The Perils of No Christian Democratic Tradition

I don’t really fit into any neat political categories, but if asked to come down on one side or other, I would probably choose Christian Democracy, particularly as it has evolved in Europe. After numerous false starts, the post-war Christian Democracy movement was an attempt to heal the rift between the Catholic Church and the modern liberal state. It did so by leaning heavily on Catholic social teaching, twinning solidarity – with its emphasis on the “social market” and the proper role of the state in economic life – and subsidiarity, with its support of the family, unions and other mediating institutions, and the supranational enterprise of European integration. And indeed, this support went beyond mere lip service – in many countries, unions themselves became aligned with the various political traditions, including Christian Democracy, and the pro-family stance was reflected in actual economic policies (including fair wages and ample leave time) – this stands in stark contrast to their American “pro-family” counterparts.

There was never been a Christian Democracy movement in the United States. Part of this reflects the very American history of Church-state relations. Christian Democracy is proud to embrace Christianity, the Christian past, and Christian culture. It will support the state funding of religious schools, the use of religious symbols in the everyday life, and will question whether a predominantly Islamic state like Turkey has a future in the European Union. The United States has a very different history in this regard. Not only is the separation more ironclad, but Catholics have been viewed historically as suspicious outsiders in a dominant Protestant culture. Hence Catholic culture developed in parallel to mainstream culture. We all know the history.

What does this mean for political alignment? With the risk of simplifying, most European countries have political blocs centered on Christian Democracy and its secular counterpart, Social Democracy. There is often a minority liberal party whose fortunes tend to ebb and flow over time. In the United States, it is very different. Here, at least since the 1960s, two dominant parties have coalesced around a Social Democratic movement (the Democrats) and a liberal movement (the Republicans). Catholics were traditionally aligned with the Democrats, the party of immigrants, workers, and minorities. And remember, the area of overlap between Christian Democracy and Social Democracy in the economic sphere is broad (Pope Benedict has made this very point in the past). But in the 1960s, the Democrats shifted dramatically in a secular direction, and this shift was exploited by people like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

And so we have a very peculiar situation of the liberal free-market party trying to become a party where Christians could find a home. But a square peg cannot fit in a round hole. And yet, the dominant strand of American Protestantism – which has become increasingly at odds with Protestantism (and indeed Christianity) as practised elsewhere in the world – does seem to fit snugly into this hole. A little too snugly. For just as American liberalism represents an undistilled form of Enlightenment-era individualism, so does American Protestantism represent a unique brand of cultural Calvinism/ Gnosticism that elevates individual virtue over the common good and promotes a notion of American exceptionalism in the world.

For Catholics, this is ultimately a dead end. When Catholics and evangelicals join together in support of common positions, it is almost always the case that the narrow set of evangelical concerns dominates the wider spectrum of Catholic concerns. Today those issues are abortion, gay marriage, and religious liberty. These issues are important, but – for Catholics at least – cannot be treated in isolation. Played down are notions of economic justice, war and peace, the right to health care, environmental stewardship etc. It is not really surprising that the issues that gave the Catholic Church in the United States such a powerful voice in the recent past (think of the peace and economic justice pastorals) have faded in importance as more and more Catholics link arms with their brothers and sisters on the evangelical right.

But it is not just a matter of broadening the issues that form part of the all-encompassing culture of life. It is about cobbling together a Catholic culture in a hostile country, hemmed in by secular humanists on one side and adherents of the American religion on the other. Or of reclaiming such a culture. For as Catholics have become increasingly integrated in the broader culture over the years, they adopt the mindset of American liberalism, and their concerns blend into the concerns of their evangelical peers.

As more and more American Catholics adopt the attitude and concerns of the political evangelicals, so do these attitudes and concerns increasingly diverge from the global Catholic mainstream. And so we see European Catholics scratching their heads over American Catholic reaction to Obama. We see abortion elevated to a level above all other issues, often swamping the right to universal healthcare. We see calls for a subsidiarity that is divorced from solidarity, and a liberal free market approach to economic life. We see a neglect of Catholic social teaching, or an attempt to blend it with free-market liberalism. We see a glorification of the American military, and the misguided belief in the ability of war to fix the world’s problems. These are all errors inherent in American liberalism and the American religion. And while it is easy to blame people like Richard Neuhaus, George Weigel, and Michael Novak, we also need to be honest and lay some of the blame on John Courtney Murray for his excessively optimistic attempt to align Catholic teaching with the tenets of American liberalism.

