Dialogue and Democracy


The Catholic Church is not, as many old hands in the Vatican are quick to say, a democracy. But that quick judgment may arise in part because those old hands have not sufficiently come to terms with modern democracy itself. The chapter titled Political Community in the Vatican’s recently published Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church is a case in point. No fair assessment could deny that the church todayin Rome and throughout the worldis one of the great defenders of democracy. But the compendium’s chapter on the political community reveals weaknesses in that defense. In the spirit of constructive criticism, I would like to call attention to four: the chapter’s articulation of the political virtue of love, the chapter’s relative inattention to the role of power in politics, its subordination of democratic politics to abstractly ethical concerns, and the use of the form of compendium itself as a means for engaging in dialogue with the contemporary democratic world.

Love and Democracy

One of the strongest aspects of the chapter on the political communityand of the compendium itselfis its insistence on love as the greatest social virtue. The chapter states that the full meaning of political life cannot be explained by reference to justice alone. Rather, love understood as solidarity is said to encompass all of the other virtues applicable to this sphere. And the meaning of political life is fulfilled, the chapter notes, when it is based on civil friendship and on fraternity. Moreover, what Christians must primarily aim at in their political action is the establishment of community relationships among people. The church’s move toward considering political life primarily in terms of love and community gained great prominence at the Second Vatican Council. But in the compendium this emphasis sounds a renewing and welcome note in at least two ways. First, this emphasis on love checks a drift in Catholic circles to use the language of justice alone when addressing social and political problems of the day. Of course, there is great sense in using such language. But the integral nature of Catholic thought never permits the separation of justice from love, of the right from the good.


Moreover, the language of justice alone does not capture the dynamism and attachments that mark political life. Truly it was a failure of justice that poor, African-American citizens waited for days to be rescued from floodwaters in New Orleans. The governmental collapse that left them there was a colossal failure of social justice andinsofar as the same neglect would never have been allowed to happen in a white suburba clear instance of unjust, discriminatory treatment. But even more fundamentally, it was a failure of love that caused their rescue to be delayed. Love makes one see in the neighbor another self, the compendium says. But it was precisely the refusal of such an identification that stymied the evacuation. To a disturbing degree, people did not really care because they did not see in those waiting at the convention center other selves.

However welcome is the compendium’s emphasis on love in the political life, though, the emphasis remains underdeveloped. In particular, love is not well correlated with the related virtuestaking into account the interests of others, engaging freely with others to resolve political problemsinculcated by democratic politics.

Power and Politics

The Protestant ethicist Paul Ramsey noted how Catholic thought at times emphasized the common good, human rights and justice so much that the realities of power in politics were lost to view. Power, Ramsey argued, is not extrinsic to politics. Rather, it is part of the nature of politics itself. The compendium’s chapter on the political community is not deaf to such concerns. Political power is acknowledged as inherent in the order created by God.

But power is often portrayed in a largely negative light. It is viewed not so much as an intrinsic reality of politics but as a temptation for politicians, in antithesis to ethical values. Or power makes only a cameo appearance. Thus, for instance, the state is discussed in the chapter with only oblique reference to its monopoly of the means of coercion and to the issue of the relationship between coercion and law. Moreover, civil society is rendered as a scene of voluntary cooperation among citizens and intermediate groups in which power dynamics play only a small role.

There are several consequences of this insufficient acknowledgment of the role of power. One is that, without such an acknowledgment, it is not possible to appreciate the normative complexity of the interplay between freedom and force at issue in many controversial laws. Too often in the church these days, laws pertaining to issues like abortion and stem cell research are discussed in undue abstraction from that complexity. Another result is that the crucial and specifically political concept of public order, invoked by Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae, 1965), plays a surprisingly marginal role in the chapter.

The Moral Order and Democracy

Rather than engaging a political good like public order, the compendium chapter establishes a close correlation between the political community and the moral order. But this is not the moral order mediated through political realities like power and the complexity of civil law. Rather, it is the moral order understood as objective and universal laws to which the political and legal order must closely adhere. Here an abstract and general good supplants the specifically political good. Culture crowds out politics.

