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Democracy is still very much a minority phenomenon among the nations of the world, but it is hard to deny that there appears to be something like a democratic revolution afoot. According to Samuel Huntington of Harvard University (writing in The National Interest ), there have been three discernible “waves” of democracy in world history. The first lasted from the 1820s to the 1920s and was chiefly a European and North American phenomenon stemming from the American and French Revolutions. In the 1920s and 1930s, there was an antidemocratic reaction, led by Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany.

Following World War II, and under the auspices of the victorious Allies, there was a second democratic wave. West Germany, Italy, Austria, Japan, South Korea, and some Latin American countries established what seemed to be relatively secure democracies. While there was again a reaction against democracy in some places during the 1950s, it was not lasting. Now, says Huntington, we are witnessing the third great democratic wave. It began with Portugal in 1974, and was followed by Spain, the Philippines, and, most dramatically, by the Revolution of 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe.

The remarkable thing about the third wave is that it is happening in predominantly Catholic cultures. Huntington notes that for a long time, students of democracy accepted as a rule of thumb that there is a necessary connection between democracy and Protestant Christianity. The democratization of Japan after World War II, for example, was at the instance of a predominantly Protestant United States. Max Weber’s classic arguments about the connections between Protestantism and capitalism were extended to theories that posited a complicated interdependence between the triumvirate of capitalism, democracy, and Protestantism. That the third democratic wave should be so Catholic, Huntington suggests, is a genuinely new thing under the sun. “In country after country,” he writes, “the choice between democracy and authoritarianism became personified in the conflict between the cardinal and the dictator. Catholicism was second only to economic development as a pervasive force for democratization in the 1970s and 1980s. The logo of the first fifteen years of the third wave could well have been a crucifix superimposed on a dollar sign.” The generalization rings true, although we would add that evangelical Protestantism, especially in Latin America, is playing an increasingly important part in both economic development and political democracy.

The first democratic impulse in the world came from the Puritan revolution in the seventeenth century. It is undeniably impressive that three hundred years later that impulse is renewed and magnified by Catholicism. That impulse is articulated with repeated authoritative statements of great theological and moral sophistication, the most recent instance being John Paul II’s encyclical (Centesimus Annus) on the free society. The Catholic Church today, it is being more widely acknowledged, is the strongest and most effective institutional voice in the world for democratic governance and human rights. It seems that nobody would have predicted that even twenty-five years ago.

Now the question arises as to whether there is a necessary connection between democracy and Christianity, whether in its Protestant or Catholic forms. It may be that the expansion of democracy depends upon the expansion of the Christian missionary enterprise around the world. Huntington is skeptical of that happening. He notes the perduring power of Confucianism and Islam among billions of people. Neither of those religions has demonstrated any sympathy for the principles of democracy. Indeed, their constituting ideas and habits would seem to be profoundly antidemocratic. Huntington’s conclusion is a perhaps wan hope that what happened with Catholicism could also happen, in time, with Confucianism and Islam.

As they develop economically, non-Western societies are more likely to see virtues in political democracy than in Western Christianity and they will become more likely to reinterpret their religious and cultural traditions so as to make them compatible with the democratic political practices. Catholicism made this adjustment. If the third wave is to lead to global democracy, comparable changes will have to occur in Confucianism and Islam.

Huntington may be right about the possibilities of long-term adjustments to democratic thought and practice in cultures dominated by Islam and Confucianism. A strong measure of skepticism is in order, however. Certainly the analogy with the change in Catholicism would seem to be misplaced. Catholicism in its antidemocratic mode was a Counter-Reformation affair. The Reformation, which was undoubtedly connected with the emergence of democracy, was, after all, directed against the Catholic Church. The more militantly secular Enlightenment that found political expression in the French Revolution was explicitly anti-Christian, and viciously anti-Catholic. In other words, for more than four centuries the Catholic Church was in a reactive posture to democracy and the ideas associated with it.

The ideas that gave birth to democracy are utterly alien to Islam and Confucianism. Perhaps, as Huntington says, they can make an “adjustment” to those ideas. For the Catholicism of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, however, no adjustment to alien ideas was required. It was only necessary for the Catholic Church to abandon its reactive posture and retrieve elements of the larger Christian tradition that had been suppressed during the Counter-Reformation. The key element, absolutely essential to the democratic project, is that of a higher sovereignty that cannot be equated with and therefore must necessarily limit the sovereignty of the state.

From the apostles’ assertion, “We must obey God rather than man” (Acts 5), through Augustine’s construal of the City of God and City of Man, through the Investiture Controversy of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Christianity had traditionally insisted upon that divided sovereignty which first found democratic political expression in seventeenth-century England. Counter-Reformation Catholicism generally viewed democracy as an achievement of “the enemy”—whether Protestant or secularist. One of the more important consequences of the Christian ecumenism that was given such a powerful lift by Vatican Council II has been Catholicism’s recognition of the democratic impulse as an authentically Christian impulse. One of the more striking arguments in Centesimus Annus is the Pope’s contention that democratic governance can only be securely grounded in moral and religious, rather than thoroughly secular, truth claims. (Whether such arguments will begin to find a more favorable reception among Eastern Orthodox Christians”notably in Eastern Europe”is another great question that may be answered in the decades ahead.)

In sum, the antidemocratic period of Catholicism must be viewed as an aberration, although, to be sure, an aberration that lasted for some centuries. Catholicism has now retrieved, internalized, and brought to effective expression those truths of the Christian tradition that gave birth to political democracy under Protestant auspices. Indeed, as forty years ago Father John Courtney Murray speculated might happen, Catholicism may now be the chief moral legitimator of a democratic project to which a large part of Protestantism—especially in its liberal American form—often seems indifferent. To the extent that is the case, it is among the more notable ironies of history.

The undemocratic or antidemocratic posture of Confucianism and Islam, on the other hand, is no aberration. Islam’s devotion to a monistic and theocratic social order, as well as Confucianism’s understanding of a Mandate of Heaven that equates power with morality, leave no room for the idea of sovereignties in tension or conflict. In both traditions, the notion of individual rights against the established order, of checks and balances between competing interests, of the moral legitimacy of an opposition seeking to rule—all these essential elements of democracy are not only alien but blasphemous. The decades ahead will no doubt provide additional evidence as to whether or not these two world religions can find conceptual resources and popular support for an adjustment to democracy. As things stand, however, it would appear that the future of democracy is linked to the future of Western Christianity and, in its third wave, to Catholicism in particular.

Image by Carol Highsmith via Creative Commons. Image cropped.