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“Ask a Priest: Does the Church Hate Secular Democracy?”
Q: Can you explain to me Quanta Cura, written by Pope Pius IX? I’ve been told that by other Catholics that the pope directly critiqued democracy in this document and condemned the Enlightenment as a whole, but I don’t think that’s the case. The pope seems to condemn secularism. Does the Catholic Church hate secular democracy? I was surprised to see how many people on the Catholic forum seem to want a monarchy. Personally, I think monarchy is an inherently bad idea as it takes away the power of the common man and is based the unjustifiable idea that only direct descendants of the previous ruler should rule a nation. – L.J.
Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC
A: You are asking about the 1864 encyclical and, in effect, its appendix, the Syllabus of Errors. These became lightning rods for all sorts of criticism in the ensuing decades.
Your question touches on a huge topic that can’t be dealt with adequately in an e-mail. Suffice it to say that the encyclical and the Syllabus should be understood in the context of their time.
Europe was witnessing a growing nationalism and the rise of powerful secular governments that increasingly dominated aspects of daily life.
Some people who had high hopes for the promise of secular governments were likely aided by short memories about the French Revolution and its Reign of Terror.
“The Syllabus,” as Catholic journalist Robert P. Lockwood once wrote, “attacked a burgeoning concept of state that would find its ultimate fruition in fascism and communism in the 20th century.”
In any age, the art of government is a work in progress. The Church offers its insights and critiques, based on Revelation and its deep understanding of humanity.
Pope St. John Paul II, no stranger to communist and fascist dictatorships, famously warned that “a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism” (Centesimus Annus, 46).
Some observers thought his words from 1991 were a bit over the top. Yet, recent history seems to vindicate his concerns.
Think of the rise of “wokeness” and cancel culture and the pressure to conform to all kinds of progressive agendas. All these have the scent of a rising totalitarianism.
And then there is secularism. Wikipedia defines it as “the principle of seeking to conduct human affairs based on naturalistic considerations, uninvolved with religion.” That last phrase implies that religion has no place in public life—the kind of idea championed by communism in the 20th century, with grim results.
To go deeper into the topic, check out the above-cited Centesimus Annus. You might also want to look at the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Chapter 8, “The Political Community.”
I hope some of this helps. Count on my prayers.
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