Should Catholics Favor Democracy?

What is the best form of government?

The question seems pointless. Life is complicated, and a system that worked well then and there may work badly here and now. That is one reason the Catechism tells us that “The diversity of political regimes is morally acceptable, provided they serve the legitimate good of the communities that adopt them.”

Even so, it’s a question people want to answer. Government asks self-sacrifice and backs its decisions with lethal force. The situation seems to call for strong justification, especially in an age always talking about individual rights and freedoms. So people want to say their government is not only morally acceptable, but the best possible.

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Many Catholics have favored hereditary monarchy. They thought it inculcates a spirit of loyalty and reverence, and favors stability and thus the possibility of preserving and building on past achievements. There are secular libertarians who agree with them, for the different but consistent reason that monarchy makes the state a family business rather than the temporary possession of elected officeholders. A family of proprietors, they say, is much more likely than a collection of temporary possessors to maintain and protect the value of an enterprise rather than loot it.

Whatever their arguments, monarchists are very much in the minority now, and the traditional European monarchy that inspired them seems gone beyond retrieval. So it is not surprising that almost everyone, including Catholics, now seems to favor democracy.

By “democracy” they mean universal adult suffrage, freedom of political organization and discussion, and rule by officials elected by popular majorities. The advantages of that system seem obvious, since the alternative seems to be rule by a self-selected faction or strongman. Majority rule appears much more likely to avoid tyranny, promote popular participation and habits of civic-mindedness, and lead to compromises among the views and interests of all sections of society that roughly approximate the common good. So why not favor it?

An additional attraction of democracy for Catholics is that majorities are assembled by building coalitions, so the system tries to accommodate everyone. In a diverse society, that should lead to a live-and-let-live attitude that allows the Church to carry on her internal life and mission of evangelization undisturbed. If you look at the history of interference in Church affairs by supposedly Catholic monarchies, not to mention other non-democratic governments, that feature seems valuable.

Such are the arguments, and for a long time they seemed justified by events. But times change, societies evolve, and as time passes the claims of democracy are coming to seem less persuasive to many people.

One problem is that globalism and increasing diversity of the population makes it difficult to define the discrete peoples democratically elected governments are to represent. The events and discussion surrounding Brexit demonstrated, for example, that young London professionals feel they have much more in common with their counterparts in other European countries than with the majority of their fellow countrymen. If so, why should they care about British democracy? Why not prefer rule by professional bureaucrats in Brussels with whom they feel more kinship?

A further problem is that democracy leads to buying votes, and that leads to a government that is expected to do more and more for a people accustomed to do less and less. The end result is an inert and undisciplined people incapable of engaging in useful common discussion, and a big active government that is too complex to be understood without special study.

The people who run the government will nonetheless want to do their work in ways they think make sense. When the public seems incompetent to direct them they will find ways to make decisions in their name but without their actual participation. The consequence will be a small governing elite that denies what it is and is likely for that reason to lack a sense of noblesse oblige. Its members are more likely to justify the position of power their own principles tell them is illegitimate by telling themselves that the people are ill-intentioned blockheads whose views are best ignored. And that seems to have happened.

A final problem is that (as noted) people want to give their government as strong a justification as they can, and the strongest justification for government based on majority will is that will determines good and evil, and all wills have an equal claim to satisfaction, so if there is a conflict it is the more numerous wills that should prevail. People in democratic countries tend strongly toward that view.

But once will is king and every will is equal, people notice that majorities sometimes slight the equal claims of minority preferences in ways that are unjust. It was obviously wrong when the majority Hutu tried to exterminate the minority Tutsi, and anyone in a position to stop them had the right to do so. But matters are usually more doubtful. Who decides in that case when the majority should be restrained and by what standards?

It’s hard to accommodate pro-choicers and right-to-lifers equally, and if I want a soothing environment, and you find me annoying and want to complain publicly, something has to give. The equality of desires doesn’t tell us how to resolve the conflict, and people aren’t always willing to leave such questions up to a vote. So what happens is that government, in conjunction with influential institutions like media organizations, decides which desires get preferred treatment. And that—in the absence of an independent standard of good and evil—is going to be determined by the needs of the system and the interests of those who run it.

The result is that desires and goals that strengthen the liberal state and economy, like career ambition and consumer enjoyment, are favored. So are goals that weaken and disrupt non-market and non-bureaucratic connections—like family, religion, and inherited cultural ties—that complicate life for government and commercial organizations. So if you’re a man, and you demand everyone treat you as a woman, or a woman, and you demand everyone treat your connection with another woman as a marriage, that’s all to the good from the standpoint of the people making the decisions. You’re disrupting sexual and marital distinctions, and that means the system of family connections will be less coherent and people will rely more on financial and bureaucratic relationships.

Desires and goals that point in the opposite direction are of course disfavored. To refer to a man as a man when he wants to be treated as a woman is to assert that non-financial and non-bureaucratic distinctions matter, so it’s out of bounds. If a man claims he is a woman, you have to accept him as such in all respects. That’s an insane result, but it comes out of a process that seems impossible to reverse, and no one knows what to do about it.

It seems, then, that the original reasons for favoring democracy don’t last forever. First, it depends on strong popular identification with the nation, which is vanishing. Second, it undermines the social coherence and discipline needed for it to function as intended. And finally, democratic aspirations lead democracy down strange paths that eventually destroy the conditions for a normally functional way of life and a society based on the common understandings and voluntary cooperation the system needs.

But what then? It’s not as if a superior form of government is waiting in the wings we can bring out to solve our problems. The problem is at a deeper level: treating what we want as the standard of what is good eventually leads to madness. Once a society has gone wrong on something so basic, adjusting political forms won’t do much good. What’s needed is something prepolitical and indeed religious.

The first step forward is to recognize the problem, and bring the question of the good life back into public discussion. People should be ready for that. After all, it’s a good life they want rather than abstractions like freedom and equality, and politics inevitably determines what kinds of life are practically available. Since that is so, why not insist on putting the value of the way of life political arrangements promote at the center of political discussion? That’s what’s needed today, and if we understand the goal better we will be able to deal with arrangements for promoting it—like form of government—more productively.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Coronation of Charles V 1500-58 Holy Roman Emperor” painted by Cornelius Schut.


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