There is no Christian Democratic tradition in the United States, and such a tradition is unlikely to develop any time soon. So what should Catholics do? A first step would be to take up the challenge laid down by Cardinal George and try to build (re-build?) a Catholic culture that is at once part of American public life and removed from it, one that is more aligned with global Catholicism. Of course, entry into the public sphere means some kind of accommodation with the dominant political forces – secular humanism and Calvinist-tinged liberalism. To seek some goals, alliances will have to be formed and compromises made. But let’s always try to act as Catholics first, united in common purpose around shared goals, rather than be enticed by these alien philosophical traditions.

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  • Kurt

    MM —

    I appreciate this post. I found it stimulating. I would be pleased if many took up your call.

    I do think you make one possible misreading of the Christian Democratic tradition when you wrote “After numerous false starts, the post-war Christian Democracy movement was an attempt to heal the rift between the Catholic Church and the modern liberal state.

    Christian Democracy was reformulated in the immediate postwar period in a way that still drew from the intellectual font of Catholic Social Teaching, but there was a deliberate decision by both CD and the Church to end the previous confessional nature of the CD movement. Since the war, Christian Democracy has been a secular political movement (which is no slur against it). Post war Christian Democracy also filled the void on the center-right as conservativism lost all popular support due to its collaboration with fascism.

    While the inter-war period might be described as a time when Christian Democracy movement attempted to heal the rift between the Catholic Church and the modern liberal state, after the war the party realized being boxed in as a confessional party limited their electoral appeal while the Church realized being tied to a particular political movement limited her evangelical mission. It was an amicable and uncontested divorce.

  • Morning’s Minion

    Fair observation, Kurt. I didn’t want to get into the messy relationship between Catholic Church and state in the pre-war period!

  • Blackadder

    Catholics were traditionally aligned with the Democrats, the party of immigrants, workers, and minorities.

    It’s true that Catholics traditionally aligned with the Democratic party. What this overlooks, though, is that for a huge chunk of that period the Democratic party *was* the classically liberal party in America, whereas the Republican party was the party of progressives. The reversal only started around the turn of the century, and wasn’t complete until FDR (it’s not a coincidence that Al Smith, who as Democratic nominee in 1928 was the first Catholic presidential nominee of a major party, went on to front the Liberty League).

  • S.B.

    It sounds really weird to use the word “traditionally” in the same sentence as describing the Democrats as the party of “minorities.” Not for the 100 years they pushed slavery and segregation, they weren’t.

  • Morning’s Minion


    Al Smith was a progressive up to and including his presidential run. His later career was marked more by hatred of FDR than anything else. He’s the proto-Joe Lieberman!

  • Kurt


    You are correct about the evolution of the Democratic Party, but it with that movement towards progressive/New Deal politics that Catholics were drawn to the Democratic Party.

    Prior to the Civil War, Catholics had no particular Party preference. After the Civil War, Irish-Americans fsvored the Democratic Party. But German Catholics did not except when the GOP tried to push Protestant morality (hence it was the Democrat’s support for “Rum” in 1884 that also brought in “Romanism.”)

    Around the turn of the century, Southern and Eastern European Catholics tended to vote Republican.

    The New Deal, proto-New Deal initiatives and most of all, the CIO, helped create a new social vision that rejected every aspect of Socialism that was anti-clerical but promoted a progressive economic agenda. This drew millions of Catholics to the Democratic Party.

  • Zach

    Contrary to what you say, Catholicism does not mandate the establishment of a particular political configuration. There is no Catholic obligation to promote democratic socialism. To the extent that you say this, you distort the truth.

    Further, it is a fallible judgment of yours that faithful Catholics think the common good is best served by limited government and free markets are not concerned with social issues such as “economic justice, war and peace, the right to health care, environmental stewardship etc.” This is a convenient caricature to attack, but it is not true of an average conservative Catholic, or even of the representatives you name: Richard Neuhaus, George Weigel, Michael Novak and John Courtney Murray. It is close to slander to say that these people are unconcerned with the gross injustices of which you speak.

    This persistent distortion of the motives of other people with whom you disagree hurts your arguments. You would be more effective if you conceded that your political judgments do not have divine sanction.

  • Morning’s Minion

    Where did I say my political judgments have “divine sanction”? I will say this – the Catholic church has not fully adapted to the age of liberalism yet. The Christian Democracy experiment is the best attempt to do so.

    What remains in force is the Church’s teachings condemning the twin rocks of shipwreck – collectivism and individualism. While collectivism has largely been consigned to the dustbin of history, individualism is still alive and well in America. Like it or not, the social teaching of the Church sees a role for the state in the economic order.

