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Respecting Democracy More Than God

Editors Note: an earlier version of this article was inadvertently missing two consecutive paragraphs. They began with “When members of the Church…” and “No genuine Catholic…” Their omission may have altered the coherence of the article. They are now included.

St Thomas More

St. Thomas More said that he was “the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” Today there are few Kings, or Queens, and they are merely symbolic of supreme national authority. Supremacy is held (theoretically) by the (voting) public, whose wishes and priorities are (to varying extents) implemented by a procedure known as democracy. According to the secularism which now seems to grip most of the world, democratically-made law is the height of authority and must be obeyed. It is their substitute for God. Yet if they dislike a law they invoke some principle which they allege to have even higher authority, and say that the law should be changed accordingly (so, while repudiating God and saying that only material things exist, they believe in a higher morality after all). Christians would agree with ‘higher morality,’ but many – perhaps most – and especially Catholics, seem to take the view that once a democratic decision has been made the matter has been settled finally and that no attempt to change it should be made.[i] Ninety years ago, Adolf Hitler’s power was entrenched legally and democratically. At the invitation of President Hindenburg, he became Germany’s Chancellor in January 1933, and in March 1933 Germany’s Parliament voted itself out of existence and enabled Hitler to rule by decree. What would today’s ‘servants of democracy’ say about those legal, democratic events? Probably they would concede that sometimes legal and democratic decisions should not be accepted as ‘the last word on the matter’.  

One of the effects of regarding legal, democratic decisions as final is the often-heard idea that ‘although I would not choose [insert relevant subject] I respect other people’s freedom to do so’. That is advantageous by (a) appearing to be ‘fair-minded,’ (b) reassuring people whose support might otherwise be forfeited, and (c) evading effort which seems to have no chance of success. Some politicians seem especially prone to behaving in that way.

A British politician, an avowed Christian, who had ‘come under fire’ for having displayed attitudes unfavourable to abortion said, according to reports: I am a complete democrat. I would prefer that people didn’t have abortions but I am not seeking to undo abortion laws. They are not going to change.

Another British Christian politician, when asked for an opinion about ‘people who have children outside of marriage,’ replied in a way which (seemingly influenced by such a situation among relatives and/or friends; have you noticed that a wish to avoid ‘disloyalty’ to one’s ‘own’ tends to take precedence over loyalty to truth?) amounted to ‘running with the hare and barking with the hounds’: I can’t say they’re wrong; it’s not my way of life but it’s their choice; I’m not going to impose my views on them [But that is what politicians do: they pass laws imposing their views of what society should be like.], and I ask for the same freedom in return. Regarding same-sex ‘marriage,’ the reply was: I would have voted against it, but won’t try to overturn it. I am a servant of democracy, and will defend people’s legal rights.

In the aftermath of the opprobrium which advocates of ‘tolerance’ always heap on public critics of homosexuality, a radio interviewer introduced to listeners “a gay Christian” politician and asked whether people with religious views have a place in public life. Answer: It’s not a question of that, but of whether they should impose their views on other people. I follow a liberal, secular policy in my political life. [So the liberal secular views of what society should tolerate can be imposed, but the view that culture and law should conform to Christian morals can not. That is tantamount to saying that, in effect, politics should be a ‘no-go’ area for God.] 

Such cases require the highlighting of facts which seem never to ‘surface’:

God knows everything and sees everything.[ii] He rules everything and can do everything.[iii] He has put everything under Christ’s feet.[iv] His dominion covers all human activity[v] and every human being[vi]; no-one may escape from His commands or the penalties which He has imposed.[vii]    

St. Peter and the Apostles were ordered not to preach Christianity, but refused to be silenced: “We must obey God rather than men.”[viii]

The Church’s mission includes the expression of moral judgments in politically-related matters whenever fundamental rights or the salvation of souls requires it.[ix]

Those who govern “should behave as ministers of divine providence.”[x]

Democracy is a mere procedure for producing decisions. It should not be portrayed as a principle which validates those decisions; truth and rectitude are independent of it. Authorities from St. Thomas Aquinas to Pope St. John Paul have taught that (as affirmed by CCC, paragraphs 1902 and 1903) authority is not automatically legitimate; such legitimacy exists only when the authority employs morally licit means to benefit the group concerned. Pope Benedict (in Westminster Hall, September 2010) said that if the morality underlying the democratic process is based on nothing more solid than social consensus (of which voting is believed to be evidence) the fragility of the process is clear.

