Carr book cover

Excerpt of Catholicism and Liberal Democracy

The following is a excerpt of Catholicism and Liberal Democracy: Forgotten Roots and Future Prospects by James Martin Carr (CUA Press, 2022).

Chapter 1


Liberty looks upon religion as its companion in its struggles and triumphs, as the cradle of its young life, as the divine source of its claims. It considers religion as the guardian of morality, morality as the guarantee of law and the security that freedom will last.1

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

The state must recognize that a fundamental system of values based on Christianity is the precondition for its existence. In this sense, it simply has to know its historical place, so to speak: the ground from which it cannot completely detach itself without falling apart. It has to learn that there is a fund of truth that is not subject to consensus but rather precedes it and makes it possible.2

Joseph Ratzinger, “A Christian Orientation in a Pluralistic Democracy?  On the Indispensability of Christianity in the Modern World”

At least in the United States, the cradle of modern democracy, religion has long been considered a precondition and bulwark of freedom. During the period of postwar reconstruction (1945–57) when Christian Democracy was in the ascendancy, this view was also widely held in Western Europe. In the first half of the twenty-first century, however, the doxa of Western cultural and political elites defines the proper attitude toward religion to be one of ambivalence, distrust, or downright disdain. Indeed, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput has characterized unbelief as “the state religion of the modern world.”3 A range of modern conflicts are blamed on religion—actual violence as well as forms of thought and behavior that modern states find difficult to comprehend or accommodate (e.g., “discrimination,” “inequality”). Yet those who lament these enduring “religious conflicts,” previously theorized as a phenomenon which, together with religion itself, would diminish and then disappear with modernization and secularization, are confronted by the stubborn presence of religious believers in contemporary democracies. Religious belief is not “withering away”; indeed, there is some evidence that it is experiencing revival, at least in some parts of the globe.4 Furthermore, reflective unbelievers like Tim Crane and Marcello Pera insist that space should be created for believers, who, by articulating a transcendent vision of beauty, love, and truth, can heal the pathologies and dispel the despair to which unbelief all too frequently succumbs.

Can religious believers be accommodated in modern democracy? If so, how? If not, do democracies cease to be democratic and are they, thus, vulnerable to a dangerous crisis of legitimacy? This book seeks to contribute to this important debate. It seeks to bring secular reason, in the form expounded by Jürgen Habermas, into conversation with the Catholic5 tradition as articulated by Joseph Ratzinger and to explore the tenability of Catholic participation in the public discourse of contemporary liberal democracy. In so doing, I will address the following aspects of this broad debate: (1) the rules and hidden metaphysics of secular political discourse; (2) Catholicism as a contributor to this discourse, including the possibilities and limits of its engagement; (3) the prospects for liberal democracy if it continues on its current trajectory, and (4) Catholicism as a treasury upon which a ressourcement of democracy can and should draw.

Carr book cover

The concerns informing this debate are not merely intellectual problems for the cogitation of political elites and scholars. The attacks of September 11, 2001 (and their political and military sequelae) have brought about a geopolitical realignment that, to some, looks like the West against the Islamic world.6 This has practical political consequences in terms of how immigrants are treated, both at ports of entry to Western nations and, perhaps more importantly, within their social and political systems thereafter. A fearful awareness of the Muslim immigrant as a menacing “Other” is created and fomented by political entrepreneurs and demagogues, unleashing rhetoric and political reaction with baleful and self-fulfilling potential. Continuing attempts to create a European constitutional political union (accelerated following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989) are problematized by popular revolts against this project, fueled in no small part by anti-immigrant sentiment. The fact that the political and intellectual elites who champion this project are, themselves, committed to a vision of “Europe” rooted in an Enlightenment rationality from which all Christian residues have been purged, compounds the problem of demotic alienation.7 The vision of an “ever-closer union,”8 which may yet embrace Turkey and even, perhaps, the former Soviet states of Eurasia is one that has never been transparently articulated to citizens, nor received their sanction and support.

When the preamble to the ill-fated 2004 European Constitution reduced the historical contribution of Christianity to a mere part of Europe’s “cultural, religious and humanist inheritance,” Joseph Ratzinger was not alone in his bemused dismay, for Christianity was the soil from which the very idea of Europe sprang and which nurtured its cultural accomplishments. It was the source of values and ideals, ways of thinking and behaving, without which the project of modernity would have been inconceivable. In a fundamental document bringing together all existing European treaties in a single text, the very origins and provenance of European law were ignored. Whether this was due to amnesia, aphasia, incomprehension, or simple animus, Giscard d’Estaing and his fellow members of the European Convention excised over a millennium and a half of European history from the proposed genealogy of their master narrative. Apparently, they did not believe such an excision would impair the coherence and comprehensibility of the ambitious legal and institutional framework that they hoped to fashion.

  1. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America and Two Essays on America, trans. Gerald Bevan (London: Penguin, 2003), 56.
  2. Joseph Ratzinger, “A Christian Orientation in a Pluralistic Democracy? On the Indispensability of Christianity in the Modern World,” chap. 11, in Church, Ecumenism, and Politics: New Endeavors in Ecclesiology, trans. Michael Miller et al. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008), 207. Originally published as “Christliche Orientierung in der pluralistischen Demokratie,” in Pro fide et iustitia: Festschrift für Agostino Kardinal Casaroli zum 70. Geburtstag, ed. Herbert Schambeck (Berlin: Duncker and Humblot, 1984), 747–61.
  3. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, “Faith and Hope for an Uncertain Time,” Address at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary, Winona, Minnesota, April 12, 2019,, http://
  4. Peter Berger, “Secularism in Retreat,” The National Interest 46 (Winter 1996–97): 3–12.
  5. For the sake of brevity, throughout this book “Church” refers to the Roman Catholic Church and “Catholic” means “Roman Catholic.” This in no way implies disrespect to other churches and ecclesial communities or to believers who are not members of the Roman Catholic Church who yet define themselves as “Catholic.” 
  6. Peter Waldman and Hugh Pope, “‘Crusade’ Reference Reinforces Fears War on Terrorism Is Against Muslims,” Wall Street Journal, September 21, 2011, SB1001020294332922160.
  7. The preamble of the proposed 2004 European Constitution began as follows: “Drawing inspiration from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, from which have developed the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law.” Official Journal of the European Union, Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe, October 29, 2004, TXT/?uri=uriserv:OJ.C_.2004.310.01.0001.01.ENG&toc=OJ:C:2004:310:TOC#d-017. The wording of the preamble was drafted by the president of the Praesidium of the Convention on the Future of Europe, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. The Czech Republic and a number of predominantly Catholic member states, including Italy, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Portugal, and Slovakia, echoed the plea of Pope John Paul II that there should be explicit reference to God and to Europe’s Christian heritage in the constitution. These calls were unsuccessful because of strong opposition from other member states, such as Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden. Tellingly, the strongest support for inclusion of God and Christianity in the final text came from new member states that joined the Union in 2004. Of the six founding members, only Italy voiced clear support for this position. See “Message of Pope John Paul II to the European Study Congress on the Theme: ‘Towards a European Constitution?,’” June 20, 2002, 5; John Paul II, Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in Europa (June 28, 2003), 114.
  8. European Commission, Treaty of Rome, Preamble, March 25, 1957, 2. archives/emu_history/documents/treaties/rometreaty2.pdf.

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