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Christian Democracy

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In Christian Democracy, the name and the reality have two very different histories, and therefore they must be carefully distinguished.

The reality

What Christian democracy is was authoritatively laid down by Pope Leo XIII in his Encyclical "Graves de communi" wherein it is declared to be the same as "popular Catholic action". Such a definition is certainly intensive so that not everything done by Catholics, among the people or for the people, can be technically termed Christian democracy, or popular Catholic action. Action in this definition is taken to mean an organized movement with a definite programme to deal with the pressing problems that come before it. Popular has reference to the people, not inasmuch as they are a nation or collective whole, but as the fourth estate: the plebs, the tenuiores, and the tenuissimi of classical antiquity. Lastly, Catholic (and therefore Christian through and through) signifies that this organized action in favour of the people (plebs) is the work of Catholics as such. Popular Catholic action, therefore, means that the scope mapped out for the activity of the organization is the well-being of the people; and that the movement proceeds along Catholic lines, under the guidance of Catholic leaders. Having stated this, it is easy to understand that the existence of Christian democracy is not a thing of yesterday. In the very nature of Christianity, in the spirit of the Church, in the mission of the clergy (cf. Benigni, Storia sociale della Chiesa, Milan, 1907, I) lies the germ of popular Catholic action technically so called; in other words, of Christian democracy. As soon, therefore, as political and social circumstances allowed it, the Church set her hand to this work, and she has continued without interruption her traditional action in behalf of the people. To prove this there is no need of distorting the facts of history. Even if we exclude the marvellous economic organization of the Church of the first three centuries (see the last part of the "Storia" referred to above), it is certain that from the time of Constantine the Church began the practical work of Christian democracy, when the clergy showed their zeal in establishing hospices for orphans, for the aged and infirm, and for wayfarers.

Constantine in a period of famine chose the bishops rather than the civil officials to distribute corn among a starving people, and thus showed his appreciation of Christian democracy. Julian the Apostate showed even a clearer insight when in his famous letter to the pagan high-priest of Galatia he urged him strongly to admonish the pagan priesthood that they must rival the Christian clergy in this field of popular work. But when the fall of the Empire of the West under the shock of the barbarian invasion brought civilization to the verge of ruin and shook the very foundation of the people's welfare; when it became necessary to build up again laboriously the neo-Roman culture of the West out of the remnants that escaped the catastrophe and the raw material of the scarcely civilized races, then shone forth in its real light the true Christian democracy of the Catholic Church. Suffice it to say that an entire system of laws and customs in furtherance of the civil and material well-being of the people was established, or at least strengthened and developed, by the united action of clergy and laity. The right of sanctuary, the art guilds and trade guilds, the relentless war against usury, the numberless benevolent institutions, the protection afforded to labour in general, and the special provision made for the unemployed, all these form a golden thread of Christian democracy that runs through the whole course of medieval Church history, unbroken and untarnished amid its surroundings of iron and stone. The Truce of God (which proclaimed the inviolability of the lands and dominions of a lord who had gone to the Crusades) was not only a safeguard of that lord's interests, but above all of his people, who, in the absence of their military chief could offer but a sorry defence against the frequent inroads of neighbouring lords or princes. The montes pietatis, too, were an admirable Catholic institution that delivered the poor from the clutches of the extortioner from whom they were obliged to borrow. The many thousand confraternities scattered up and down Europe were religious associations, but in nearly every instance they had a common fund for the benefit and protection of their members. Thus, in the Papal States, up to the time of the French Revolution, many guilds (such as shoemakers, carpenters, etc.) had a notary public and a lawyer who were bound to transact for a few pence the legal business of the members of the guild. These few examples, chosen from widely different fields, suffice to show that an organized action, really Catholic and really of the people, is one of the time-honoured traditions of Catholicism.

