World War II, Vatican II, and Catholic Support for Democracy

John McGreevy, dean of the College of Arts and Letters and professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, writes in Commonweal:

Exiled in the United States after the German army roared through his native France, feverishly working to rally anti-fascist Catholics in North and South America, philosopher Jacques Maritain insisted in a 1941 letter to his close friend, Yves Simon, also an exiled French philosopher and then teaching at Notre Dame, that democracy must now be understood as an “inspiration of the Gospel.” Indeed, he emphasized, “the Gospel works in history in a democratic direction.”

Maritain’s status as one of the most influential Catholics of the twentieth century—with influence on Catholic politicians in Europe, such as Konrad Adenauer of Germany; in South America, such as Eduardo Frei Montalva in Chile; and even in Africa, such as Léopold Senghor of Senegal—gives this claim of a connection between democracy and the Gospel unusual weight…

Scarred by the anticlerical attacks made by many nineteenth-century politicians and innately sympathetic to hierarchy, Catholic social thought developed with astonishingly little to say about the nature of the political community. Support for just wages certainly; support for democratic institutions, optional. As democracies collapsed in the 1920s and ’30s, church officials and Catholic intellectuals were often agnostic, even complacent. Famously, the Vatican negotiated defensive concordats with Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi Germany. More disturbingly, church officials endorsed authoritarian governments in Portugal, Spain, Austria, parts of South America, and Vichy France.

Only the cataclysm of World War II and the new relationship between Catholicism and politics sketched at the Second Vatican Council—again, inspired in part by Maritain—transformed Catholicism into a consistent ally of democratic governments. And in Chile during the Pinochet era, Spain during the dismantling of the Franco regime, Poland during the Solidarity movement, and the Philippines during the protests against Ferdinand Marcos, Catholic leaders advanced both human rights and democratic principles.

Now the United States endures a democratic crisis of its own.