St John Henry Newman

Recognition of that point has sometimes helped to lead Protestants into the Church. One was St. John Henry Newman, from whose lectures on “The Patristical Idea of Antichrist” the following was quoted by Bishop Patrick O’Donoghue: “Is there not…[a]n attempt to make expedience, and not truth, the end and the rule of measures of State and the enactments of Law? an attempt to make numbers, and not the Truth, the ground of maintaining, or not maintaining, this or that creed, as if we had any reason whatever in Scripture for thinking that the many will be in the right, and the few in the wrong?”[xi]

Anglican curate David Palmer became troubled by the fact that because doctrine was decided by votes at the General Synod he could look for nothing more authoritative than majority opinion to support a proposition: “I could only speak for my interpretation…, which was no better or worse than any other interpretation[, and] my interpretation was actually the minority view. Without authority, how could I claim to speak on the behalf of anyone, let alone God and his Church? I read the “Catechism of the Catholic Church…, and in it I recognized that the Catholic Church and its Magisterium really did possess authority. I realized that if there was an authority to be had, it had to come from Christ’s living body, and not from a written word or a democratic vote.”[xii]

Former Anglican bishop Dr. Graham Leonard wrote that in the General Synod “pragmatism became the order of the day,” and he decided that he “could not continue to proclaim the Gospel in the name of a Church which based its teaching on decisions made by majority vote in a debating society,” especially when the majority follow “the climate of the times” rather than what is “consonant with the Catholic faith.”[xiii]

Similarly, Dwight Longenecker became “increasingly disenchanted with Anglicanism,”[xiv] finding that lack of an objective theology meant that pastoral choices had to be made not on theological but utilitarian grounds,…on relativistic principles”; “…decisions were made…according to…what worked – what people ‘found useful’ and what the congregation wanted. … [S]ome clergy turned to Scripture…, but they were left to their own Biblical interpretation to come up with an answer. And if a minister did decide according to Scripture, his interpretation was likely to be contradicted not only by the priest in the next parish, but by his bishop as well. In such a relativistic climate it was often safer to choose a course of action by what was useful instead of what was true.”[xv]     

The frequent bows to democracy are made also to “the rule of law.” The implication is that the law must always be upheld. Usually, perhaps, it should be, but not necessarily always. We are not bound in conscience to accept laws or policies which are contrary to the moral order.[xvi] The real meaning of “the rule of law” is that law should keep within proper limits what would otherwise be left to arbitrary (and perhaps capricious) will.[xvii]

We must not obey rules which are contrary to authentic Christian principle.[xviii] This is a point which seems to be given very little, or no, prominence by Church authorities. Its being on the pages of formal documents is not enough. A “conspiracy of silence” is one of the ways by which sin is helped to spread.[xix] Silence can constitute scandalous omission and incur responsibility for sins thereby encouraged.[xx] 

Similarly, seemingly too many leaders in the Church, and certainly too many of the laity, neglect the fact that our duty extends beyond refusal to comply with immoral laws or policies. Most members of the Church are laity, to whom therefore falls the greater responsibility of being “the salt of the Earth.” At least on paper, the Church’s Magisterium encourages the laity to remedy circumstances which are an inducement to sin, so that virtue is favoured rather than hindered.[xxi]

When members of the Church are infected with false, worldly opinions and become apathetic about “mak[ing] disciples of all nations,”[xxii] democracy becomes a vehicle for hindering virtue by favouring sin. This is not a wholly-modern malaise, but its presence in history is no reason for being relaxed about it in our own time.

