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Democratic Church   

Adrian Karatnycky

One of the untold stories of the late twentieth century is that dictatorship has been virtually eliminated in countries with a Catholic majority. At the center of this dramatic development has been Pope John Paul II. As he has carried out his global pastoral mission over the last 18 years, the Polish Pope has emerged as the world’s most important and effective advocate of freedom and democracy.

The last quarter-century has been a period of dramatic turmoil that has seen the fall of brutal dictatorships and the disappearance of Communism as a global creed. But widely overlooked while we concentrated on the Soviet Union and China is the change that has occurred in the Catholic world.

Indeed, one of the untold stories of the late twentieth century is that dictatorship has been virtually eliminated in countries with a Catholic majority. At the center of this dramatic development has been Pope John Paul II. As he has carried out his global pastoral mission over the last 18 years, the Polish Pope has emerged as the world's most important and effective advocate of freedom and democracy.

When Karol Wojtyla acceded to the pontificate, 22 of 42 countries with a Catholic majority were tyrannies. Most of these dictatorships have now collapsed, including those in Argentina, Chile, the Czech Republic, Guatemala, Hungary, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Poland, the Philippines, and Lithuania. In addition, Mexico is on the verge of completing its democratic transformation, Peru has installed a democracy (although it was briefly interrupted by a martial-law regime), and Croatia has had free elections, though it has not yet completed it transition. Only two Catholic countries unambiguously remain dictatorships: Equatorial Guinea and Cuba.

As political scientist Samuel P. Huntington has written, the Third Wave of democratization is largely a Catholic wave. In fact, Catholicism's democratic influence now reaches well beyond Catholic countries. For example, Catholic activism in support of democracy played a central role in South Korea, which on February 24 inaugurated a member of its small Catholic minority, the former political dissident Kim Dae Jung, as president.

What is there in the Catholic tradition that has contributed to the democratic opening? Until the 1960s, social scientists contrasted Catholicism unfavorably with Protestantism in this regard. The Protestant denominations were said to be more democratically organized than the more authoritarian Catholic Church. Protestantism, too was viewed as more focused on the individual in his relationship to God. Yet, as Huntington has put it, all this underwent a rapid alteration: “In the 1960s...changes within the Church brought a powerful social institution into opposition to dictatorial regimes, deprived those regimes of whatever legitimacy they might claim from religion, and leadership to pro-democratic opposition movements.”

As it happens, the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church was precisely what ensured great uniformity in the message and its more rapid dissemination in a wide variety of settings. Ever since the papacy of John XXIII, that message has had a pro-democratic cast. His experience, as priest and bishop, of ministering to an oppressed nation eager for democracy and liberation from Russian domination had awakened within him a profound attachment to democratic values.

Although the central purpose of Pope John Paul's foreign travels has always been pastoral—with a focus on spreading God's word and ministering to the faithful—there also can be no doubt some of the pope's travels have been planned at strategic moments to advance freedom. This was his mission in going to his native land in 1979, one year before the emergence of the solidarity trade-union movement, and again in 1987, a year and a half before roundtable talks led to the collapse of Communist rule there. In 1987, John Paul also traveled to Chile, contributing to the growing pressure against General Pinochet's military dictatorship, and to Argentina, where he pressed a new democracy to strengthen protections for human rights. Chile's tyranny fell in less than two years, and Argentina's democracy endured. Most recently, the Pope traveled to Cuba, where he was greeted by hundreds of thousands chanting, “Libertad, libertad.” And in mid March he traveled to one of Africa's most repressive states, Nigeria, whose ten million Catholics represent an important latent force for democratic change.

In his missions to closed and repressive countries, the Pope consistently seeks to reinvigorate the Church and engage lay Catholics in support of human rights and democracy. He exerts political influence through a synthesis of faith and modern social teaching that asserts that human freedom and individual rights are an expression of Gods design for mankind.

According to the Pope, totalitarian dictatorship violates Christian teaching because it arrogates for itself the right to “lead history to perfect goodness.

In a 1987 encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, John Paul suggested that the individual and the community cannot develop in the absence of a healthy political system “as expressed in the free and responsible participation of all citizens in public affairs, in the rule of law, and in respect for and promotion of human rights.”

This unequivocal endorsement of political freedom (although never as an end in itself: the Pope has written that democracy needs a core set of faith based values, without which it “turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism”) has been coupled with a message for the need for freedom of association and the clear endorsement of the efficacy of the “business economy,” which the Pope has stated is based on “human freedom exercised in the economic field.” The Pope's economic views brought an important clarification to a potentially divisive issue within the Church. In the 1960s, as part of Catholic democratic ferment in Latin America, many priests embraced a quasi-socialist economic agenda, wrongly identifying a fundamentally corporatist and crony-capitalist oligarchic system with the free market. The Pope's embrace of the market and his linking of democratic political progress with economic freedom took the steam out of this movement, and gave further momentum to democratic change in Catholic countries.

To be sure, the impact of papal visits on closed political systems is never immediate. Even in his native land, strikes and mass trade-union action took time to gather force. But Polish dissident leaders clearly remember a landmark shift in public consciousness that arose from the Pope's dramatic first visit. A similar dynamic has taken over in other countries that he has visited: first there is a shift in public awareness; this then spurs religious activity accompanied by lay Catholic activism in the form of cultural groups, Catholic discussion clubs, libraries attached to parish churches, and the growing influence of the frequently circumscribed Catholic press.

In closed societies, these forces become a focus of organized life outside the direct control of the authoritarian or totalitarian state—in short, an alternative democratic Catholic culture that opposes the values of dictatorship. Also, the fact that the church hierarchy reports to Rome—with the election of bishops, for example, requiring confirmation by Rome—insulates the hierarchy from interference by the dictatorial state and ensures a measure of independence for the church community. Priests and hierarchs like the Philippines' Jaime Cardinal Sin, Nicaragua's Miguel Cardinal Obando y Bravo, the Czech Republic's Father Vaclay Maly, and Poland's martyred Father Jerzy Popieluszko are all heroic by-products of the Catholic Church's independence from the state.

There are other factors—including the growing transparency of borders, innovations in technology that increase access to information, and the emergence of robust middle and working classes—that have helped propel the remarkable march of democracy in the Catholic world during John Paul II's papacy. But there is no question that the Pope's teachings on human rights and freedom of association, and his support for the free market, have played a central role in the democratic wave of change in the Catholic world.

How strange it is, then, that the Pope continues to be regarded by many in this country as an aged man whose antiquated values are out of touch with those of most “modern” Catholics. There are millions of Catholics in dozens of newly democratic countries who can testify to the contrary.


Karatnycky, Adrian. “Democratic Church.” National Review (May 4, 1998): 38-40.

Reprinted with permission of the National Review. To subscribe to the National Review write P.O. Box 668, Mount Morris, Ill 61054-0668 or phone 815-734-1232.


Adrian Karatnycky is President of Freedom House and editor of the new book, Freedom in the World 1997-98: The Annual Survey of Political Rights and Civil Liberties.

Copyright © 1998 National Review



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved