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21 septembre 2007 5 21 /09 /septembre /2007 19:00
The relationship between Church and democracy has been much debated; more often than not these debates have proven unproductive. Two strains of arguments have been advanced : (1) an alledged hostility of the Church toward democracy, (2) an apparent incapacity of the Church to participate in the democratic process. Only by clarifying the concept of democracy can these stereotypes be overcome. To assert that democratic governance means '"exercise of power in the name of the people" would not adequately clarify the issue before us. It will be of decisive importance to ascertain if the mandate of those who govern is seen as limited or rather as unlimited; in this manner an indebtedness to either the Anglo-Saxon tradition or that of Continental democracy, particularly in its French form, will become manifest.

It has been a feature of Anglo-Saxon democracy to keep distinct spheres of public life outside the bounds of political decision-making. This applied to churches and religious communities - and has given shape to freedom of religion; freedom of communal self-governance has been established in the same manner. Anglo-Saxon democracy thereby demonstrated an ability to encourage civil society and guarantee the separation of Church and State with its "free" religious choices. Continental democracy - which traces its roots to the French Revolution - did not acknowledge such protected spheres. It did it not tolerate any form of free, civil society. The Jacobin State - as enacted in the era of Robespierre -did not only embrace the absolutism of the "ancien regime" in the name of democracy, but aspired to become itself a "church" .This was the hour of "totalitarian democracy " which did not inaugurate civic freedoms and a popular franchise but brought forth the dictatorship of a self-chosen vanguard, the cult of reason, a revolutionary, pagan calendar and the guillotine as its means of enforcement.

In the late 18th century there was nary a presence of the Catholic Church in Anglo-Saxon countries, with the exception of Ireland. Instead the Church had to contend with the Continental form of democracy, which did not respect the Christian distinction between the "Spiritual" and "Temporal" realm. The democratic claim to sovereignty over all spheres ushered in a permanent conflict between Church and democracy.  In France, this antagonism lasted for well over a century, intermittent efforts at mediation between Catholic believers and enlightened democrats - such as those undertaken by Robert de Lamennais - not withstanding.

Unlike France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Ireland underwent a process of rapprochment by the middle of the 19th century. This trend was not due to any theological endeavor but occurred as a consequence of the actual participation of Catholics in democratic institutions such as voluntary associations, political parties and elected assemblies. These countries were, of course, also far removed from the ideological laicism that dominated the French Republic. By contrast, these societies allowed for the emergence of "Political Catholicism", which used the tools of democracy to secure political freedom for Christians and gain an audible voice in the political culture. Initial steps toward a more proximate relation between Church and democracy fall in the pontificate of Leo XIII . Widely considered the first great pope of the Modern Era, Pope Leo assumed the reign of the Vatican in 1878, some eight years after the military dissolution of the Papal States of Central Italy. In his 25 years at the helm of the Holy See, Pope Leo laid the foundation for the Holy See as a modern polity by:

1)    establishing diplomatic relations with most European states;
2)    spreading "mission" as a world-wide endeavor to all continents;
3)    renewing the theological & philosophical training of the clergy;
4)    crafting the first of the pace-setting social encyclicals , Rerum Novarum , in 1891.

With Rerum Novarum , Pope Leo also provided the key to the eventual reconciliation of the Church with democracy. This is not to say that democracy even formed the subject of his encyclical. Rerum Novarum was actually addressing the problems of workers and their labor. Nonetheless, the Pope placed the Church in the public square of political debate by raising such issues as the obligations and limits of the authority of the State, workers' rights to collective bargaining, the rights of families and the general relationship of Church and State. 

In his encyclical Graves de Communi of 1901, Pope Leo commemorated the reconciliation among French Catholics and their participation in democratic institutions. Yet, this papal approbation of democracy rested on a very restrictive, a-political view which pegged democracy as a "movement of social care for the people". What clearly mattered to Pope Leo XIII were the natural obligations of all state authority to work for the common good and the cooperative relation of Church and State. Vatican policy, however, would not express a preference for the democratic form of government for another 40 years.

