Christian democracy has been a successful post‐war political movement in Western Europe and, to a lesser extent, Latin America. Its sociological and ideological origins, however, lie in the mobilization of Catholics in response to the emergence of liberal capitalism in the nineteenth century. The explicit challenge to the position of the Church launched by the French Revolution forced Catholics to accept democratic political forms and defend Catholic interests through the promotion of Catholic secondary associations (particularly Catholic unions and schools). Traditional institutions central to Christian practice—in particular, the family and a harmonious social order—were considered to be facing a dual attack: first, from the corrosive effects of industrialization and laissez‐faire liberalism, and secondly, from increasing state regulation of social life. From the 1850s onwards, Vatican‐sponsored ‘Catholic Action Groups’ campaigned to limit the power of the emerging Italian state, and sizeable political Catholic groups emerged in the German‐speaking areas of Europe.
Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum (1891) liberated Catholicism from moral opposition to democracy, and stimulated further political mobilization. Electoral success came first to the Italian ‘Popular Party’ under the leadership of Luigi Sturzo in 1919, while the German ‘Centre’ Party was a coalition mainstay of the Weimar Republic. By this time, political Catholicism had developed an ambiguous stance towards the exertion of state power: while hostility to socialism and communist forms of ownership remained a dominant theme, the initial opposition to capitalism had by 1914 moderated into recommendations for social improvement through strong welfare legislation. This ambivalence towards the role of government is reflected in the work of the foremost theorist of Christian Democracy, Jacques Maritain, whose contempt for strong states is coupled with specific provisions for state intervention given the failure of industrial capitalism to serve ‘the common good’.
Fascism repressed and discredited most of these political groups—most offered weak resistance to right‐wing extremism, some (e.g. the Austrian Christian‐Social Party) gave it support. At war's end in 1945, however, the strains of mild conservatism and scepticism towards active government held formidable appeal. Promoted heavily by the victorious Allies as a bulwark against communism, newly constituted Christian Democratic parties in Italy, Germany, France, Austria, Belgium, and the Netherlands won office, either as single‐party administrations or as important elements of ruling coalitions. The popularity of these post‐war parties rests more on their inoffensive centrism than on any distinctive ideological platform. Consequently, and somewhat ironically given the ideological ancestry of Christian Democracy, electoral support derives from a largely middle‐class and interdenominational suspicion of threats to the liberal capitalist order (particularly from ‘the left’). In the 1960s and 1970s, Christian Democracy suffered a relative demise as the threat of communism receded, and socialist opponents moderated their platforms. In Latin America, however, Christian Democratic parties, championing democratic stability through restraint of traditionally overactive states, achieved brief electoral success during this period (notably in Chile and Venezuela, and in the 1980s in Ecuador, Guatemala, and El Salvador). In Mexico, the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) emerged as a powerful electoral force after the presidential election of 2000, won by Vicente Fox. During the 1980s, Christian Democracy enjoyed a resurgence as part of the general rightward swing of European electorates (with the partial exception of the spectacular collapse of the dc in Italy in 1993).