Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Democracy and ‘Civil Friendship’

StLouis Today is the Feast of St. Louis, King of France. Celebrating the life of a holy king might lead us to reflect on the modern notion of politics in light of Church teaching.  Pope John Paul II saw it as self-evident that democracy was better than Marxist totalitarian government and by extension other governments which “usurp the power of the State for individual interests or for ideological ends.”  In a series of social encyclicals Pope John Paul II comments on the need to reform disordered governments in the world:


Other nations need to reform certain unjust structures, and in particular their political institutions, in order to replace corrupt, dictatorial and authoritarian forms of government by democratic and participatory ones. This is a process which we hope will spread and grow stronger. For the "health" of a political community - as expressed in the free and responsible participation of all citizens in public affairs, in the rule of law and in respect for the promotion of human rights - is the necessary condition and sure guarantee of the development of "the whole individual and of all people." (Sollicitudo rei socialis 44)

This is a clear endorsement of democratic government and the responsible participation of its citizens.  Four years later, in 1991, Pope John Paul II adds;

The Church values the democratic system inasmuch as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices, guarantees to the governed the possibility both of electing and holding accountable those who govern them, and of replacing them through peaceful means when appropriate. Thus she cannot encourage the formation of narrow ruling groups which usurp the power of the State for individual interests or for ideological ends. (Centesimus annus, 46). 

He also acknowledges that “Authentic democracy is possible only in a State ruled by law, and on the basis of a correct conception of the human person.” (CA, 46).

This is a clear advance in the development of the Church’s social doctrine.  We cannot say the Church is agnostic about the best form of government.  The Church clearly prefers government that upholds the values of electing and holding accountable those who govern and of the free and responsible participation of all citizens in public affairs. Only in authentic democracy do we find these values.  At the same time he notes, “The Church respects the legitimate autonomy of the democratic order and is not entitled to express preferences for this or that institutional or constitutional solution” (CA, 47).  There are many different ways to implement democracy, but there are also solutions which do not reflect “authentic democracy.”

While democracy is a general ideal, the particulars can be very problematic.  There are many who have grown very cynical about the particular democracies they live in. On might ask (purely for the sake of argument) would a society be better off with a good monarch or benevolent dictator rather than a bad democratic government?  To explore this question one might begin by asking, what makes a monarch/dictator “good” or “bad”?  It would seem to be the character or virtues of the leader.  In the same way we might ask, what makes a democracy “bad”?  It would seem to be not the fault of democracy as an institution, but of the bad character of its citizens.   The Compendium of Social Doctrine acknowledges that democracy requires virtue from its citizens to achieve its intended ends.  The Compendium notes,

The profound meaning of civil and political life does not arise immediately from the list of personal rights and duties. Life in society takes on all its significance when it is based on civil friendship and on fraternity. The sphere of rights, in fact, is that of safeguarded interests, external respect, the protection of material goods and their distribution according to established rules. (CSDC 390)

St_Thomas_Aquinas The notion of civil friendship is taken from St. Thomas Aquinas.  It is not the external forms alone which give meaning to political life. The citizens are required to live the virtue of solidarity.  Is this possible?  Is total cynicism about governments justified?  The compendium acknowledges that;

Civil friendship understood in this way is the most genuine actualization of the principle of fraternity, which is inseparable from that of freedom and equality. In large part, this principle has not been put into practice in the concrete circumstances of modern political society, above all because of the influence of individualistic and collectivistic ideologies. (CSDC 390).

While this ideal has not been fully practiced in our modern political societies this may be the result of “individualistic and collectivistic ideologies” which impair freedom and equality.  Ultimately this highlights the political problem as an interior one.  What the world of politics is lacking is not only external forms of government which promote justice but conversion of heart and catechesis in the common good.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us,

It is not the role of the Pastors of the Church to intervene directly in the political structuring and organization of social life. This task is part of the vocation of the lay faithful, acting on their own initiative with their fellow citizens. Social action can assume various concrete forms. It should always have the common good in view and be in conformity with the message of the Gospel and the teaching of the Church. It is the role of the laity "to animate temporal realities with Christian commitment, by which they show that they are witnesses and agents of peace and justice." (CCC 2442).

The real answer to the problem of politics is the universal call to holiness.  We need citizens who become contemplatives in the midst of the world.  Our life of political action must be animated by our interior conversion.  St. Louis, Pray for us!

On the Feast of St. Louis,


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