Ed West Ed West

How the Catholic Church created democracy

Going to spend Christmas with relatives you don’t really like? Well, you can thank God you only have to see them once a year rather than living as an extended family. Or more precisely you can thank the Catholic Church, without whom you’d all still be in the same house as your uncles and aunties and marrying your cousin. It is reasonably well known that the medieval Church’s ban on cousin marriage helped to make western Europe less clannish; but according to an interesting new paper from Nottingham University, by doing this the Catholic Church actually laid the foundations of democracy. The author, Jonathan F Schulz, argues:

‘The role of the family as one of the most fundamental institution for human society is unquestionable. The family is traditionally seen as individually beneficial providing emotional and material security. However, strong kinship ties can have a perverse negative effect for society as a whole. It can foster an in-group mentality preventing large scale cooperation beyond the confines of the kin-group. As a key consequence, a narrow focus on the interest of the extended family may undermine the essence of democracy – playing by the rules set by the whole society.’

Christianity in our minds is linked to ‘family values’ and all that, but from the beginning the religion was almost anti-family, with disciples told to leave theirs. And Christ suggested that the noblest thing a man could do was lay down one’s life for a friend. Compared to the kin-centred Old Testament, this was revolutionary stuff. Once established, the Church was jealous of rival loyalties, such as could be found in the extended family. Consequently, the growth of the nuclear family led to individualism, because once a son was no longer considered the property of his father, the next logical step was that he would have more power to choose whom to marry.

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