Does Vatican II Represent a U-Turn in the Catholic Church’s Teaching on Liberal Democracy?

In: International Journal of Public Theology

Abstract

This article analyses the attitude of the Roman Catholic Church towards liberal democracy since the nineteenth century, charting shifts in emphasis and tone under Pope Leo XIII in the late nineteenth century and under Pius XII during the Second World War. It then examines how, if at all, church teaching in this area changed during and after the Second Vatican Council. Attention is paid to the historical context and doctrinal status of these teachings. It is argued that the church position on democracy over the last two centuries is characterized by development and continuity rather than disjuncture and contradiction. This position was neither as hostile in the nineteenth century nor as sympathetic in the twentieth century as is claimed by those who regard Vatican II as a ‘U-turn’ in church teaching. Liberal democracy remains a contested terrain and the church position towards it remains one of critical dialogue.

  • 3)

    Michael P. Hornsby-Smith, An Introduction to Catholic Social Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006) p. 97. The perception of the Council as volte-face relates to much more than the church’s attitude to liberal democracy: two other, and arguably more immediately significant changes for the post-conciliar church were those relating to the liturgy and the proper attitude to other religions (see Vatican Council II, ‘Sacrosanctum Concilium: Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy’ (1963), [accessed 30 April 2010]; Vatican Council II, ‘Nostra Aetate: Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions’ (1965), [accessed 30 April 2010]; Vatican Council II, ‘Lumen Gentium: Dogmatic Constitution on the Church’ (1964), article 16, [accessed 10 January 2010].

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  • 7)

    See Michael Davies, The Second Vatican Council and Religious Liberty (Long Prairie: Neumann Press, 1992).

  • 8)

    Pope Benedict XVI, ‘A Proper Hermeneutic for the Second Vatican Council’, pp. ix–xv in Matthew L. Lamb and Matthew Levering, eds, Vatican II: Renewal Within Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. x.

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  • 9)

    Gavin D’Costa, ‘Hermeneutics and the Second Vatican Council’s Teachings: Establishing Roman Catholic Theological Grounds for Religious Freedoms in Relation to Islam. Continuity or Discontinuity in the Catholic Tradition?’, Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, 20:3 (2009), 277–90.

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  • 12)

    D’Costa, ‘Hermeneutics and the Second Vatican Council’s Teachings’, 279.

  • 14)

    John Henry Newman, Essay on the Development of Doctrine (London: James Toovey, 1845), pp. 64–94. The seven tests of true development of an idea are: (1) preservation of type, (2) continuity of principles, (3) power of assimilation, (4) early anticipation, (5) logical sequence, (6) preservative additions, and (7) chronic continuance.

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  • 23)

    Harrison, Religious Liberty and Contraception, p. 34.

  • 24)

    Ibid., p. 35.

  • 25)

    In his famous tract of 1644, Areopagitica, Milton argues for freedom of speech and expression and against censorship (although he proposes that Catholics be excluded from these freedoms): ‘And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?’ (John Milton, Areopagitica (1644), [accessed 28 May 2010]).

  • 26)

    Harrison, Religious Liberty and Contraception, p. 35.

  • 37)

    Pope Pius IX, (1864) ‘Quanta Cura Condemning Current Errors’ (1864), para. 1, [accessed 9 January 2010].

  • 40)

    See Newman, A Letter Addressed to the Duke of Norfolk, p. 273.

  • 46)

    See John Courtney Murray, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005), p. 66. In contrast, the American constitution constructed a framework more congenial to Catholicism than that adopted in much of continental Europe.

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  • 81)

    Newman, A Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, pp. 265–75.

  • 82)

    Davies, The Second Vatican Council and Religious Liberty, pp. 28–36 (it is notable that in his discussion of the establishment question, Davies confines himself almost entirely to quoting Catholic authors rather than the Popes themselves).

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  • 86)

    Ibid., p. 374.

  • 90)

    As cited by Harrison, Religious Liberty and Contraception, pp. 66–7.

  • 98)

    As cited by Harrison, Religious Liberty and Contraception, p. 19.

  • 99)

    Ibid., p. 75 (original italics).

  • 112)

    As cited by Harrison, Religious Liberty and Contraception, p. 75.

  • 113)

    See, for example, J. L. Hyland, Democratic Theory: The Philosophical Foundations (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995); Robert A. Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989) and Robert A. Dahl, On Democracy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

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