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Political Catholicism is a political and cultural conception which promotes the ideas and social teaching of the Catholic Church (Catholic social teaching) in public life. (See also Christian democracy.)

The beginning of the political Catholicism in 19th century

As a program and a movement, political Catholicism was started by Prussian Catholics in the second half of the 19th century as a response to liberal social concepts. The main reason was the attempt by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck to limit the influence of Catholic Church, first in Prussia, and then in united Germany. That struggle is known in history as the Kulturkampf.

From Germany, political Catholic social movements spread in other German-speaking countries, especially Austria, and from there into Slovenia and Croatia. Catholic Action was the name of many groups of lay Catholics who were attempting to encourage a Catholic influence on political society.

After the 1891 encyclical Rerum novarum ("Of new things") by Pope Leo XIII, political Catholic movements got a new impulse for development, and they spread the area of their involvement. With this encyclical, the Catholic Church expanded its interest in social, economical, political and cultural issues, and it called for a drastic conversion of Western society in the 19th century in the face of capitalist and liberal influences. Catholic believers, both lay and clergy alike, had a desire for active social and political engagement in order to deal with acute social problems according to Catholic Christian principles, as opposed to a purely secular approach.

Catholic movements in the 20th century

In the 20th century, Catholic political movements became very strong in Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria, Ireland, France and Latin America. What these movements had in common was a defense of the acquired rights of the Catholic Church (attacked by liberal and anticlerical politicians) and a defense of Christian faith and moral values (threatened by increasing secularization). Members of opposing schools of thought called such attempts clericalism.

These Catholic movements developed various forms of Christian democratic ideology. Many criticized unrestrained capitalism and instead promoted concepts of Christian socialism. Liberals, as well as Freemasons, were seen mainly as enemies and vehement opponents of political Catholicism.

Some of the earliest important political parties were:

  • Catholic Party (Belgium) – 1869,
  • Centre Party (Germany) – with origins in 1870,
  • Christian Social Party (Austria) – 1893,
  • General League of Roman Catholic Caucuses (Netherlands) - 1904, transformed into the Roman Catholic State Party in 1926,
  • Conservative Catholic Party of Switzerland – 1912,
  • Italian People's Party – 1919.

In addition to political parties, Catholic Christian trade unions were created, which fought for worker's rights: the earliest include:

  • Typographic Workers Trade Union in Spain (1897);
  • Confederation of Christian Trade Unions in Belgium (1904);
  • Catholic Workers Union in Mexico (1908);
  • International Federation of Christian Trade Unions (IFCTO), in The Hague in 1920 (which was preceded by the International Secretariat of Christian Trade Unions founded in Zürich in 1908, led through the World Confederation of Labour (WCL) to today's International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC);
  • French Confederation of Christian Workers (1919);
  • Luxembourg Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (1921);
  • Catholic Worker Movement in the USA (from 1933).

After World War II, more unions were formed, including:

  • Italian Confederation of Workers' Trade Unions (from 1950);
  • Christian Trade Union Federation of Germany (from 1959);
  • Christian Workers' Union in Belize (from 1963);
  • Solidarity in Poland (from 1980).

Until the Second Vatican Council, the Church did not tend to completely accept the model of modern democracy and its expansion into social and economic realms, because it was wary of anticlerical socialistic tendencies. When Catholic social activists became too leftist in social conflicts, the Church hierarchy tried to stop their excesses; occasions of this included the Worker-priest movement in France in the 1940s and 1950s, and liberation theology in South America in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

Many workers involved in the labor movement joined social democratic and communist parties, which were mostly atheistic and called for revolution against "old" values, including religion and the Church. As a result, Catholic clergy and lay activists prior to World War II often tended to support fascist leaders such as Benito Mussolini, Francisco Franco and António de Oliveira Salazar, as well as military regimes in Latin America.