The significance of Catholicism and Catholic conservatives for the development of a democratic culture in Switzerland

by Dr phil. René Roca, Research Institute for Direct Democracy (

In Switzerland, citizens have developed democracy over the past 200 years into a model that is unique in the world. Direct democracy is an integral part of the political culture and the decisive foundation for the country’s economic success. The article “Historical Research and Direct Democracy” (see Current Concerns, No. 16 of 8 August 2020) summarised the research to date as a prelude and brief overview text. Now, as announced, the research results are to be examined in no particular sequence in greater depth based on individual topics. We will begin with Catholicism and its significance to the history of democracy. Its influence, especially in the form of Catholic conservatism, on the emergence and development of direct democracy in Switzerland is still very much underestimated and completely ignored by historians. The following is an excerpt from the introductory chapter of the conference volume “Catholicism and Modern Switzerland”.1

Historiographical research has already established the importance of Catholicism for the formation of Switzerland’s democratic structures.2 At the communal level direct democracy shares an important foundation with the cooperative principle. The earliest organised form of community was the parish, which in Switzerland were cooperatively and decentralized (“Kirchgenossen”).
  The “community freedom” promoted by the cooperative principle, in short, the communal-cooperative self-determination in parishes, corporations and political communities, is an often underestimated tradition. It is based on natural law and contributed a great deal to the later concretisation of popular sovereignty and the development of direct democracy at cantonal and federal level. In this process, which began in the early 19th century, Catholicism and later Catholic social teaching played a central role.

Definition and historical aspects

What is meant by “Catholicism”? Catholicism is the totality of the perceptible, historically contingent manifestations of Catholic Christianity. The term originated in the 16th century in the context of confessionalisation i. e., in contrast to Protestantism. Today, there are diverse forms of Catholicism, which have developed in the individual countries in their respective historical contexts.3
  From 1523 onwards, the Reformation made its breakthrough in Swiss cities. But as early as 1531, the Second Kappel War put a temporary end to this development. Thereafter, a lengthy process of “confessionalisation” began in the Confederation, which led to the formation of two confessional churches and two relatively strictly separated societies and cultures.4
  Until 1712, Switzerland was characterised by a political domination of the Catholic political entities. The decisions of the Council of Trent (1545–1563) initiated a Catholic reform, which among other things led to the establishment of a Catholic education system, promoted above all by the new Jesuit and Capuchin orders. After the Second Villmerger War in 1712, there was an economic and political preponderance of the Reformed political entities, and confessionalism subsided somewhat. At the same time, the Enlightenment on the Catholic side only influenced the political and partly ecclesiastical elite. On the one hand, this resulted in state-church tendencies and, on the other hand, caused a multifaceted ecclesiastical reform activity oriented towards the Catholic Enlightenment.5
  After the upheavals of the Helvetic period, the ecclesiastical reorganisation as of 1821 led to the formation of new dioceses in Switzerland. In the 19th century, about 50 monastic settlements were secularised. This process was partly absorbed by the numerous congregations for men and women founded from 1830 onwards (including sisterhoods at Ingenbohl and Menzingen, on which Carlo Moos published a text in the conference transcript).6
  The years after 1830 were marked by the political regeneration of the liberals. At that time, basically the “Kulturkampf” (cultural struggle) had already begun in Switzerland which lasted until about 1880. In this context, two directions developed within Swiss Catholicism: The liberal Catholics formed a heterogeneous minority, while the majority remained Catholic conservatives.7

Historiography and research approaches

Franz Xaver Bischof wrote the following about the Catholic conservatives of the first half of the 19th century in the recently completed Historical Dictionary of Switzerland:

“The majority of conservative Catholics, who wanted to hold on to antiquated traditions for fear, in particular of losing their cultural identity, rejected modernity more or less strongly by turning to Rome. [This brought about an] isolation from the zeitgeist [...]. In the Catholic conservative, predominantly rural-agricultural areas this ultramontanism tended to go hand in hand with backwardness in economy, education and culture.”8