No genuine Catholic should be contented that disunity of belief produces contra-Catholic circumstances, yet, just as when Pope Pius XI wrote his Encyclical explaining that Christ’s dominion applies to the Earth as well as to Heaven,[xxiii] it is common to find “slowness and timidity in good people, who are reluctant to engage in conflict or oppose but a weak resistance,” with the result that “the enemies of the Church become bolder in their attacks.”[xxiv]

Those attacks are usually presented in terms of freedom versus restriction. The philosophical basis (although ‘basis’ it can hardly be) is that in a society of many beliefs nobody can know what is right or wrong, and therefore it is wrong to impose one particular opinion (the fact that they make an exception for that opinion is rarely challenged).  In a word, this is ‘relativism’ – “feet planted firmly in mid-air,” as U.S. talk-show host Al Kresta has called it.[xxv] Thus, people claim complete autonomy in their moral choices and lawmakers cater for it, “as if every possible outlook on life were of equal value.”[xxvi] At the same time, however, supporters of ‘tolerance’ and enemies of ‘judgmentalism’ oppose opposition:[xxvii] equivalent to saying, ‘we are right to act and/or to vote in accordance with our convictions, but you should not do the same; you should tolerantly stand aside’ (many have).

Social ‘diversity’ is sometimes called ‘pluralism’. It arises from the question of what are “true and valid answers to questions,” and it is “by no means an unlimited benefit. … [W]hen one wants to unlock a door, what one needs is not a bunch of keys, none of which may be the right one, but simply the one key that fits the lock.”[xxviii]

The ‘door’ which in our time has been so manifestly not merely unlocked but forced off its hinges is the Church’s moral doctrine. The prime movers in that process have been not simply looking for “true and valid answers to questions” but focused on an anti-religion objective. More specifically, “they hesitate not to proclaim…, and many among them boast of it, [that their objective is] to destroy outright, if possible, the Catholic religion, which is alone the true religion,”[xxix] and things have been going very much their way. Their progress continues to be smoothed by the sluggishness and timidity of erstwhile opponents,[xxx] and by those “who maintain that it is not opportune boldly to attack evil-doing in its might and when in the ascendant, lest, as they say, opposition should exasperate minds already hostile. … [T]hey are so far from thwarting the onward march of the evil disposed, that on the contrary they even help it forward.”[xxxi]

Much depends on who are in the majority, how large that majority is, and how strongly the majority want to preserve the status quo.  At one time, there were countries “of which the absolute majority of the population [was] Catholic,” such as Spain[xxxii] and Ireland. In such places, it was sometimes objected that “[Catholics] uphold the doctrine of the Confessional State with the duty of exclusive protection for the Catholic religion. On the other hand, where you form a minority, you claim the right of toleration… Hence for you there are two weights and two measures.

Well, quite frankly, two weights and two measures are to be employed, one for truth, the other for error. Men who feel themselves in secure possession of truth and justice are not going to compromise. … How can those, however, who do not feel themselves secure in the possession of the truth claim to hold the field alone without sharing it with the man who claims respect for his own rights on the basis of other principles?”[xxxiii] In other words, it is relativists who – as required by their own professed uncertainty of what is true – should make the concessions; in a religiously-homogeneous society, the recognised truth prevails. Islamic countries are examples of that.

Is any country now a truly Catholic one? The capital C is crucial to the answer. ‘Equality’ and ‘tolerance’ seem to rule the world, and ‘democracy’ is the secular deity to which otherwise-godless people and ostensibly-religious people bow. Advocacy of ‘equality’ and ‘tolerance’ has flourished amid renewal of enthusiasm for individual judgment (except, notably, judgments formed by Catholic doctrine). Malice directed at disapproval of, for example, abortion and sacrilegious caricatures of marriage is a result of refusal to accept the authority of the Church. Revolutionaries used to be a minority; in important ways culture and law reflected Church teaching. The Constitutions of countries such as Ireland and Spain were recognisably-Catholic. They are not now. The revolutionaries (whether the active ones, the irreligious who accept gratefully the new opportunities, or the nominally-religious people who passively stand aside) are in control.

