making, and, second, that the proper aim of citizens’ participation is the good of the community, the common good.

(ii) The defensive, conservative argument for democracy

In this way of arguing, democratic procedures are defensive.  By making rulers accountable to voters in elections, they help to place checks or limits on those in government, and therefore they help to stop abuse of power.  To quote the second half of Reinhold Niebuhr’s maxim, “man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary”.2

(iii) The liberal, consent-based argument for democracy

The basic idea here is that political authority lies with all the people before it is held by any government in particular, and therefore no government has power legitimately unless it does so with the people’s consent, or at least that of a majority.  A democratic system is seen as a practical means of enabling the giving or withdrawal of consent.



How does what we find in CST about democracy relate to each of these three kinds of argument?

Which of them fits best with what we find in CST?  Which of them fits second best?

Moving beyond your first reaction, are there ways in which each of them shares some common ground with CST?


Let us consider them in turn.

First, it will be fairly obvious that the way CST has come to argue for democracy, with its emphases on participation and the common good, is wholly in line with the republican tradition.  Indeed CST could be said to be a contemporary articulation of exactly that political position, but one that has incorporated the principle of human dignity.  All are equally human; hence all are equally citizens. One historian of the Catholic Church’s relationship with democracy speaks of “the reconciliation of classical republicanism and Catholicism” during the post-WW2 period.3

This is most evident in the statement from Gaudium et Spes quoted earlier:

It is in full conformity with human nature that there should be juridico-political structures providing all citizens in an ever better fashion and without any discrimination with the practical possibility of freely and actively taking part in… public affairs. (#75, quoted on 4.3.4)

Second, in the context of World War Two itself, Pius XII had advocated participatory democracy partly for ‘defensive’ reasons.  As we saw (4.3.2), he called on people actively to participate rather than allowing themselves passively to be manipulated by those in power – such as had happened in Nazi Germany.  His argument implied that the mere existence of democratic procedures is not enough to hold back abusive governments, but that active participation is required.

Third, just as it is obvious that what we find in CST fits closely with the republican way of arguing for democracy, it will be equally obvious from what you read in 4.3 that there is not much at all in CST that engages with the ‘liberal, consent-based’ line of argument for democracy.  In fact, nowhere in the documents of modern CST is the word ‘consent’ used in connection with democracy or government.  More broadly, there is no significant discussion of the argument that political authority lies with free and equal persons before it is held by particular rulers and, therefore, that some idea of popular agreement to it is needed to explain how government is legitimate.

This is surprising.  As noted earlier, the idea of government by consent of the people has been central in modern discussion of democracy for more than 200 years, since it was expressed in the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 (4.2.5).

In short, what we find in CST fits with the ‘classical republican’ argument and with the ‘defensive’ argument (even though this is secondary), but it barely engages with the ‘consent-based’ argument.



Do you think this gives a fair account of how these three ways of arguing for democracy relate to what is in CST?


If your memory is very sharp, you might recall a particular passage in Pacem in Terris (1963) which appears to qualify, or even call into question, the claim that CST basically does not engage with the consent-based argument.  In the context of addressing citizens’ rights and duties, Pope John XXIII wrote this:

It is of course impossible to accept the theory which professes to find the original and single source of… a government’s right to command… in the mere will of human beings, individually or collectively. (#78; quoted on 4.3.3)

At first sight, some might say, this appears to reject the ‘consent-based’ way of arguing for democracy.  But the matter is not at all that simple.  As I noted when quoting this statement earlier, it is totally unsurprising that a pope would reject the view that political authority lies originally in the people and not in God – because Christianity has always affirmed that it originates in God (see 2.2.7).

But, adjusting the picture in a small but fundamental way, what if political authority is seen as granted by God to the people before being held by particular rulers?  That passage just quoted does not reject this view.  Moreover, as we shall see on the next screen, this way of seeing it has been expressed in Catholic thought over a long period of time – several centuries.  Therefore it gives a basis for serious engagement by CST with the ‘consent-based’ kind of argument.

I have pointed out a few times that the total amount of discussion in CST documents of democracy is surprisingly limited – and that in the all the statements of the 1960s there was only one use of either ‘democracy’ or ‘democratic’.  We can now see clearly what is missing: a proper engagement with the consent-based way of arguing for democracy that has been so prominent in the formation of modern democratic politics.

Even if this statement needs certain qualifications, our reading of CST documents shows that it is basically true.  Although Catholic teaching took up the defensive way of arguing for democracy in the 1940s, and is rightly seen as having given an endorsement of republican, participatory democracy in the 1960s, it has barely addressed the consent-based way of arguing for democracy.  Here is an apparent gap in CST.  Identifying this is perhaps the most significant point that can be made in a critical assessment of CST on democracy.



To what extent does this do justice to what you read in the documents of CST in the last part of this unit?

Why do you think there is this gap in CST?

Can you think of ways in which this assessment needs to be qualified – i.e. aspects of CST that do comment on the ‘liberal, consent based’ way of arguing for democracy, directly or indirectly?

If you can come up with any, do they express a favourable or a critical position on it?




End of 4.4.1

Go to 4.4.2 Consent in Catholic political thought: the ‘transmission theory’

Module B outline

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  1. The phrase quoted is from Perreau-Saussine, Catholicism and Democracy (referenced at 4.2.4 n. 3), p. 132. 

  2. This was quoted in full and referenced on 4.2.5

  3. Perreau-Saussine, Catholicism and Democracy, p. 141. 

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