Tomorrow, Americans will be flocking to the polls to decide their President for the next four years. When the election concludes, there will be a great deal of discussion about the blessings of democracy, our grand political tradition, and the precious freedoms Americans have—all of which we should be thankful for.
Hand in hand with those blessings come hazards, though they aren’t likely to be discussed much, since questioning any aspect of a democracy, while living in one, is itself considered undemocratic. This is a shame because a democracy’s health and strength rests precisely upon its ability to self-reflect.
Christianity’s relationship toward democracy has always been complex, and sometimes fearful, because certain democracies have been anything but Christian. The most notorious example is the French Revolution, where “the sovereign people,” or at least those claiming to represent them, went on wild rampages, slaughtering opponents and destroying religious freedom, even as they preached about liberty and the sacred rights of man.
One thing that may have redeemed democracy, in the eyes of Catholics, was its success in the United States. The American Revolution—so unlike the French—was not geared toward upending society, or destroying religion, but freeing the country from foreign oppression. That its triumph surpassed anyone’s expectations caused Catholics to re-examine democracy’s heritage, where they found some surprising discoveries. One of them was that the principles of popular supremacy and of government by consent had actually been the teaching of scholastics during the Middle Ages, and beyond. In fact, Francisco Suarez (1548-1617), the Spanish Jesuit, wrote:
The civil power, whenever it is found in a man or a prince, has emanated according to usual and legitimate law from the people and community, either directly or remotely, and cannot otherwise be justly possessed.
The historian Theodore Maynard was so convinced of the compatibility between the American ethos and Catholic teaching that he wrote, in his Story of American Catholicism (1941): “Without being aware of it, the leaders of the [American] revolution might also be called scholastics themselves.” A few years later, Joseph McSorley continued the argument, acknowledging that “in the organizing of the Revolution which made the colonies independent, and in the framing of the Constitution,” large aid was given by “men who had abandoned belief in supernatural religion,” while still affirming:
But other collaborators . . . possessing a sounder philosophy, came nearer to a recognition of the truth that the basic principles of the Constitution (although not professedly related to any theology) are in substance religious, and that the rights which the Founding Fathers claimed as inalienable can have no other ultimate basis than God.
For this reason, Father Joseph Costanzo, among many others, has written about “the religious heritage of American democracy.”
The recognition that democracy, properly conceived and implemented, could preserve and protect religion, as well as other basic human rights, was gradually accepted by the Church, especially after the Second World War. Toward its end, Pope Pius XII delivered a ground-breaking address, “Democracy and Lasting Peace,” in which he praised the democratic movement:
Under the fierce impact of war and its horrors, the people themselves have been awakened from their long apathy. They have assumed towards the state and their rulers a new attitude, an attitude of inquiry, of criticism, and of distrust. They have learned the lesson of a bitter experience and are becoming more and more resentful of the exclusive claims of a dictatorial authority which allows of no control or discussion, and demanding a system of government more consistent with the dignity and liberty of its citizens.
Whereas Leo XIII, in the nineteenth century, had taught that “Catholics, like all other citizens,” should be “free to prefer one form of government to another,” provided it was not “opposed to the principles of sound reason or to the maxims of Christian doctrine,” Pius XII, while maintaining that teaching, gave more specific support to the democratic experiment.
But Pius XII’s endorsement was not unqualified: he spoke of a “true and healthy democracy” as opposed to a corrupt one, and his successors, particularly John Paul II, have made that same fundamental distinction. The modern pontiffs, while applauding the goals of democracies, have always evaluated them in light of the natural moral law and the teachings of Christ. To that end, they’ve warned of three ever-present dangers:
Hubris. Among the fruits of the spirit, Galatians tells us, is “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control.” But these qualities are hard to come by in modern-day electoral campaigns. The tendency to lie, to cheat, and defame one’s opponents has become all too common; and even greater is the temptation for politicians to become filled with hubris—creating little cults of personalities around them—especially if they win. The French Catholic political philosopher Yves Simon was a great defender of liberal democracy, along Thomistic lines, but recognized this conflict:
Christians learned from Christ himself that among them rulers should be the most humble of all and consider themselves the servants of their brethren. The Vicar of Christ is called the Servant of the servants of God. . . . Governing positions [in contrast] are commonly sought for the advantages that they bring to their holders, above all, for the satisfaction of pride and of the lust for power; Christ states that it should not be so among his followers.