It fell to Pius XII to explicitly state a preference for democray in 1944. He did so in the papal Christmas message, by speaking favorably of the resistance against uncontrolled , dictatorial state power and the demand for a "system of government that upholds the dignity and freedom of the citizen". Pope Pius XII also ventured the opinion that democracies would not wage wars of aggression, when he stated " that the world would not have been drawn into the fatal abyss of war, if there had been publicly defined limitations on the use of force." Although this preference is still balanced by the broader assertion that "the Church does not reject any form of state power as long as it is capable of promoting the common good of the citizenry".

The pontiff further asserted that democracy "may well manifest itself in varying forms that find expression in monarchies as well as republics". Ultimately, however, Pius XII offered an anthropological rationale : namely, that the human person - with his freedom and dignity, his rights and duties is "subject, basis and purpose" of the State.  He thereby laid the foundation upon which John XXIII and Vatican II would continue to build.

John XXIII launches his plea for Democracy with Pacem in Terris. He posits an active participation in public life as a direct consequence of human dignity,  but he does allow for a certain difficulty " in determining once and for all " which form of government would be the most appropriate, given the varying specific conditions that prevail from country to country.  Among the signs of the age which John XXIII acknowledges in his social encyclicals, the process of democratization ranks foremost. The encyclicals as well as Gaudium et Spes actually favour such concepts as 'socialization', 'mutual interdependence' and 'socialization',  but all of these formulations are actually aiming at the worldwide, intensified participation of citizens in the political process.

I. The 'Why' and 'Wherefore' of Democracy.

In its approach toward democracy, Vatican Council II is not only unencumbered by past historical controversies, but also carries forth a new view of the world. Its preference for democracy is no longer in doubt. Building on the social encyclicals of John XXIII , the Council finds the justification for democracy in the dignity of the person. The participation in political decision-making is then a necessary consequence. The development " of legal and political structures which give their citizen the chance to participate freely and actively - without any discrimination - in establishing the constitutional basis of political community, governing the state, determining the scope and purpose of various institutions and electing leaders" , this very development of democratic constitutional systems is " in full accord with human nature".  Since all men are equal before God, created according to his image and marked by the same divine calling, "the basic equality of all must receive ever increasing recognition".  The political system in which these matters will receive their fullest realization is democracy. The Council therefore especially acknowledges those nations " in which the largest possible number of citizen participates with genuine freedom in public affairs." 

Clearly, the Council establishes its preference for democracy in anthropological terms. And it sees no grounds to invoke the principle of 'popular sovereignty'. A German commentator of Gaudium et Spes , the Jesuit Oswald von Nell-Breuning, rightly recognizes this fact. Yet, he proceeds to observe with a tone of regret, that the Council did not marshall the courage to profess the democratic principle with ultimate resolve.  This expression of regret by Nell-Breuning is altogether uncalled for. It springs from a fixation on the Continental model of democracy which is forever burdened with the antinomies of legitimacy. For it is evident that "popular sovereignty" does not guarantee a free & democratic constitutional State, since this State is always dependent on boundaries that would place limits on political power - boundaries that are not congruent with the principle of "popular sovereignty" . And it is precisely on this issue that the Council has advisedly expressed its preference for democracy in terms of the dignity of the human person.

The new view of the world, which is of central significance for political ethics and democratic culture, builds on the "autonomy of earthly realities". It is an autonomy that is "relative" or "right", that does not separate the created world from its creator, yet nonetheless respects - or even values - its "inherent laws". When the Council declares," that all things are endowed with their own stability, truth, goodness, inherent laws and order which man must respect, since matters earthly as well as those of faith have their origin in the same God" , then this is also valid for politics. Politics is the construction of the common good, which in turn is defined anthropocentrically as the sum total of societal presuppositions that serve the personal development of man.  To attain the common good requires political authority, i.e. power capable of asserting itself in a rightly ordered manner. It does not constitute 'dirty business' to acquire and make use of such power, but it is rather a service to the citizen and indeed a distinct form of love of neighbor. 

