4.3.2 Democracy in CST texts (i): Pius XII

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Unit 4 Contents


I noted on the last screen the absence of extended discussion of democracy in CST documents, even those of the period of Vatican II.  The longest such discussion is by Pius XII, who was the successor of Pius XI (author of Quadragesimo Anno; see 3.2), and who was in office from the year in which World War Two started, 1939, until 1958.  Pius XII issued no social encyclical, but an address marking the 50th anniversary of Rerum Novarum in 1941 made clear that “he wanted his own teaching to be seen as a continuation of the [social] teaching of Leo XIII and Pius XI” (as John Langan puts it).1

In addition to this, Pius XII gave a radio address at Christmas in all seven of the war years (1939-1945) – thus in the context of “the aftermath of the Great Depression and the enormous bloodshed of World War II”2. – in which he addressed social teaching themes. Pius XII has been criticised for using excessively general language in these messages, such that they sometimes did not enable people to see clearly how his words applied practically in relation to the terrible challenges that peoples and states were facing.3. Pius XII spoke about democracy in his 1944 Christmas message, which has the title ‘Democracy and a Lasting Peace’.4

Before we look at this 1944 statement I should say that, ever since Pius XII’s death in 1958, his record has been the subject of controversy. This has been over one major issue: during the war years, did he say and do all he could have said and done to seek to stop the Nazi regime’s genocide of Europe’s Jews?  Some argue that he did; others that he did not.  I regret that we are going to leave this aside here, simply because it is not the topic of this unit.  I have mentioned it because that controversy has become the lens through which most people now encounter Pius XII.5

You are asked to read the first half of the 1944 Christmas message.  ##1-16 form the introduction.  After this there are two sections which address, respectively, the “characteristics proper to citizens in a democratic regime” and the “characteristics of men holding power in a democratic state” (to quote the subtitles before #17 and #35, italics added).

As you read this, try to keep in mind what you have learned through study of this unit so far, especially the basic distinction between ‘good government’ and ‘bad government’ as this applies to democracy (4.2.3).  To what extent does Pius XII clearly leave behind earlier Catholic suspicion of democracy in this statement?


Reading (7pp)

Pope Pius XII, 1944 Christmas message, ##1-50


It is striking that Pius XII reaffirms in the introduction the Church’s traditional position of relative indifference among constitutional forms (by quoting Leo XIII): “the Church does not disapprove of any of the various forms of government, provided that they be… capable of securing the good of citizens” (#14, quoting Leo XIII, Libertas, 1888).

He then goes on to emphasize what matters most if there is to be “a true, healthy democracy” (#15).  This is not constitutional structures, but what people actually do in democratic politics, both citizens in general, and those particular people elected to office.  In this context, he sharply contrasts ‘the people’ from ‘the masses’:

The people lives by the fullness of life in the men [and women] who compose it, each of whom… is a person conscious of his own responsibility and his own views… The masses, on the contrary, wait for the impulse from outside, an easy plaything in the hands of anyone who exploits [them]. (##23-24)



In light of reading especially ##21-28, what do you think Pius XII means by this distinction between ‘the people’ and ‘the masses’?


While what Pius XII says here is perhaps one example of where his language is rather too general, there are two important points that what he says does convey:

  • First, he is calling on people actively to participate in democratic politics, rather than being passive and thereby risking being manipulated by those in power.  We see here for the first time an emphasis on participation that became characteristic of later CST documents.

Even though Pius XII gives no specific examples of the manipulation that lack of participation can help to make possible, his words, especially in #26, have application to the rise and triumph of Nazism in Germany. Even though this was initially through success in democratic elections, its consequences were truly disastrous for the ‘masses’ in Germany.

  • Second, what people must manifest as they participate is “the true instinct for the common good” (#25). This contrasts with ‘the masses’ allowing themselves to be manipulated by a small group pursuing “selfish aims” (#26).  Here Pius XII is in effect reiterating the fundamental distinction we examined earlier between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ government.  The pope’s concern is quite precisely that, if people don’t participate, power will be abused for the sake of some private interest.  Then “the common interest remains seriously, and for a long time, injured” (#26).

While it is clear enough that Pius XII’s main concern about ‘the masses’ is the danger that people with power will manipulate and abuse them, perhaps we can see an echo of another concern here too.  Does he communicate suspicion, not only of those with power who abuse it, but also of ‘the masses’ themselves?  By not acting on the basis of their responsibility for the common good, they are “the capital enemy of true democracy and of its ideal of liberty and equality” (#27)?  Possibly this can be read as reflecting some distrust of the demos, the common people, and thereby an older suspicion of democracy.

Even if this is so, Pius XII’s response is to emphasize that the people themselves must be conscious of and exercise their own responsibility.  Indeed we can interpret what he says in terms of the contrast I made earlier between ‘civic democracy’ and ‘consumerist democracy’, in which these terms distinguish good and bad forms of democratic government (4.2.3).  Pius XII’s points amount to advocacy of a civic democracy, one in which people actively participate for the sake of the good of the whole society.  At the same time, his comments about the dangers of manipulation of ‘the masses’ have some correspondence to a critique of ‘consumerist democracy’, in which those in power see voters not as participants but as consumers of what government provides, and voters themselves see politics as basically a means for pursuing their private interests.



Do you think the above points interpret ##21-28 fairly?


In the second chapter, Pius XII’s main point about the needed characteristics of those who hold power is that they have “a clear appreciation of the purposes assigned by God to every human society” (#41).  In concluding, he emphasizes the risk of what happens when they do not:

But where such [people] are lacking, others come to take their places in order to make politics serve their ambition, and be a quick road to profit for themselves… [T]he race after private interests makes them lose sight of completely and jeopardize the true common good (#46).

To sum up, Pius XII reiterates the Church’s traditional teaching that all the main constitutional forms – rule by one, by a few, and by many – can be acceptable.  But, recognizing the depth and authenticity of the call “for a system of government more in keeping with the dignity and liberty of the citizens” (#12), he spells out that democracy requires all, both the people as citizens and those who are elected to office, to be conscious of and actively to fulfil their responsibilities.  In short, the 1944 Christmas message communicates this: democracy does not automatically generate good government, but whether it will depends entirely on what people do with it.


End of 4.3.2

Go to 4.3.3 Democracy in CST texts (ii): John XXIII, Pacem in Terris

Module B outline

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  1. John Langan, ‘The Christmas Messages’ (referenced in 4.3.1 note 1), p. 176.  That statement is known as ‘The Whit-Sunday Address of Pope Pius XII’ (given 1 June 1941) and was published in The Tablet, 7 June 1941, accessible (16 Sep. 2013) at http://archive.thetablet.co.uk/article/7th-june-1941/7/the-whit-sunday-address-of-pope-pius-xii. In one respect, this address marked a development in CST: coming 20 years before Pacem in Terris, Pius XII affirmed the need for governments “to safeguard the inviolable sphere of the rights of the human person and to facilitate the fulfilment of his duties”.  According to Langan, “The pope’s language here and his use of such broad categories as human rights… reflect the influence of Jacques Maritain” (p. 176). 

  2. Langan ‘The Christmas Messages’, p. 181 

  3. Langan makes a very fair criticism along these lines of the 1942 message; see ‘The Christmas Messages’, p. 184. 

  4. This is the title of the statement in the English translation accessible (at 16 Sep. 2013) at http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius12/P12XMAS.HTM.  No English translation is available at the Vatican’s website. 

  5. For one dispassionate outline of Pius XII which discusses this question succinctly, see http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/462400/Pius-XII