Such a classification of the Catholic conservatives, which is quite common, cannot be maintained based on the latest historiographical findings (see the contribution by Heinrich R. Schmidt on “Educational advantage of Swiss Catholicism” and the contribution by René Roca on the cantons Schwyz and St. Gallen in the conference proceedings). Why is the importance of the Catholic conservatives viewed one-dimensionally?
  In the last 40 years, Swiss science of history has favoured social, cultural, and mentality too one-sided, also with regard to church and religious history. Methodological and theoretical approaches of the history of institutions, politics and ideas have been neglected and not promoted. Urs Altermatt stated: “If you look at the literature after the Second World War on the subject of ‘Swiss Catholicism in the 19th and 20th century’, you notice a paradigm shift around 1970.”9 Altermatt saw the reasons for the historiographical cut, among other things, the consequences of the Second Vatican Council from 1962–1965 and the generational change among the leading historians, in which he was involved himself. Until around 1970, most of the historical works on the Swiss federal state were written by Swiss historians of the liberal conservative school of thought. The reason for this was that national culture in the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century was Protestant liberal dominated. According to Altermatt, “the Catholic ghetto continued to have an effect in the cultural sphere” until the 1950s and early 1960s.10 From the beginning of the federal state, historians of Catholic observance found themselves marginalised. It was not until around 1970 that they received a permanent place in the historical science of Switzerland, but only because they supported the paradigm shift. Renowned Catholic historians such as Oskar Vasella, professor of Swiss history at the University of Fribourg from 1931 to 1966, were either forgotten or actively marginalised. Particularly Vasella made ground-breaking achievements in one of his fields of research, the history of the Reformation. “With his reassessment of the Reformation, Oskar Vasella opened the dialogue across denominational divides and anticipated the ecumenical awakening of the Second Vatican Council.”11 Vasella also repeatedly addressed the founding phase of the federal state and the role of the Catholic conservatives in this regard. He stated that especially in the assessment of Catholic conservatism “a greater freedom in historical thinking”12 is necessary to present the background of the founding of the federal state more truthfully. This has not happened until today. The University of Fribourg remained a centre of historiography on Swiss Catholicism, but with a modified basis.
  Altermatt himself had a decisive influence on the paradigm change in the historiography of Catholicism from 1970 onwards with his study “Der Weg der Schweizer Katholiken ins Ghetto” (“The path of the Swiss Catholics into the ghetto”)13, which was accepted as a dissertation at the University of Bern in 1970. The study deals with the tendency, particularly noticeable after 1848, that the Catholic conservatives, partly voluntarily and partly involuntarily, fell into a social-cultural isolation at the national level, in fact into an actual “ghetto”. Since the end of the 1970s, terms shaped by Altermatt such as “Catholic ghetto”, “subculture” or “special society” have been part of the common knowledge of Catholic linguistic regulation. From then on, national historical research classified Swiss Catholicism all too one-sidedly according to these sociological criteria and questions derived from them.14
  Switzerland is a special case in terms of religious history and church policy. Since the founding of the federal state, the cantons have had church sovereignty. The Catholic Church has a dual structure of democratic institutions under state-church law (e.g. parish elections) and the hierarchical structure under canon law.15 The promotion of federalism and democratic consciousness on the part of the Catholic Church in this regard has so far only been mentioned marginally in historical research and has been given too little appreciation. Although the Catholic conservatives developed a resistance to the federal revision after 1815 and rejected a federal state they promoted a federalism of its own Swiss character. In addition, there are the merits of the Catholic conservatives regarding a democratic culture in Switzerland. As Vasella rightly pointed out, the history of the Sonderbund should therefore be submitted for reassessment. This was attempted with an article on the “Sonderbund” in the Historical Dictionary of Switzerland:

“For a long time after the founding of the federal state, a historiography prevailed that attributed all the achievements of state policy, even the further expansion of direct democratic instruments, to the liberal-radical victors of the Sonderbund War. The one-sided historical view must be supplemented. Despite the defeat of the Sonderbund, some of its demands were incorporated into the new Federal Constitution of 1848. The victorious majority took the concerns of the defeated into account. In particular, the winners considered the desire for sovereignty of the cantons, which was also expressed by moderate liberals. Also the Jesuit ban should not hide the fact that the federal state set clear federalist accents with the establishment of cantonal sovereignty over schools and churches and the introduction of the Council of States and most of the cantons. Thus, the Sonderbund indirectly helped to make a centralist solution more difficult and to prevent further revolutionary transformations in the sense of the radicals. In the following decades, the focus was on compensation and inclusion of the losers and no longer on dictating the winners and exclusion.”16

Altermatt did not ignore the fact that the Catholic conservatives had promoted democratic culture. He wrote appreciatively that the political emancipation movement of the Catholics after 1848 organised the people loyal to the church on a democratic basis: “In contrast to the political programmes of other Catholic parties in Europe, political Catholicism in Switzerland recognised democracy as a self-evident form of state from the very beginning […].”17 Furthermore, it must be emphasised that Catholic conservatives – along with the early socialists – were significantly involved in the development of direct democracy (cf., among others, the example of Lucerne18).    •

