Witnessing A Retreat From Democracy
APPLYING CATHOLIC SOCIAL TEACHING TO: POPE FRANCIS ON “WITNESSING A RETREAT FROM DEMOCRACY”
During a keynote speech in Athens, Greece—“where democracy was born”—Pope Francis expressed his grave concerns with a worldwide movement away from democracy, and called for a “change in direction.”
- “Democracy requires participation and involvement on the part of all; consequently, it demands hard work and patience. It is complex, whereas authoritarianism is peremptory, and populism’s easy answers appear attractive.”
- “Universal participation is something essential; not simply to attain shared goals but also because it corresponds to what we are: social beings, at once unique and interdependent.”
- “Let us help one another, instead, to pass from partisanship to participation; from committing ourselves to supporting our party alone to engaging ourselves actively for the promotion of all.”
Written by Matthew Marquardt
Pope Francis, speaking in Athens to the president and other Greek governmental and civil leaders, renewed his plea for recommitment by world democracies to the foundational values of truth, freedom, justice and charity.
Pope Francis made specific reference to other nations as well as Greece, citing rising threats of populist nationalism and enculturated consumerism in many nations as particular concerns.
As an antidote to such problems, the Holy Father called citizens of all countries to active participation in their societies. The Church, of course, has long advocated active participation at all levels of society, in accordance with the depth of the gifts that have been entrusted to each individual by God (Matthew 25; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1913-1917). The Pope would appear to support the notion that widespread involvement by properly formed voters is the key to democratic success.
Although Canada, thankfully, is not yet critically threatened by populism, our democracy does indeed appear to be under attack, an attack that is abetted by our own lack of participation. And we can see the approach of populism in the highly polarized invective that has come to mark our politics. Nor can it be denied that much of what binds Canadians together is a deep, too often thoughtless commitment to the accumulation of maximum individual material wealth, without reference to need – our own or the needs of others. Watching news stories and trends in Canadian legislation, for example, we might ask ourselves whether an insidious and aggressive consumerism is being promoted by less-than-scrupulous power seekers in order to undermine the foundations of our Canadian brand of democracy, with various federal and provincial initiatives chipping away at personal and familial freedoms of conscience, speech, and religion—even the freedom to make our own personal health choices—while we distract ourselves with newer and ever-flashier gadgets and radical forms of self-expression and indulgence.
It’s common these days, for example, to attack social conventions and traditions—which are, after all, the fundamental premises of all governments—as obsolete and pointlessly restrictive ‘social constructs.’ Alarmingly, too many of these attacks appear to be spearheaded by ruling governments themselves.
As the Holy Father has suggested, the answer to these woes is participation. And it is critical to accept the need for a common basis of participation, if truth, freedom, justice and love are to overcome selfishness, lies, and the slavery of populism and consumerism.
Historically, of course, modern democracies were founded on precisely these values: the enculturated Christian values of truth, freedom, justice, and love guiding application of the principles of human dignity, the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity. It is not coincidence that the historically-accepted values of society are the same Christian social values expressly adopted by Catholic social doctrine.
These development and application of these principles and values was made possible because Christian society, in common with our Jewish and Muslim cousins, shared a common understanding of the meaning of life: that we, being lost children of God, are meant apply ourselves, using our full strength, to the search for truth—which for us is God—and thereby find our ways back to Him. And we Christians have been instructed, by Christ (Matthew 22) that this process intimately involves bringing with us on the way to God as many of our neighbors as we can bring by mean of gentle persuasion—persuasion based on joyful witness to Christ as an integral part of our daily lives.
It is the rejection of that common purpose of life that is being instigated by those who deny the existence of either God or any other objective truth. Such forces insist that our creation is an accident, and that the best we can do with this life is to pursue our own personal definitions of pleasure and ‘well-being.’
With no broadly accepted purpose of life, it is not possible to propose any broadly-agreed role for government; and society quickly devolves into one form or another of might-makes-right, or, as we have defined in the context of nature, as “the survival of the fittest.”
Two of the many items Catholic Conscience looks for when reviewing a party’s platform and constitutional documents while preparing our election guides are the party’s positions on the meaning of life and the purpose of government. At this point, few of the parties are willing to share commitments on these issues. One of our current priority goals is to encourage them to do so. Please join us in encouraging parties and candidates to define and share their positions on these and other issues, so that we can begin to build consensus on the purpose of our societies, and in so doing help to strengthen our democracy and ensure its durability.
The full text of the Holy Father’s address can be found at: Apostolic Journey to Cyprus and Greece: Meeting with Authorities, Civil Society and the Diplomatic Corps (Presidential Palace in Athens, 4 December 2021) | Francis (vatican.va).
POINTS TO PONDER:
- When you think about your own political beliefs and decisions—how you vote, who you donate money to, what causes you support—do you consider the purpose of life in those choices?
- What do you believe is the purpose of life? What does Christ tell us about the purpose of life?
- In our own democracy, what do you believe are the most serious threats to a society based in truth, charity, and human dignity? What does Catholic social teaching say about these issues? Pray about how you could make a contribution to addressing these challenges.