Consequently, the apparently-few counter-revolutionaries are reduced to attempts to defend their positions by invoking the very same totems of ‘equality’ and ‘tolerance’ which brought about the present lamentable situation.[xxxiv] It should be no surprise when vague concepts such as those are interpreted in ways which uphold the ‘new order’ instead of the ‘old one’. Reinstatement of what has been rejected is so unlikely that we cannot expect it in our lifetimes, but while we are here the responsibility for encouraging it is ours. 


[i] For example, in “The Godless Delusion,” of which he was co-author with Patrick Madrid [Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 2010, p.108], Kenneth Hensley wrote of someone who told him “Abortion is legal. Get over it.”

[ii] Matt. 10:29.

[iii] “Catechism of the Catholic Church” [hereafter cited as ‘CCC’], paragraph 268.

[iv] CCC, paragraph 668.

[v] CCC, paragraph 912.

[vi] Pope Pius XI, Encyclical “Quas Primas,” 1925, paragraph 18.

[vii] Ibid., paragraph 14.  

[viii] CCC, paragraph 2242.

[ix] CCC, paragraph 2246.

[x] CCC, paragraph 1884.

[xi] “Fit for Mission? Church – Being Catholic Today,” Patrick O’Donoghue; Catholic Truth Society, London; 2008, p.19-20.

[xii] “The Path to Rome,” eds. Longenecker and Blamires; Gracewing, 2010, p.112-113.

[xiii] Ibid., p. 308 & 309.

[xiv] Ibid., p.232.

[xv] Ibid., p.233.    

[xvi] CCC, paragraph 1903; “the moral order” means, of course, a system of virtue which conforms to authentic Christian principle, not to just any opinion of what is right or wrong: CCC, passim.

[xvii] CCC, paragraph 1904.

[xviii] CCC, paragraph 2242. For example, Nazi war-criminals’ defence that they had obeyed the orders of superior authority was rejected as insufficient – “Docat: what to do? – The Social Teaching of the Catholic Church,” Catholic Truth Society, London, 2016, p.199.

[xix] “Reconciliatio et Paenitentia,” Pope St. John Paul, 1984, section 16.

[xx] CCC, paragraphs 2284-2287. 

[xxi] CCC, paragraph 909 – “Moreover, by uniting their forces let the laity so remedy the institutions and conditions of the world when the latter are an inducement to sin, that these may be conformed to the norms of justice, favoring rather than hindering the practice of virtue. By so doing they will impregnate culture and human works with a moral value.” Also Vatican II’s “Apostolicam Actuositatem,” Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity.

[xxii] Matt. 28:19-20.

[xxiii] “Quas Primas,” 1925.

[xxiv] Ibid., paragraph 24.

[xxv] “Dangers to the Faith,” Al Kresta; Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 2013, p.120 et seq.

[xxvi] Doctrinal Note, “On the Participation of Catholics in Political Life,” Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 2002, section 2.

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] “Pluralism: Unravelling a Riddle of Our Time,” Archbishop Kevin McNamara; Veritas Publications, Dublin, 1985, p.4.

[xxix] “On Christian Citizenship,” Pope Leo XIII, 1890; quoted in “A Catholic’s Guide to Social and Political Action,” Rev. C. C. Clump, S.J.; Catholic Social Guild, Oxford; 4th ed., 1963, p.108.

[xxx] “Quas Primas,” op. cit.

[xxxi] “A Catholic’s Guide to Social and Political Action,” op. cit., p.109.

[xxxii] “Duties of the Catholic State in Regard to Religion,” Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani,” published jointly by “The Tipperary Star,” Thurles, and Regina Publications, Dublin, 1954, p.12 et seq.

[xxxiii] Ibid., p.20.

[xxxiv] Ibid.

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