II. The Government and the Governed - the Ethos of Democratic Systems.

One outcome of the Council's positive worldview is the high value placed on the service of the politician. In fact, politicians are the foremost builders of the common good, the architects of the legal system and the trustees of power. The work of those who serve other human beings through the advancement of the common good -- and also carry the burdens that come with it -- receive the full recognition and respect of the Church. Whoever is inclined to pursue the hard yet honorable vocation of the politician must train purposefully and commit himself to the task at hand " without thoughts of personal gain and material advantage" . Politics translates into washing the feet of others. It is a labor of devotion.

To sustain a stable democratic culture within a pluralistic society has certain requirements: Those who govern and those who are being governed must observe distinctive patterns of conduct and work toward acquiring a specific ethos. On this issue Gaudium et Spes provides a short but succinct narrative. The Council presupposes a "pluralistic society".  Such a society is in no way deficient, but is rather the result of human freedom and diversity. The Church respects the political freedom of the citizen and by extension that of the politician. It is her aim to specifically promote this very freedom through her proclamation of the Gospel.  As a consequence Gaudium et Spes does not recommend specific political parties to the politician; neither is there any agenda that promotes the particulars of ecclesiastical freedom. Within a moral-law framework, the politician may develop his "agency" freely to fulfill the purposes of the community, always mindful - as a Christian - of the separation of Church and State. He is encouraged to distinguish between those matters that can be attained "by citizens in their own name", versus other matters that are realized "in the name of the Church in concord with her shepherds" . This esteem for the freedom of both citizen and politician is congruent with the high regard for freedom as it has been articulated in the work/oeuvre of Josemaria Escriva.  There is consequently no room for the notion of a "Catholic Action" that would amount to laity organized under the political aegis of a bishop.

Like every freedom, however, the freedom of the politician has its limits. The misuse of political authority, corruption, dictatorial or even totalitarian modes of governance cannot leave the politician indifferent. It becomes his obligation to fight against injustice, oppression and intolerance in all of its manifestations.  In turn, he has to stay clear of any violation of the dignity of the human person. The commentary by the Congregation of the Faith entitled, "Note in some questions regarding the participation and conduct of Catholics in political life" [ dated 24 Nov 2002 ] invoked - with explicit reference to Gaudium et Spes - certain "non-negotiable" principles about laicity and pluralism for the benefit of the politician. Observing these rules is, indeed, constitutive of a humane, democratic culture. Among the indispensible principles that act as limitations on pluralism are:

-- Respect and protection of the rights of the embryo and the family;
this entails battling against the legalization of abortion, euthenasia, same-sex unions and prostitution;
-- Protection of educational choice and freedom of religion;
-- Committment to peace and justice. 

By invoking such principles the Church wishes "neither to exercise political power nor to place limits on the free speech of Catholics in the many contingent situations of life". In addition , the Church is not questioning "the autonomy of the civil and political sphere vis-a-vis the religious and ecclesiastical sphere" , since she keenly appreciates its civilizational achievements. Her concern is to underscore that the freedom of the politician cannot be construed as being cut loose from moral duties. 

Yet, this canvas of moral obligations does not merely feature warning signs. Gaudium et Spes lays out the table of duties like a roadmap with its rights of way. Those who govern must assure the freedom of the citizen. They must vigorously promote the 'free sphere of activity' of families, voluntary associations, non-profits and kindred organizations.  Consequently, elected office holders are being reminded of the Subsidarity Principle, which incorporates both limiting as well as empowering dimensions. Government must not curtail what citizens, families and societal groups can attain on their own, but must extend its protective and supportive capacities when these groups are overwhelmed in order to restore them to their ( rightful ) autonomous activity. The Subsidarity Principle - once more affirmed by the Council - is the key to a free and democratic political system. It rests on the anthropolological premise that the successful shaping of human life is primarily dependent on the readiness and capacity of individuals to take initiatives, undergo exertions, bear risks and deliver performances. A democratic culture is not merely focussed on those who govern. It also requires a code of conduct for those who are being governed. Here the consideration is twofold : On one hand the interrelation amongst the governed, on the other hand t h e i r relation with those who govern. The teaching of the Council is based on the tradition of the Aristotelian doctrine of virtue, which points the citizen to the quest for the right middle;
-- between love of country and global solidarity;
-- between freedom and adaptation;
-- between personal initiative and the bond of solidarity;
-- between unity and diversity.

