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The Church and Democracy

Less than a year after Pope Francis’ return visit to Portugal, a special conference in Rome organized by the Portuguese Embassy to the Holy See and Sovereign Military Order of Malta commemorates the installation of democracy in Portugal fifty years ago, and celebrates the occasion with a lecture of Professor Manuel Braga da Cruz of the Catholic University of Lisbon, and a dialogue with Andrea Tornielli, the Editorial Director of Vatican Media.

By Deborah Castellano Lubov

The Church and democracy, and how citizens, especially Catholics, can mobilize together in favour of the common good, was at the heart of a recent high-level conference organized by the Portuguese Embassy to the Holy See and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta at the Ambassador’s residence to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of the nation’s democracy 

The Portuguese Ambassador to the Holy See, Domingos Fezas Vital, welcomed the distinguished guests to the dialogue, on “this day in which we celebrate together democracy.”

The Portuguese diplomat highlighted how the nation powerfully transitioned from being under regime to being a model for democracy, and how this revolution has inspired this encounter to reflect on the theme, ‘The Church, the Democracy and the case of Portugal.’

Portugal's Ambassador to the Holy See, Domingos Fezas Vital, opens the event on the Church and Democracy at his residence

Portugal’s Ambassador to the Holy See, Domingos Fezas Vital, opens the event on the Church and Democracy at his residence

Church’s support of democracy

Portuguese political expert and Professor Manuel Braga da Cruz, who served as the Dean of Portugal’s prestigious Catholic University from 2002 to 2012, offered reflections on the topic before engaging in a lively Q & A, with Andrea Tornielli, the Editorial Director of Vatican Media.

In his remarks, Professor Braga da Cruz recalled the Church’s reflections on democracy. He emphasized, in particular, the words of Pope St. John Paul II in his 1991 Encyclical Centesimus Annus, that commemorated the 100-year anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s groundbreaking Encyclical Rerum Novarum, which spoke about the Church’s “favour” toward democracy, and its commitment to protect and promote rights, especially those promoting human dignity.

The former Rector of Portugal’s Catholic University drew inspiration from the contributions of Popes Leo XIII, St. John Paul II and Pius XII, as he highlighted the developing Catholic understanding of democracy, as well as Vatican II, which likewise, he suggested, enhanced the democratic process. He also applauded when democracy upholds fundamental values that had been highlighted by Pope St. John Paul II and his Prefect of the Vatican’s then-Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Even as the scholar described Portugal’s challenging journey toward democracy over the course of two centuries, he more broadly focused on the Church and its rapport with democracy on a larger scale. 

People’s participation to avert wars

The Vatican’s Editorial Director, Andrea Tornielli, highlighted how wisdom from the past can be applied to the present, especially as, he lamented, “democracy,” despite what seems to be so many advances globally, “seems to be suffering” and requires changing course.

“Pope Pius XII delivered memorable reflections on democracy,” observed Tornielli, highlighting that the late Pope who led the Church during the Second World War, “explained that true participation of peoples is needed to avert wars.”

In particular, he recalled Pius XII’s strong radio message on Christmas eve in 1944, right before the end of the war, and how Pius recognized that the brutal experience of wars under dictatorial regimes, caused disgust among citizens, and fueled their call “for a system of government more in keeping with the dignity and liberty of the citizens.” In that message, the late Pope also described opportunities and challenges inherent to democracy.

“Today we are witnessing a crisis, and an emptying out of western democracies, caused by populisms, as well as the power of bureaucracies and finance.”  “This is why,” he argued, “the magisterium of the Popes and what Pope Francis tells us, is important.”

Money for arms, but not for combatting hunger

During the dialogue he made several observations, including the notable contradiction that our very advanced world, amid wars, can find limitless sums to use for continued arms expenditures, but yet can instead never manage to find that same financing for combatting hunger, poverty, or other basic pressing needs.

Tornielli also recalled that the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith published on 8 April its latest declaration Dignitas Infinita in which it reaffirms the intrinsic and inalienable dignity of all people, and lists various violations against this dignity, and how a society that promotes such values, contributes to a response to wide-spread polarization.

Catholic ‘orphans’ at voting booth

Acknowledging that many Catholics feel like ‘orphans’ when it comes time to vote, not identifying entirely with very conservative or liberal candidates, the Vatican’s Editorial Director asked the Portuguese scholar how to address this dilemma.

Not only did Professor Manuel Braga da Cruz recognize that this reality leads to ‘fluid’ voters who easily change their vote according to what issues feel most important to them at that moment, and because voters are experiencing a lack of trust with their politicians, the scholar also partially blamed Catholic’s lack of organizing themselves effectively, but even more so “their feeling discouraged from engaging in politics, due to corruption and dishonesty.”

During the dialogue, the Portuguese expert expressed his concern for “instrumentalized” and “exploited” citizens, and instead called for systems where citizens are free to keep a check on their politicians and rulers, and where they can “contribute to the common good and to peace.”

Dictatorship to democracy

Catholicism still has a strong influence in certain areas of Portuguese society and culture, especially in education and healthcare. However, the Church no longer has the influence of a time ago.

During the long-lasting dictatorial regime, rooted in corporatism and traditional values, of António de Oliveira Salazar, who was appointed Prime Minister in 1932, the Church was one of the most powerful institutions in the country.

After the 40-year dictatorship collapsed in 1974, the dynamic would change forever, especially when the Constitution enacted in 1976 would, despite the Church’s strong role, separate Church and State, and reign in the era of democracy.

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