True democracy demands a moral structure

May 15, 2006

Read: Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, nn. 406-416

It has become a common belief in Western society that the best democracy is thoroughly secular. Such a democracy would be a blank slate, unencumbered by religion or political ideologies.

What makes a state democratic – goes this theory – is a set of procedures – free elections, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, a free press, equality before the law, and freedom from arbitrary arrest and punishment. Democracy has no necessary link with human flourishing or human dignity. It is a set of rules and individual rights.

No one should deny that these freedoms are necessary to democracy. But the Church maintains that there is more to democracy than individual freedom. Democracy is more than a set of rules.


Society is not just a collection of autonomous individuals with rights. It is an organism that is something other than the sum of its parts. For the organism to be healthy, each of its parts must be healthy. Authentic democracy requires a number of conditions beyond establishing ways for people to participate in society.

Democracy must respect the dignity of every person. It must respect human rights, including rights to life, water, food, health care, education, decent housing and work. It must include a commitment, not just to the rights of individuals, but also to the common good.

There must be structures for both participation and shared responsibility. People must not only learn readin', 'riting and 'rithmetic, they must be formed in true ideals. A democratic society must have a moral structure as well as structures for participation.

Majority rule is not enough to make for democracy. If majority rule goes hand in hand with ethical relativism, then society is prone to tyranny. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church calls ethical relativism "one of the greatest threats to modern-day democracies." If there is no ultimate truth, "then ideas and convictions can be easily manipulated for reasons of power" (n. 407).

These words are crucial for the future of democracy. It is important that there be a division of powers among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. A good balance protects society's members from one branch of government running roughshod. But government must also be restrained by natural law, that is, by moral truth.

Western societies are currently having serious problems with this. Natural law, in the form of traditional marriage and the right to life, has been violated by decisions to allow same-sex marriage and abortion.

The Pennsylvania government once enacted a law requiring women to give informed consent before they could have an abortion. In striking that law down in 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court wrote, "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, of the mystery of human life."

– Design Pics photo

Western societies often believe that democracy means any hint of religiosity must be expunged from public life.

Likely no government body has ever given a balder endorsement of individualism uninhibited by morality. But true liberty is not striking off on one's own. It involves responsibility and solidarity. It involves a recognition that creation was intended for all and that all are entitled to share in its goods.

At the opposite extreme from the U.S. Supreme Court are Islamic nations where the consent of the governed is, if a concern at all, a secondary one. In some of those nations, there is no recognition of religion and the state as being separate realms of authority. Laws of the state are derived directly from the Koran.

This is, no doubt, part of why it is so difficult to import Western democracy into the Islamic world. At the very time when Western democracies are trying to expunge any hint of religiosity from their models of governance, Muslim nations are re-asserting the belief that religion is the only thing that matters in governance.

In this context, Catholic teaching is a middle way. We believe democracy is essential to good government and we assert that democracy must be linked to moral truth. We believe that there is no divide between the moral truths revealed by God and the moral truth discoverable by human reason.

But we also accept that there is, in a certain sense, a division between Church and state. The state has no right to restrict the free exercise of religion. The Church, while it can and should speak in the public square especially when morality is being violated, should not interfere in government's prudential application of moral standards to society.

Such a framework can provide the basis for authentic democracy.