At the same time the Council teaches the need for tolerance in the face of controversies over political issues - with an eye on strengthening the textures of democratic culture.  The Council expects citizens to committ themselves unequivocally to the use of the ballot box in order to confirm or replace those who govern. There can be no such thing as the common good unless the governed exercise their franchise with purpose and regularity. Additionally, Gaudium et Spes throws light on the types of behavior that secure both the legal and social institutions of the State. There is the obligation of citizens to follow the rule of law. Even when governments overreach in their rule making, citizens are not relieved from their duty " to do what the common good objectively requires". And yet, the encyclical also suggests that the common good may require acts of resistance when the rule of law "is to be defended against abuses perpetrated by those who exercise public authority." Such right to resistance must, of course , be balanced by the "limiting role of Natural Law and the Gospel".

The perspective that Gaudium et Spes provided for citizens in the 1960's, in the matter of social entitlements, has gained much greater urgency with the growing crisis of the Welfare State at the beginning of the 21st century. The issue at hand is the right 'middle' between withholdings from earnings and the pay-out through social security entitlements. For in the proper balance between these sets of obligations and expectations lies the key to the stability of every system of social security. It is the duty of the citizen " to furnish the State with those material and personal services that are required for the common good".  To summarize: taxes and withholdings make up the compass of citizens' obligations and for the male citizen there is the additional duty of compliance with the military draft. Correspondingly, there is a mandate for those who govern to provide a fair and equitable system of taxation and fees.

Within this set of corresponding relationships the Council also identifies the right of the citizen to receive social security benefits when loss of income due to illness, old age, disability or impairment have set in. The Council understands that Welfare States are facing inordinate demands on the system of social security. It therefore admonishes the citizens not to clamor for " excessive entitlements and compensations " in their dealings with government and the elected representatives.  Unfortunately, it would be an exaggeration to say that this exhortation fell on receptive ears in the four decades since its initial promulgation. Every European Welfare State is now confronted with the dire necessity to carry out incisive reforms of its social security system in order assure its survival. The assault on the system is actually threefold;

1.    Mushrooming entitlement claims;
2.    Non-growth economies;
3.    Negative demographic trends.

In Centesimus Annus John Paul II has rightly subjected the ever expanding social entitlements to a vigorous critique. His focus is not so much on the enormous financial challenge but rather on the counterproductive, paralyzing impact on the social conduct of recipients when he states: " Through direct intervention and the ensuing stripping away of initiative, the Welfare State sets into motion a distinct loss of human energies as well as a bloating of governmental offices. Bureaucratic imperatives begin to overwhelm the direct service to the entitlement recipients. All of this is accompanied by an enormous increase of expenditure". 

Yet, the critical stance taken in Gaudium et Spes is still quite cautious. Two issues stand out:
(1)    concern about excessive welfare claims and expectations;
(2)    the view that the rule of law does not only require compliance
with the law, but under certain conditions also acts of resistance by the citizenry. Both of these insights help to underscore an anthropological constant : Democracy is decisively shaped by the ambivalence of human nature.