This category mistake is at the heart of the chapter’s judgment, echoed by Benedict XVI, that one of the great threats to contemporary democracies is an ethical relativism animated by the transfer of democratic practices to the sphere of culture. Under the influences of such practices, the argument runs, citizens of democracies today are inclined to vote on the truth, change ideas of morality with changing majorities, and mistake opinion for objectivity. The result of such democratically-induced malleability is a lapse into relativism reflected in matters such as permissive laws. This judgment is possible, however, only because democratic political realities like voting and issues of public opinion are not accepted on their own terms so much as they are seen as cultural realities. To paraphrase the political philosopher Hannah Arendt, here is an instance of the tendency of Vatican theoreticians to equate the realm of the necessary and the philosophical with the contingency and fact that constitute the political realitites.

The consequences of such a category shift are profound. On the one hand, the nature and purpose of the political realities as such are devalued. On the other hand, the crucial if quotidian tasks of government lose their moral significance in the face of the apparently more morally significant possibility that controversial laws passed by democratic governments may be undermining the observance of the moral order itself. From Baghdad to New Orleans, a powerful case can be made that one of the great moral imperatives of the present day is the need to restore purpose and competence to the basic tasks of government. They would include the prevention of looting, the provision of electricity and potable water, security on the streets, levees that will not break and evacuation plans that make sense. These are undertakings of high moral purpose, the neglect of which has had extremely serious consequences for Iraq and for the Gulf Coast. The compendium chapter, with its portrayal of the moral order unmediated by politics, seems unworldly and unconcerned with such matters.

The Compendium and Dialogue

How suitable is the genre of a compendium as the church’s vehicle for dialogue with contemporary democracies? In closing, I raise this question in light of three related observations. First, such dialogue is one of the announced, principal purposes of the compendium. A second observation is that recent theological reflection on the role of genre in ethics invites consideration of the significance of the genre of a compendium itself. A third consideration comes to mind when we recall that the great French Dominican scholar Marie-Dominique Chenu (1895-1990), reflecting on the drafting of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World during Vatican II, raised a set of concerns highly pertinent to the issue of the compendium and dialogue. Chenu noted in an essay called The Signs of the Times that the first drafts of the pastoral constitution were little more than compilations of the various teachings of the social encyclicals that had been issued over the preceding 50 years. As such, these early drafts aimed at presenting a catalogue of principles and at promulgating a social doctrine. In other words, these early drafts had many of the characteristics of the current compendium.

Those early drafts were rejected because they reflected a didactic church too removed from history and too detached from the world. Does the compendium labor under similar problems? Is it overly reflective of a didactic church today so concerned with promulgating moral principles and a social doctrine that it has difficulty entering intoand learning fromthe inevitable dialogue mandated by modern democracies? There is much to treasure in these pages. But a development in the direction of dialogue and democracy is due.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

Lay oversight of Catholic bishops is needed—but it should be a process that respects the principle of apostolic succession while providing a check on the successors of the apostles.
John GarveyFebruary 22, 2019
Dr. Joseph J. McGowan, president of Bellarmine University, Patrick Hart, O.C.S.O., and Archbishop Thomas Kelly during the ceremony at which Brother Hart received an honorary degree from Bellarmine University on May 10, 2003. (Courtesy of Bellarmine University)
For decades, Patrick Hart was the literary executor of Thomas Merton's works and the custodian of the legacy of the 20th century’s most prominent religious seekers and teachers.
Joseph McAuleyFebruary 22, 2019
Child psychologist and founding member of the Ending Clergy Abuse (ECA) organization, Miguel Hurtado from Spain, center, reads an open letter to the Benedictine order outside the St. Anselm on the Aventine Benedictine complex in Rome on Feb. 22. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)
In addressing the abuse crisis, Ms. Ghisoni called for “the dynamic involvement of the whole people of God.”
Gerard O’ConnellFebruary 22, 2019