  • Zach

    Two comments:

    You are consistently arguing your political opinions are the only valid opinions for a believing faithful Catholic to have. Your claim is that your opinions are wholly consonant with Church teaching and that other attempts (such as those of Neuhaus, Weigel, Novak, Murray) to incorporate Catholic Social Teaching into political judgments are ultimately wrongheaded because they are not sufficiently Catholic. I think this is tantamount to claiming your opinions have the authority of the Church, which is to say they have the authority of God Himself.

    Secondly: Individualism is not identical with political conservatism, and authentic political conservatism is wholly antithetical to individualism. See the work of Roger Scruton, Peter Augustine Lawler, Patrick Deneen, James Schall et al.

    And for the record I would love to see the social teaching of the Church play a role in our political life.

  • Sam Rocha

    Morning’s Minion’s arguments may not have divine sanction, but mine sure as hell do.

  • Kurt

    Morning’s Minion’s arguments may not have divine sanction, but mine sure as hell do.

    So do my views on several legislative proposals. Later today I am sending letters to some members of Congress telling them they shouldn’t go to communion because they disagree with me.

  • Michael J. Iafrate

    Great post, MM.

  • Frank Muennemann


    I don’t find conservatives like Weigel, Novak and Murray “wrongheaded because they are not sufficiently Catholic” in their attempts to incorporate Catholic social teaching. I find them wrongheaded because they frequently espouse positions which are diametrically opposed to Catholic social teaching. As far as I can tell, they aren’t trying so much to incorporate Catholic principles as to harness them to undergird their free market ideals. A glaring example is Weigel’s “platypus” comment on Caritas in Veritate.

    Even when they write about abortion (the conservatives’ preferred litmus test for Catholic “authenticity”), their underlying motivations sound more authoritarian and individualistic than Catholic. That’s better than the Pelosi-Biden axis, but still falls short of being fully Catholic.

  • David Raber


    Putting the issue of abortion aside, if you do not see that Catholic social teaching is much closer to social democracy than to free-market “liberalism,” then you are blind.

    If the question is who is trying to fit Catholic teaching into a preconceived mold, or to reconcile it with one’s own preferred ideas, the facts are plain, and you can only get so far by accusing someone of being holier-than-thou.

  • Zach

    Frank: Can you cite a particular point of opposition to Catholic teaching? The Weigel essay you reference is not such an example.

    David: Catholic social teaching doesn’t lay out a plan for organizing society. It is primarily a set of social principles, i.e. moral principles derived from the Gospel to inform the way we organize our lives together. Yes, it condemns markets detached from morality and the common good. As a Catholic, and as someone with an ounce of common sense, I am in total agreement. But Catholic Social Teaching does not suggest the best way to organize society is democratic socialism. Nor does it say the best way to organize society is democratic capitalism. This is a judgment made based on your reading of CST and your judgment of how it applies to our current social circumstances. Note that this judgment is dependent on your ability to read and understand CST, your knowledge of the current political and social climate, and your practical wisdom, which is required for understanding and evaluating all of these things together

    It is our job to work to implement the principles espoused in social teaching in our common politics – a politics we share with non-Catholics who do not give assent to Catholic Teaching. As Catholics thinking about politics we should consider this fact as well.

    And I’m not sure what you’re getting at with your second paragraph – it doesn’t seem to reference anything related to me.

  • Frank Muennemann


    Thanks for your challenge. Since I have a long day at work, I won’t be able to respond completely, but I want to acknowledge the challenge.

    It is indeed difficult to point out a particular point of opposition to a specific (narrow) teaching; Weigel is an intelligent man who won’t say “the poor are responsible for their own problems” though much of his writing supports that position.

    The platypus essay exemplifies an approach which seems to me very much like “cafeteria Catholicism” with an elegant cover: Some parts of the encyclical are “genuine,” while others are not. Though the “seamless garment” seems to be worn by progressives much more often than conservatives, it expresses the most important part of Catholic thought itself: that consistency and radical (going to the roots) application of Christ’s message is part of the message itself. Attempts to rationalize or separate parts of the Gospel or soft-pedal their application are subtle forms of opposition.

    More later,…

  • David Raber

    Zach, you write:

    “Catholic Social Teaching does not suggest the best way to organize society is democratic socialism.”