III. Democratic Systems - structural considerations.

The Vatican Council clearly sees the human person in terms of freedom and likeness in the Image of God , yet it also acknowledges the ambiguity of human nature. It invokes the bifurcation - ( in se ipso divisus est homo ) which dominates both individual and collective life in terms of a dramatic struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness.  The high praise of freedom as the "solemn sign of the divine image within man"  is thus not embraced naively by the Council. It underscores a fundamental tension between the free and the unfree will. This realistic anthropology has of necessity consequences for a democratic culture. If man is thrown back and forth between good and evil, between constructive and destructive conduct - with its distinct consequences for societal and political life - then democracy requires an institutional frame work that effectively prevents the abuse of political power. Where such abuse can not be prevented, harmful outcomes must at least be contained.
The most important feature of such a political order is the separation of power. It distributes political power among the mutually balancing/controlling branches , namely the legislative, the executive and the adjudicative branch. Thus the legislature is tied to the constitution, the executive to statutary law and both of them are subject to the legal opinions rendered by the independent Constitutional Court. The executive is further restricted by administrative judicial review , while the latter is reigned in by legislative statutary power. Taken together a system of checks and balances which makes the abuse of power quite difficult. The Council endorses the separation of power by connecting responsibile actions of citizens in the public square with the rule of law . Here " a division of offices and institutions of public authority is affirmed in conjunction with a system of pervasive , normative [legal ] controls.  In comparison with Gaudium et Spes the subsequent encyclicals, Pacem in Terris and Centesimus Annus, take an even firmer position in favor of the separation of power. Indeed , both of these documents explicitly relate the separation of power to the ambivalent nature of man. John XXIII asserts that it is "fitting for human nature, when the public life of citizens is shaped through the tripartite structure of authority which should be a mirror of the three main tasks of political power". Such a political system does not merely order the tasks of public institutions, but also lays out the proper relations between those in governance and those who are being governed.  John Paul II views the separaton of power as reflecting "a realistic vision of man's social nature, that requires legislation to protect the freedom of all men." It is therefore preferable " that each power be kept in check by the other powers so that the right effect of balance - within proper bounds - is achieved." This constitutes the rule of law, " in which legal statutes rule and not the arbitrary will of individuals". 

Among the structures that assure freedom and place limits on political power in a democracy are , of course , a host of additional elements :

* regularly scheduled free elections;
* political parties that recruit the candidates for political office;
* voluntary associations and their lobbyists - i.e. the intermediaries that fill the space between those who are governed and the elected office holders - that play a key role in political decision making;
* federalism and municipal self-government;
* "last but not least" - the free news media which enable citizen to be informed and thereby demand accountability from their elected officials.

The power of the media has been captured by the term "the fourth estate ": a clear indication of their significant power. They are, however, not exempt from the ambivalence of human nature.

Not all of these topics are explicitly featured in Gaudium et Spes , but none of them contradict the recommendations that Gaudium et Spes lays out for a democratic culture.

The Council acknowledges what was already known to Leo XIII and Pius XI , i.e. the significance of societal and political structures for a democratic culture, for the protection of human dignity and the successful outcome of human life. It further underscores the tenet of the Church's social teaching which holds that such successful outcome does not only depend on personal conduct and virtue, but also on just structures and institutions that assure freedom. There is simply no denying, " that men are often diverted from doing good and spurred toward evil on account of the societal conditions in which they live and are immersed from the very day of birth".  For this reason Leo XIII had spoken about the duty of elected office holders to work legislation and administration in such a manner, " that it leads to the flourishing of the commonwealth and the persons contained therein".  Likewise, Pius XI worried -at the outset of the 1930's during the worldwide economic crisis - about societal and economic conditions " which would make it extraordinarily difficult for large numbers of people to attend to the one thing truly needful: their eternal salvation. 

There are thus several essential tasks of social ethics:
(1) to inquire into the political and societal conditions of a successful life.
(2) to analyse the structures and institutions of public life as they serve to facilitate the common good.
(3) to act as an independent discipline that contributes - in close cooperation with the social sciences - to the full spectrum of Catholic theology; thus being more than a mere subdiscipline of moral theology.

Since political and societal conditions carry such great weight for the successful outcome of human life, the Catholic Church saw fit to develop its own body of Social Teaching in the latter part of the 19th century. The key figure in this development was the Bishop of Mainz, Emmanuel von Ketteler, whom Leo XIII once characterized as his great teacher. It was this memorable tradition that disposed the Council to lay out the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes - being a handbook of Christian social doctrine and a guideline for democratic culture.

