I was just wondering how did the papacy respond to democracy when it first arose in Europe? On one hand, in a country that was, according to its sovereign, a Catholic country, democracy would be very dangerous as it might replace the sovereign due to the popular religion recently affected by the reformation. However, another country that had a populace largely Catholic but it's sovereign recently aligned as Protestant, democracy would be a great way to maintain papal control. Then again democracy was related to real separation of church and state, at least as established in the American Constitution, so this makes a papal response to democracy even more unpredictable.

So how did the papacy respond to the emergence of democracy? Was it in favor, opposition or some mixture of both? Did a succession of popes have the same response or was their a lot of flip-flops among succeeding popes over the subject of democracy?

  • Mike I can't answer you question but it occurs to me I don't know how you want your question answered. do you want from the protestant perspective or the catholic or both? What about tagging either?
    – user4060
    Jun 9, 2013 at 7:01
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    @caseyr547 - I think this question is something more related to historical facts then one's interpretation of them. Either the office of the pope has supported democratic movements or he has not, or one Pope did then another not. I am not sure a Protestant or Catholic would arrive at any different finding as it should be pretty much evidenced from historical accounts. Furthermore the question is not really about whether democracy is inherently better than a monarchy, its more about a historical position that the papacy took when democracy started to arise in world history.
    – Mike
    Jun 9, 2013 at 8:15
  • Mike I met a Catholic history student from a Catholic college and he was able to view even the Crusades in a positive light towards the Catholic church which I have heard from no other. history.stackexchange.com/questions/7915/crusades-motivation
    – user4060
    Jun 9, 2013 at 8:24
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    I think this question would be better asked on History.SE. You're asking (in the comments at least) for a historical perspective. And since democracy arose in different countries at different times, and in different forms, it may not be answerable anyway. Jun 9, 2013 at 9:00
  • @AndrewLeach - I can almost see your point but am specifically looking at when democracy first arose. I think around the time of the American Constitution / French Revolution plus or minus 200 years. Not for when it arose in 'each' country, but when it arose 'first' in the world. Secondly I am looking for precise knowledge on the history of thought within the papacy, therefore this is really a Christian history question, not general history. History.SE might not be specialized enough to deal more with a strictly Christian related history question like this. Cheers.
    – Mike
    Jun 9, 2013 at 9:09

2 Answers 2


One short answer: 1892

The "Ralliement" of the Catholic Church to democracy is often related to the Encyclical "Inter innumeras sollicitudines" (20 Feb 1892) inciting French Catholics to stop trying to restore a King ruling by divine right. France as the biggest Catholic Nation played a great role. However, during the Enlightenment, since the ideas of universal democracy were mainly carried by Libertines, their scriptures were often forbidden.

Two explanations: The meaning of democracy has evolved, and it is only a political system.

"Democracy" was seen (until the eve of the 20th century) as what we call nowadays direct democracy, i.e. the Greek model, with a direct imperative mandate. While considered a very nice model by all (including the church), it was seen as inapplicable to modern nations. How would you gather each week several millions of citizens to make public decisions? How would you use illiterate men elected by their fellow peasants to make a wartime decision?

In Monarchy-ruled France the ultimate national consultative assembly (which also had some power over the Parliaments), the Etats Generaux had not been summoned since 1684 and it took more than a year to gather them in 1788 (the members were elected with an imperative mandate through the "cahiers de doléances" (lists of grievances). A democracy as we know it today seemed very unrealistic, even if it seemed a very good form of government for free cities like the Italian cities).

The famous and very influential Savoyard writer Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821) had previously opposed the stammering democracy of France and the United States as a treacherous form of oligarchy.

The expression of a "General Will" could not be made through votes according to him. Maistre thus attacked the base of the Republic; the French theory of "Représentation Nationale" (no need to translate) which forbid every form of Imperative mandate (the origin of the French rejection of lobbyism). He took the example of the French "Terror" (1793-1795) during which the young Republic obviously failed. He hailed instead the Papal electoral system as the best form of "democracy".

So there was no consensus on "democracy" in Europe until the 20th century (if you consider England a monarchy at that time).