1 Roca, René. “Einleitung”(Introduction), in: Id. (ed.), Katholizismus und moderne Schweiz, Beiträge zur Erforschung der Demokratie, (Catholicism and Modern Switzerland, Contributions to the study of democracy), vol. 1, Basel 2016, pp. 17-21.
2 Roca, René. Wenn die Volkssouveränität wirklich eine Wahrheit werden soll … Die schweizerische direkte Demokratie in Theorie und Praxis - Das Beispiel des Kantons Luzern, (If Popular Sovereignty is Really to Become a Reality... Swiss Direct Democracy in Theory and Practice - The Example of the Canton of Lucerne ), Zurich 2012, pp.  222f.
3 Bischof, Franz Xaver. “Art. Katholizismus”, (Article Catholicism), in: Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz (Historical Dictionary of Switzerland), vol. 7, Basel 2008, pp. 132-135, here p. 132.
4 Ibid., p. 132f.
5 Roca, René. “Genossenschaftsprinzip und Naturrecht als Grundlage. Schweizerische und luzernische Demokratiegeschichte bis zur Helvetischen Revolution”, (The Cooperative Principle and Natural Law as a Foundation. Swiss and Lucerne History of Democracy up to the Helvetic Revolution) in: Historische Gesellschaft Luzern (Historical Society Lucerne) (ed.): Jahrbuch (Yearbook) 31, Lucerne 2013, pp. 45-62, here pp.  54-56.
6 Bischof, Franz Xaver. “Art. Katholische Kirche”, (Article Catholicism) in: Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz, (Historical Dictionary of Switzerland), vol. 7, Basel 2008, pp. 126-128, here p.  127.
7 Stadler, Peter. Der Kulturkampf in der Schweiz. Eidgenossenschaft und katholische Kirche im europäischen Umkreis, (The Culture War in Switzerland. Confederation and the Catholic Church in a European Context), expanded and revised new edition, Zurich 1996, pp. 65-81.
8 Bischof, Franz Xavier. “Art. Katholizismus” (Catholicism), in: Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz, Volume 7, Basel 2008, ‚S. 132-135, here p.  133
9 Altermatt, Urs: “Katholiken und Katholizismus im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert” (Catholics and Catholicism in the 19th and 20th century), in: Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Geschichte, vol. 41, number 4, Zürich 1991, p. 493-511, here p. 493
10 Ibid, p. 494
11 Jorio, Marco. “Oskar Vasella (1904–1966) – ein bedeutender Reformationshistoriker” (Oskar Vasella (1904-1966) – a renowned reformation historian), in: Zeitschrift für Schweizerische Kirchengeschichte, volume 90, Freiburg 1996, p. 83–99, here p. 90
12 Vasella, Oskar. «Zur historischen Würdigung des Sonderbundes» (On the historical appreciation of the Sonderbund), in: Schweizer Rundschau 47/48, issue 4 and 5 , Einsiedeln 1947, p. 259-282, here p. 260
13 Altermatt, Urs. Der Weg der Schweizer Katholiken ins Ghetto. Die Entstehungsgeschichte der nationalen Volksorganisationen im Schweizer Katholizismus 1848–1919 (The path of the Swiss Catholics into the ghetto. The history of the emergence of national popular organisations in Swiss Catholicism 1848-1919), 2nd expanded edition, Zurich 1991.
14 Altermatt, Urs. Katholizismus und Moderne. Zur Sozial- und Mentalitätsgeschichte der Schweizer Katholiken im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (Catholicism and Modernity. On the Social and Mental History of Swiss Catholics in the 19th and 20th century), Zurich 1989
15 Berner, Hans. “Art. Kirchgemeinde”, in: Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz, (“Art. Church Parish”, in: Historical Dictionary of Switzerland), vol. 7, Basel 2008, pp. 240
16 Roca, René. “Art. Sonderbund”, in: Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz (Art. “Sonderbund”, in: Historical Dictionary of Switzerland), vol. 11, Basel 2012, pp. 618-621, here p. 621
17 Andermatt, Urs. “Art. Katholisch-Konservative”, in: Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz (Art. “Catholic Conservatives”, in: Historical Dictionary of Switzerland”), vol. 7, Basel 2008, p. 132
18 Roca, Volkssouveränität (Popular Sovereignty), pp. 95–208

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