Interest in the societal, legal and political structures, that extends to the economic order, the development of the 'Third World' and the securing of international peace, surely is a specific characteristic of the political ethics of Gaudium et Spes. But Christian Social Doctrine does not attempt to enshrine social structures as the sole causative factor of the common good. The successful outcome of human life is n o t the function of societal relations. This was the locus of the deepest and most devastating error of Karl Marx.  A political ethics which assumes that the common good would arise "by itself" from the rule of law is utterly naive. The same holds true for any economic ethics.  In the quote from Rerum Novarum provided above, Leo XIII was surely not asserting that good legislation would suffice to bring about a "flourishing" of the common good. Societal structures will always be interacting with individual conduct. They will be imprinted by such conduct, but in turn they will also shape individuals. " One cannot speak of the inhumanity of circumstances, without posing the question of the humanity of individuals." 

IV. The Consequences of Gaudium et Spes

During the 25 years of his pontificate, John Paul II has built a mighty edifice on the foundation laid by the Council. With his very first encyclical , Redemptor Hominis (1979) , the Pope clearly strengthened the preference of the Church and its Social Teaching in favor of democracy. Democratic systems that grant every citizen the chance of political participation, that honor human rights and allow the people to master their own political destiny are seen as having the highest importance, "from the vantage point of man's personal progress and the total development of his humanity". All of this, of course, against the backdrop of 20th century totalitarianism with its material as well as moral devastations.  Clearly, the church has a high regard for democracy, in so far as the participation of the citizens in political decision making is fully assured, and the governed retain the right to exercise their franchise which extends - if necessary - to the right of peacefully replacing the elected office holders. 

In his encyclical Solicitudo Rei Socialis , John Paul II identifies democracy as a necessary condition for the development of man. He asserts the central importance of the free and responsible participation of all citizens in public life, the rule of law and the respect as well as adherence to human rights "as necessary conditions and certain guarantees of the development of every human person and of all people". He therefore speaks explicitly about the reform of unjust structures - especially in the political sphere, " in order to replace corrupt, dictatorial and authoritarian governance through those that are democratic & participatory". 

The pontificate of John Paul II is not only characterized by his continous support for democracy, but also by his concern for democratic culture. Since the day he assumed office, the Pope has steadily addressed the conditions of legitimacy in democracies, whose first and most decisive task is the protection of the lives of all human beings, especially of the unborn and the elderly who are in need of care. The disregard of the right to life, that is manifest in abortion, euthanasia and the killing of embryos in vitro, is seen by John Paul II not merely as a scandal or symptom of a culture of death but as an expression of a crisis of democracy.  The legitimacy of every democracy rests on the acknowledgement of the dignity of all human beings, their inalienable rights, and the principle of the rule of law. Every democracy is therefore subject to limits which restrict the franchise and political majority will. Even as a secular state democracy lives from prerequisites that are beyond its capacity as guarantor. 

John Paul II contradicts the claim that agnosticism and relativism constitute the philosophical foundation of democracy. He asserts that a democracy without unequivocal value committments will "easily be transformed into an overt or veiled totalitarianism, as history clearly demonstrates". It is only through the reception of truth that democracies can attain the full benefit of freedom.  This is not merely the Social Doctrine of the Church but also the tenet, indeed the very ground of legitimacy of secular constitutions. Accordingly, we find that the German constitution declares human dignity as 'inviolate' [ Article 79.3 ] and confers this "off-limits status" also to fundamental Human Rights [ Article 1 ] and to the principles of democracy, the rule of law and a federal political system [ Article 20 ]. Adherence to such a perpetual, 'inviolate' status will only be possible if the corresponding democratic culture remains vibrant. The committment of the Church on behalf of the truth among humans -that is taught by Christ himself - is therefore closely connected to its committment to liberty among humans beings. The devotion of the Church to the defense of life and the proclamation of the Gospel is not the special interest of a societal pressure group, but a fostering of political freedom and responsibility of citizens. As sign and protection of the transcendence of the human person  the Church acts as s e r v a n t to democratic culture. During the 25 years of his pontificate and the 40 years since Vatican II, the Pope has attested to the confidence of the Church in man's freedom and capacity to order political life in a just way.  In so doing John Paul II has rendered a great service to democratic culture and has changed the entire world - not only in Central and Eastern Europe.

Professeur Manfred Spieker
Pampelune, Septembre 2004

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