To put it together it is a political question which the church did not really debate (which system is the better? Personally I see no reason to be a fan of democracy -specially if you separate it from the state of law- since it favours corruption and short term politics, but it buys social peace and it enables people to fully enjoy their dignity). But the Church always stressed the equal human dignity at least since the medieval time.

I would separate this from the question of papal control, since the popes had been struggling since ever to maintain control over the Catholic Churchs themselves in Europe (most notably England, France, and the Holy Roman Empire).

For example in France a lot of clergymen rallied the Revolution for their own purposes in this struggle, on all sides (the struggle for the control of the church in France since the 17th century opposed mainly the King backed by some French noble bishops, the Pope and his jesuit supporters as well as noblemen opposed to the King, and the Jansenists reformators backed by some noblemen and bourgeois). Catholics seen as overly favouring the Pope over the French Bishops were called ultramontains (looking over the mountains i.e. over the Alps to Rome) and the ones on the other sides were called gallicans (as in Anglican, Gallica beeing the Latin geographical name for France).

  • There are some interesting points well made here, especially the Church's opposition to 'divine right'. However I would disagree with your characterisation of democracy as not existing until the 20th century. In England at least, the monarch required at least some support parliament to rule since the 16th century; the balance of power shifted over the next few hundred years, but it clearly rested with parliament by the 19th century. Jun 10, 2013 at 15:38
  • Yes that is a difficult question that I ignored because England was rather an enemy of the Pope's authority, and because the English Parliament primarily had a judiciary power, and I choose to see the separation of powers independently of democracy. From the same point of view the state of law guaranteed by the Bill of Rights (and the Habeas Corpus) are more judiciary than politic. And finally the voting system did not pretend to lay on the equal dignity of the people but rather on property.
    – Yves
    Jun 10, 2013 at 17:45
  • Am I correct to say that in the 'Ralliement' the pope was trying pressure the French catholics to accept democracy but all in all the papacy has never really took a hard stand one way or another on democracy as a principle and even if that means separation of church and state through democratic movements the papacy was more or less ok with it at the time? I think you answer is good I am just having some difficulty confirming I understand it. A quote from somewhere might help polish your conclusions as it seems accurate to me. I would probably accept this answer with a little clarity added.(+1)
    – Mike
    Jun 11, 2013 at 4:42
  • I'm still looking for a very clear quote I once knew, which explained that refusal to take a clear stand. The confusion in my answer is there because I don't want to expand into the history of Christian Democracy, which is another theme, as is Separation of Church and State (1905 in France). Some explanations to my answer: 1) The specificity of the French situation: France had been at war from 1792 to 1871 in a continous terrible civil, religious and external war. Pacification was needed and it wasn't possible without the Catholics who still fought for monarchy.
    – Yves
    Jun 11, 2013 at 15:15
  • 2) The Republic or democracy in France was just beginning to work The only time people massively voted they elected Louis Bonaparte in 1850, who quickly became Napoleon III in 1852. Also for example the Republicans denied on several occasion the right to vote for women because women were supposed to be massively Catholic and monarchist. A lot of people in Europe linked the Republic to war, Terror, religious persecutions, and so on. Only after 1871 the republic managed to keep peace, and most MPs were catholics and monarchists (but couldn't choose a king).
    – Yves
    Jun 11, 2013 at 15:22

Though I am a devout Catholic myself, I have to say that the Church didn't support democracy in general. The Church has always fought against communist dictatorship, but when it comes to right wing dictators the Church was not very particular about fighting them.

The Church under late Pope Bl. John Paul II, has opposed many of the communist dictatorships in eastern Europe and South America. Poland can be considered as an excellent example where the Church's influence has helped strengthen democracy.

But sadly when it comes to Pro-Church right wing dictators like Francisco Franco or António de Oliveira Salazar, the Church took a soft stand.

So in general we can conclude that the Church do stand with the poor and oppressed, but does not involve in an open fight for democracy.

  • DDD - thanks for the insightful comments. I am really wondering what the papal position was at the time of the rise of democracy. You comments thought seeming quite valid and insightful seem to be based on more modern history. Still... +1 for the quality of the information.
    – Mike
    Jun 9, 2013 at 8:18

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