But the last definitive stage of Christian democracy, and one that has given the name a fixed and technical meaning, dates from the time that elapsed between the fall of Napoleon I and the international Revolution of 1848. Among the many calumnies heaped upon the Church during the French Revolution was the charge that she was anti-democratic, and this not only in a political, but also in a larger social sense it meant that the Church favoured the great and mighty, and sided with the monarchical oligarchy against the just political and economic demands of the middle and lower classes. The horrors of the Revolution and, later on, the illusions of the Restoration, drove the clergy and a number of the thinking laity into the movement of the Counter-Revolution, which, in the hands of politicians like Metternich, developed into a "reaction", i.e. it was not deemed sufficient to struggle against the evil of revolution and uphold the social order; it was thought necessary to restore the old regime, bury everything good and bad that savoured of democracy, and thereby deprive the people of a means of improving their politico-economic conditions. This reactionary programme looked on the social question as one to be solved by fear of the Government's armed hand, by charitable subsidies, and by the creation of holidays. This programme found support in a saying attributed to the King of Naples: To rule the mob you must use three f's: feste, farina, and forca (festivals, food, and gallows). But a new revolution was in the air. The Carbonari began their work in 1821 and kept on until it resulted in the general upheaval of 1848. The mass of the clergy and of militant Catholics stood by the "reaction" as far as it was a counter-revolution in the better sense of the word; but in the general public opinion the clergy and the Catholics, partly through mistakes of their own, but chiefly through the malice of their enemies, came to be looked upon as reactionaries who favoured the oppression of the people.

Then there began among Catholics "a reaction against reaction", and there arose, especially in France, the de Lamennais party which had as a mouthpiece the newspaper known as "L'Avenir," and for its motto, "God and Liberty". There is no doubt that Ozanam, with his conferences of St. Vincent de Paul, had the true practical idea of charity, at once thoroughly Christian and thoroughly adapted to actual needs; he was not content with the passing touch of the hand that gave and the hand that received, but he sent the charitable into the very homes of the needy and brought them face to face with the hard reality in order to give them a better understanding and a stronger sense of brotherhood. De Lamennais had an insight, confused but keenly felt, into a popular Catholic action not restricted to works of material and immediate beneficence, but extending beyond these to an assertion of justice and social equity for the lower classes. De Lamennais, therefore, was in reality a pioneer of Christian democracy. Unfortunately, he also led the way in errors that even today we deplore. By involving the ethico-juridical and economical action of Christian democracy in political agitation, he fell into a mistake which was the more unfortunate as the parties of his day made use of it to bring about a violent political crisis. He was wrong, too, in believing that liberty was the positive foundation of everything; hence the justice of the reproach cast upon his formula, "God and Liberty": either Liberty was superfluous, since that is already implied in God, or the phrase was illogical, since there can be no question of liberty unless it harmonizes with social order. And so de Lamennais and his movement ended in failure.

The revolution of 1848 and the consequent reaction of 1850 hindered the Catholics from availing themselves of such good as there was in de Lamennais' attempt. Then came the political and religious struggles which the Church had to face during the long pontificate of Pius IX and the early years of Leo XIII's rule. But the latter pontiff soon issued his Encyclicals on the political, ethical, juridical, and economical questions of the day, and in dealing with the social question in its popular aspects he published, 15 May, 1891, the immortal "Rerum Novarum" which has become the Magna Charta of Christian democracy. Measures were at once taken to secure popular Catholic action; and it quickly appeared how unequal most Catholics were to the doctrinal and practical requirements of the situation. On the one hand, many of them, terrified by the evils of the Revolution (especially in Latin countries), would not hear of the burning questions of the day or of new organizations, but confined themselves to the old traditional methods of material and spiritual assistance, occasionally venturing on the establishment of conferences of St. Vincent de Paul and of workingmen's mutual benefit societies, such as were already widely organized by the middle-class liberal party. On the other hand, there were some who thought that the best means of combating Socialism was to imitate it; and they encouraged ideas, attitudes, and expressions of a socialistic type, which resulted in a distorted viewpoint and an undisciplined activity, to the great injury of genuine popular Catholic action.

