One of the most striking statements in the entire Catechism of the Catholic Church regards the duties of citizens to respect authority: "Those subject to authority should regard those in authority as representatives of God" (no. 2238).
This teaching of the Church stands in stark contrast to the more commonly-heard refrain: "All politicians are crooks."
The Catechism quickly goes on to say people have a right to voice "just criticisms of that which seems harmful to the dignity of persons and to the good of the community." Still, the notion of political leaders as "representatives of God" clangs against the eardrum in our egalitarian age.
It's worthy of note that the Church has never accepted the divine right of kings, the view, based on a literal interpretation of St. Paul's letter to the Romans, that political rulers were personally chosen by God to rule over their subjects.
The Church's view might be better described this way: God created people as social beings naturally inclined to form communities. Part of community life is the establishment of authority to act in the name of the community. Thus, God wills that there be political authority.
This understanding of authority does not necessarily imply that authority ought to be democratic, but neither does it exclude democracy. The Church and the Catechism do teach that citizens not only have a right to participate in society, but also an obligation to do so. Playing a role in the political community is part of what it means to "submit" to authority.
Still, the Church's understanding is much different than that of secular theorists who see authority as nothing more than an arbitrary power to make decisions. Such theorists do not admit the existence of an objective moral order and so can only understand politics in terms of a battle among competing interest groups.
Interest groups do compete and authorities must regulate that competition. But from the Church's point of view, what is most interesting and important about the political community is its respect or lack of respect for the moral order. "Democracy has to stand for something more demanding than enlightened self-interest, 'openness' and toleration," wrote historian Christopher Lasch. "Common standards are absolutely indispensable to a democratic society" (The Revolt of the Elites, pp. 86, 88).
Lasch in fact saw the economic dominance of huge corporations as eroding the moral foundations of democracy by its monolithic ethic of self-interest and immediate gratification. Democracy requires a high standard of moral conduct embracing such virtues as self-reliance, vigorous but respectful debate, moral courage and workmanship. All of those virtues were important in an era of small business but are either detrimental or unnecessary to success in today's corporate culture.
The secular liberal reaction to corporate capitalism, however, has not been to reassert the importance of moral standards for the political culture but rather to contend that such standards are the oppressive legacy of dead white males. It offers instead non-judgmental compassion and the eradication of all common standards.
When our political culture is composed mainly of "conservatives" who favour economic solutions which bulldoze traditional values and "liberals" who claim such values are nothing more than a form of oppression, we are left in quite a pickle.
Democracy is in effect running on gas provided by a dying culture of strong churches, strong families, strong schools and strong neighbourhoods, but the tank is getting near empty. As the gas runs out, the social order will inevitably collapse into chaos and you can kiss democracy good-bye.
To some, it may seem inconceivable that democracy requires the widespread belief that political authority derives from God. But it does. These secularists are so convinced that religion is a dictatorial and oppressive force that they do not recognize the reality that democracy -- or any other basis for good government -- requires the acceptance of an objective moral order.
We need to do more than tolerate diversity and be compassionate to society's victims. We need to recover the importance of virtues like self-reliance, moral courage and respect for authority as moral preconditions for good government. We need to do what we can to identify and eliminate the factors which undermine those virtues and to nurture conditions which might encourage their future development in our populace.
You can have the best political structures in the world. But if you have a nation of irresponsible or immoral people, you won't have good government.
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