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Protecting our democracy

We live in a democratic society which benefits from free and fair elections without violence. We enjoy, on the whole, the rule of law. And we benefit from private ownership of property and opportunity of free enterprise.

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It is true that the Catholic Church was cautious in its support for practical political change in Europe from monarchy to parliamentary systems of government. Its reluctance was in part due to the strong anti-clericalism of many of these movements pushing for change and their direct antagonism towards the Church and its influence in society. However, the Church has never been committed to any particular form of civil government.

Indeed, it was Jesus Christ who radically separated the spiritual authority from the civil authority, in the time of the Roman Empire, recognising them as two distinct powers under the authority of God. The Catholic Church has never understood its role as one of being responsible for civil government. It has never advocated theocracy as Islam proposes.

More recently the Catholic Church has recognised that there are particular features of a democratic form of government that have value. Pope St John Paul II in his encyclical, Centesimus annus (1991), stated, “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”.

The Pope added however, “Authentic democracy is possible only in a State ruled by law, and on the basis of a correct conception of the human person. It requires that the necessary conditions be present for the advancement both of the individual through education and formation in true ideals, and of the ‘subjectivity’ of society through the creation of structures of participation and shared responsibility”. (CA 46)

Democracy as a system, like all human endeavours, is subject to the frailties of human nature.

Pope St John Paul II makes clear that there can only be an authentic democracy if it is grounded on a correct understanding of the dignity of the human person.

Recognition of the inherent dignity of the human person, and particularly the protection of human life from its conception to natural end, is foundational to a Christian vision of life. The Christian vision for human life also incorporates a recognition of the nature of marriage as between a man and a woman and open to the generation of new life. We also hold that each person is a unique creation and has the gift of masculinity or femininity which cannot be changed.

I believe it to be the case that, to date, the stability of our parliamentary democracy in Australia is due in no small measure to the inherited Christian culture. This culture is now under serious threat.

The rise of ethical relativism, in particular, threatens the future of our democratic way of life. Once the broad society abandons a recognition of objective and universal truths as the basis for our shared political life, then the democratic system becomes open to manipulation and the blatant exercise of power. A democracy without such underpinnings easily becomes an open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.

Just as medieval kings were urged to recognise that they were answerable to a higher authority of both the natural law and divine law, so too our civil rulers need to recognise that there is an objective moral order knowable through the use of human reason. In Catholic thought this is known as the Natural Law.

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Once a society abandons its belief in a central core of objective moral truth, it exposes itself to rule by the mob who are led by their unbounded passions and desires. This is what is now occurring in our own Australian society. Thus, the wellbeing of our society and the stability of our democratic government is under threat.

It is also true that once this spirit of radical autonomy takes hold of a society, it affects all its institutions including the judiciary. Already, in Australia and across the western world this recognition of objective moral truth has extended to the rejection of biological reality. The subjectivism has already become so radical that we are being governed on the basis of multiple lies about the human person.

This break with biological reality has taken place in different ways throughout human history: the denial of the full humanity of those with dark skin, the denial of the full humanity of the unborn from the time the human person comes into existence at conception. We are now however seeing the denial of the biological reality of sex and the biological complementarity of male and female bodies.

In the current climate it is most important that committed Christians enter the political process. In a doctrinal note on the participation of Catholics in political life (2002) the Church spoke of the importance of the Christian taking an active role in public life.

The Christian acting in accord with a Christian conscience has the role of infusing society with Christian values.

The Second Vatican Council encouraged lay Catholics to actively participate in public life in order to promote the common good. At the heart of such participation is the advancement of the dignity of the human person. The Council taught that the protection of “the rights of the person is, indeed, a necessary condition for citizens, individually and collectively, to play an active part in public life and administration”. (GS 73)

In 2010 Pope Benedict XVI was invited to address the British Parliament in Westminster Hall. He began by acknowledging the contribution the English system of government, grounded in Christian belief, has made to the world. He said, “Allow me also to express my esteem for the Parliament which has existed on this site for centuries and which has had such a profound influence on the development of participative government among the nations, especially in the Commonwealth and the English-speaking world at large. Your common law tradition serves as the basis of legal systems in many parts of the world, and your particular vision of the respective rights and duties of the state and the individual, and of the separation of powers, remains an inspiration to many across the globe”.

He then addressed the issue of the true foundation for the democratic process: “The central question at issue, then, is this: where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found? The Catholic tradition maintains that the objective norms governing right action are accessible to reason, prescinding from the content of revelation. According to this understanding, the role of religion in political debate is not so much to supply these norms, as if they could not be known by non-believers – still less to propose concrete political solutions, which would lie altogether outside the competence of religion – but rather to help purify and shed light upon the application of reason to the discovery of objective moral principles”.

The Pope’s argument is simple. Parliament needs the contribution of the Christian faith to, as he says, ‘purify’ and ‘shed light’ upon the use of reason in public debate and make clear the moral principles at stake when the use of reason alone falters.

The future of democracy will depend on whether Christians can make such a contribution and whether those in government and, indeed, all voting citizens come to see that the Christian faith is not the problem, but instead provides and defends the fundamental truth about the human person necessary for the existence of authentic democratic government.


    One response to “Protecting our democracy”

    1. Barbara Shea says:

      Thank you Archbishop Porteous for this clear teaching.

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