Scholars participating in the Democracy, Culture, and Catholicism International Research Project visit Macchu Picchu, a 15th-century Inca site in Peru.

How does Catholicism facilitate or inhibit democracy? How does the answer vary in different cultural contexts? These questions are the focus of a study that has been under way through Loyola’s Joan and Bill Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage for about a year and a half. Thirty-two scholars from Chicago, Peru, Lithuania, and Indonesia, representing 17 academic fields, are studying the complex relationship between Catholicism and democracy in different cultural contexts. They have presented their initial findings at colloquia in those nations, and the results have been illuminating. Eleven of the researchers are Loyolans.

“The comparisons and contrasts are fascinating,” says Michael Schuck, director of the Hank Center and an associate professor in the Department of Theology. “In Lithuania, the Catholic church embraced democratic principles under Soviet oppression. In the post-Soviet era, the church is more reticent with the results of democracy—political freedoms are not always in line with moral teachings of the Church, despite the official recognition of democracy as a good thing.”

Census information indicates that over 80 percent of Lithuanians are Catholic. In Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population of any country in the world, Catholics represent just 3 percent of the population. “The Catholics in Indonesia are stalwart defenders of democracy,” says Schuck. “There’s a reason—they’re a minority, and democratic principles protect them. The research has been very clear about the commitment of the Indonesian Catholic church to citizenship and absolute value of democracy.” Schuck describes this phenomenon as one of the clearest and most striking conclusions to emerge from collective research.

In contrast, between 80 and 90 percent of Peruvians are Catholic, and the history of the Church in that country is particularly thorny.

“In a post-colonial context, where a Catholic hierarchy tended to be reliant on the landed aristocracy, this kept a large part of the population in poverty,” says Schuck. “There was poor land distribution, causing revolutions in Peru and throughout South America in the 1960s and ‘70s. Peru is now a democracy, of course, and you have Jesuits on the ground who are promoting the rights of the poor, and then you have Catholics in the First Estate—part of the old order—who are grudging of that.”

According to Schuck, Catholic radicals and liberals often disagree with the official church in Peru. “Lithuanian Catholics, for example, are less prone to conflict with the Church,” Schuck says. “Peruvian Catholics are quicker to speak critically of the hierarchy.”

Schuck believes that the differing and complex manifestations of democracy and Catholicism are what make both systems fascinating and vibrant in our world. “Catholicism doesn’t just mean the Pope and Rome,” he says. “In the real world, it’s played out locally. It’s not a hierarchical monolith; it’s a wonderful mix.”

In June 2012, the researchers participating in the Democracy, Culture, and Catholicism International Research Project will present their completed research in Rome.

Story courtesy of Loyola magazine (Fall 2011).