Christians in a democracy should seek to promote true statesman or women who exemplify the biblical virtues. Pius XII spoke of leaders “of high moral character and steadfast resolution,” who, during a crisis “consider it doubly incumbent upon them to calm the fevered passions of people and State with the spiritual antidote of clear ideas, generosity, equitable justice for all, and a reasoned movement towards national unity and harmony in a spirit of genuine brotherhood.”
How many contemporary democracies are producing leaders like that?
Relativism. Democracies are particularly susceptible to relativism, since a majority’s will is often taken to confer moral goodness on someone or something, even if it is just the opposite. Democracies are often driven by majority rule, even if the destination is harmful to society. Simon speaks about the “cab-driver” theory of democracy, wherein the cab driver goes anywhere his clients want. This is fine, as long as the address is a safe and legitimate place. But what if the client asks the cab driver to drive off the cliff? A sane driver will refuse, just as a sane political leader or judge will refuse to sanction evil, even if he is pressured to do so. The amount of Christian politicians who’ve sanctioned the killing of unborn children, to cite just one example, because their constituents want it, is shocking, and represents a betrayal of authentic democracy and Christianity itself.
In Centesimus annus, John Paul II noted the “tendency to claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life.” But from the Church’s perspective, Christian truth—the truth about man and society and our moral obligations to God—can never be sacrificed on the altars of pseudo-democratic convenience. Authentic democracy, in fact, is rooted in truth, and as soon as it departs from it, loses all credibility.
Tyranny. Democracies are supposed to protect us from tyranny—and when properly run, admirably do—but without time-tested values, they unravel, and degenerate into what John Paul II calls a “thinly disguised totalitarianism.”
The United States has extra-protection from this because it’s not a pure or direct democracy, but a constitutional republic, based upon the rule of law. Yet the recent attack against religious liberty shows that America is not immune from the danger; and it isn’t the first time the nation has lost its footing. Writing about the 1830’s, historian John B. McMaster wrote:
The decade covered by the ‘thirties’ is unique in our history. Fifty years of life at high pressure had brought the people to a state of excitement, of lawlessness, of mob-rule, such as had never before existed. Intolerance, turbulence, riot became the order of the day. Differences of opinion ceased to be respected. Appeals were made not to reason but to force; reforms, ideals, institutions that were not liked were attacked and put down by violence; and one of the least liked and first to be assaulted was the Church of Rome.
We recovered from that delirium, and—God willing—can recover from today’s serious troubles, too, whoever wins on Tuesday. But in order to do so, Christians need to be a leaven on America’s democratic enterprise, and not shrink from our role in the public square. As the Swiss historian Oskar Bauhofer wrote:
Democracy in the modern age has been designed for the restoration and preservation of freedom, but it inevitably becomes destructive of its own end when it turns totalitarian. Within the precincts of the Church human liberty has been fostered and developed more fully and comprehensively than it ever was or could have been realized in antiquity. Democracy today holds the guardianship of this liberty, while the Church, and Christianity at large, will continue to be its unceasing inspiration and its innermost source of life.
The best way Christians can preserve a democracy is to offer it the truth they have been given by Christ.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
Democracy and a Lasting Peace: Christmas Address of Pope Pius XII, 1944
Centesimus Annus (1991) encyclical by Blessed John Paul II
The Story of American Catholicism (1941) by Theodore Maynard
An Outline History of the Church by Centuries (1949) by Joseph McSorley
The Catholic Church in World Affairs (1954) edited by Waldemar Gurian and M.A. Fitzimons
The Religious Heritage of American Democracy by Father Joseph F. Costanzo, SJ
Catholic Social Doctrine: What Does the Church Teach About Democracy and Values by Andrew M. Greenwell, Catholic Online, March 27, 2012
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