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.