    I guess it all depends on how we define “democratic socialism,” but if we define that roughly as a system wherein there is significant government regulation of the economy and other robust measures for promoting the common good–while curtailing private property rights as little as possible and maintaining a democratic system–then I would say that CST strongly “suggests” “democratic socialism” or something a lot like it.

    Perhaps you can at least admit that in the terms of our current political discourse in the USA, CST “suggests” policies that are left of center on most issues.

    Please, be like Wm. F. Buckley and disagree with CST if you want (it would not be like denying the divinity of Christ!), but do not try to hedge and fudge any way you can to make it not mean what it says.

  • Kurt

    Putting the issue of abortion aside, if you do not see that Catholic social teaching is much closer to social democracy…

    Social democracy does not support abortion rights. In fact an amendment was proposed at the XVIIIth International Congress adding abortion rights to the Declaration of Principles and it was voted down.

  • smf

    I have a few issues that I believe need to be given further thought, as well as some areas of disagreement.

    First, the idea of a non-sectarian party being the best vehicle for full and authentic application of Catholic social teaching seems uncertain. It may be a political necessity to be non-sectarian, but it certainly is not a moral one. Can any party ever make best use of Catholic social teaching without also accepting and endorsing those teachings?

    Many of the problems some have with, for example Catholic Republicans, are the alliances they make with certain other religiously motivated voters. It seems any non-sectarian effort would suffer either from compromise of its ideals or its methods in attempting to be “big tent”.

    Further, the Christian Democratic tradition seems to accept as a given that Democracy is the ideal form of Christian government. However, arguments can certainly be made against democracy from the Christian perspective, as well as from the secular philosophical tradition. Democracy, for example, in its decayed, form is often the worst form of tyranny.

    Clear distinction must, I think, be made between such portion of Catholic social teaching which is binding, and such portion is essentially prudential. Both must be given careful consideration, however, much of what is prudential is often influenced by the trends and fads of the secular world. As is evidenced by many of the problems in the Church, either the people making some of the declarations don’t follow their own advice, or it wasn’t good advice to begin with. We must assent to that which is doctrine and dogma, and even give obediance to much that is not. However, often times particular judgements regarding economics, politics, and public policy get dressed up in religious language, but non the less have no binding force.

    Finally, I must say that socialism (at least the modern political and economic theory and system of that name) must be denounced, as must all its forms. The unhealthy focus and war between individual and collective goods must in the end give way to a theory of the common good if anything like justice is ever to be achieved.

    My associate pastor gave a homily this most recent Sunday on the issue of social justice. He rather clearly spelled out the Christian duty to obey the Church’s social teaching and work for real justice in the world. At the same time he clearly laid out that full justice will not and can not be established until the coming of Christ, and that attempts to do that which only Christ can do will result in dissaster. Rarely does one hear both sides of this issue put in perspective and balance quite like that.

    (As an asside, he is an interesting priest. Most people would say he is politically liberal. Yet when describing the key characteristic needed by a bishop, he said a bishop must be a conservative.)

  • Zach


    Of course, Weigel would never say such a thing because it’s absurd. But again, you have to be able to identify a particular point of opposition in order to have any ground in this argument. I could claim you are opposed to Catholic Teaching, but if I couldn’t point out a particular instance, I would have no argument and I would be committing calumny.

    Further: Politics requires that we prioritize. This a practical truth; insofar as it is true it is part of the Gospel. Having our battles prioritized does not mean we ignore or neglect the unity and the radical nature of the Gospel. It means that we understand given the circumstances certain things are more important than others. This is entirely reasonable, and indeed, it is the position of the Church. The Church teaches that certain issues like abortion are fundamental. As Mother Teresa said, “In a country where a woman can kill her unborn child, what is left to save?”

    Further this does not mean we are neglecting the Gospel. Indeed it may even mean we are embracing it more fully. Again the Gospel is not a political programme. Christ is not Caesar nor did he intend to be. Christ came to save souls.

    Weigel would not say all of the poor are responsible for all of their problems. But are not some of the poor responsible for some of their problems, or is everyone a victim? Surely you do not think this.

    David: Catholic Social Teaching is more like a check on what things ought not be, rather than what things should be. It is more like the negative precepts of the natural law than it is a programme for building society.

    And Left of center in America means pro-war, pro-homosexual-marriage, pro-big-business, pro-big-government, pro-abortion, etc. I hardly think these things are
    consistent with CST.

    The government does not care about you. When have you ever said to yourself, “Oh how great! The government is here to help.” Think of the disaster associated with Katrina, for one example. That wasn’t just President George Bush’s fault. He’s only one man.