But these various turnings in the course of modern Christian democracy are hardly as yet matters of history; they are rather items in a chronicle that is still being written; and this is not the place to discuss them. Only let it be noted that Leo XIII over and over again, especially in receiving pilgrimages of workingmen, laid down clearly the limits and the nature of popular Catholic action, and that Pius X has repeatedly confirmed and approved of them. Christian democracy is the ensemble of Catholic doctrine, organization, and action in the field of popular social questions, i.e. the vast field occupied by the proletariat, called by some (inexactly, because the term is not wide enough) the labour question. Christian democracy recognizes in principle and in fact that the popular social question cannot be limited to the question of justice, nor of charity; but that it ought to establish a harmony between the claims of the first and the pleadings of the second, avoiding the excesses of anarchistic individualism as well as those of communism, socialistic or otherwise. Christian democracy, then, disapproves of the conduct of those "socialistic" Catholics who despise or minimize the social function of Christian charity; just as it disapproves the position of those other Catholics who would ignore and disregard the question of social justice in such matters as minimum salary and maximum number of working hours, obligatory insurance of workingmen, and proportionate sharing of profits. But real Christian democracy seeks to be, and is, absolutely neutral on political matters. It is not, and never can be monarchical, or republican, or oligarchical, or parliamentarian, or partisan in politics. So much follows from its very nature. On this foundation Christian democracy, emerging from the present crisis, will develop its vast programme for the moral and material redemption of the people, and will be one of the grandest and most fortunate applications of the programme of Pius X, "to restore all things in Christ".

The name

After the appearance of the Encyclical "Rerum Novarum", the rapid growth of popular Catholic action called for a suitable name to describe it. The old name, indeed, "Popular Catholic Action", was both accurate and comprehensive; but a discussion arose as to selecting a nom de guerre, and the choice eventually lay between "Catholic Socialism" and "Christian Democracy". The discussion was carried on especially in Belgium, where popular Catholic action had been highly developed. Those in favour of "Catholic Socialism" pointed out that the name socialism signified purely social questions, while democracy implied the idea of government and therefore savoured of politics. Their opponents answered that socialism was a branded word, and belonged to the materialistic and revolutionary party known by that name, while democracy had lost its political meaning and actually signified nothing else than" popular question" or merely "popularity"; so much so that a king who loves his people and is loved by them is called a "democratic" king. In the end the word democracy won; and Leo XIII in the Encyclical "Graves de communi" (18 January, 1901) declared as acceptable and accepted the expression "Christian democracy" as meaning neither more not less than popular Catholic action and as having for its aim to comfort and uplift the lower classes (studium solandœ erigendœque plebis), excluding expressly every appearance and implication of political meaning. Thus the name was officially accepted at once (e.g. by the "Opera dei Congressi e Comitati Cattolici d'Italia") in the sense laid down by the encyclical. But unfortunate complications soon arose through the action of a few, who were not unjustly likened to the Roman revolutionaries of 1848 who besought Pius IX to give them a constitution, nothing but a constitution, and, when they got it, wanted to pass off anything and everything under the name of the Constitution. There were formed soon (in France, Italy, and Belgium) groups of "Christian Democrats" who made it their business to war against conservative Catholics and to consort with Socialists. On their leaflets and calendars the Italian demo-Christians printed the dilemma: "either Bourbonist or Christian-Democrats", as though to be a Bourbon in politics hindered one from belonging to the party of popular Catholic action, i.e. to Christian Democracy. While insisting that it is still at the chronicle stage, we may state in conclusion that the term Christian Democracy seems to have been seriously compromised by the action of those who distorted its meaning from that laid down in the Encyclical "Graves de communi"; it therefore inclines to lose the meaning of "popular Catholic action", and tends more and more to denote a school and a political party. (See BELGIUM; FRANCE; GERMANY; ITALY; SPAIN.)


Acta Leonis XIII (Rome. 1903); Acta Pii X (Rome, 1904); Rivista internazionale di studi sociali (Rome, 1893).

About this page

APA citation. Benigni, U. (1908). Christian Democracy. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Benigni, Umberto. "Christian Democracy." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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