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How Catholicism Can Renew Democracy

10/19/2004 - 6:00 AM PST

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Kenneth Grasso on Going Beyond the "Individual-State-Market Grid"

SAN MARCOS, Texas, OCT. 19, 2004 (Zenit) - In the face of the upcoming elections, Catholics are uniquely equipped to take the lead in revitalizing democracy.

So says Kenneth Grasso, a political science professor at Texas State University and co-editor of "A Moral Enterprise: Politics, Reason and the Human Good" (ISI Books).

Grasso shared with us how the Church and its faithful members can stand up to society's ills and renew democracy.

Q: Some say democracy was born from principles nurtured by Protestantism and the Enlightenment? Is that a fair assessment?

Grasso: When the modern world celebrates "democracy," it means more than simply majority rule -- it means a government subject to the rule of law, limited in its scope, and dedicated to the protection and promotion of the rights of the person.

It means, in short, a political order that corresponds to what Pope John Paul has described as the quest for freedom that so deeply marks modern history.

Now, there can be no question that both the Reformation and Enlightenment helped shape the matrix of ideas that undergird modern democracy. But, there can also be no question that Catholicism also played a critically important role here as well.

There's a wealth of scholarship demonstrating the medieval and Catholic roots of many of the key values and principles that drive modern democracy.

Older studies such as Carlyles' seminal work on medieval political thought and Kern's classic account of the medieval conception of kingship illustrate how concepts like the rule of law, limited government, government by the consent of the governed, and popular participation in government were deeply embedded in the political consciousness of the Middle Ages.

More recent scholarship, most notably the work of Brian Tierney, has demonstrated that the concept of natural rights originated in the work of medieval canonists and early modern scholastic thinkers.

Now, it's true that these principles sometimes existed only in a rudimentary form in the Middle Ages. It's also true that modernity's understanding of these principles was colored in certain ways by the Reformation and Enlightenment, and that their medieval and Catholic origins were largely forgotten.

Nevertheless, there is much truth in the great American theologian John Courtney Murray's claim that "all that is best in modern democracy is a reviviscence of ... 'the eternal Middle Ages.'"

Q: How can Catholicism help renew democracy? How, more generally, can religious believers enhance a democracy?

Grasso: I can do no more here than mention a few of the myriad ways in which Catholics could help to renew modern democracy.

In the face of the relativism so widespread in the contemporary Western world, Catholics can bear witness to the existence of an objective and universally obligatory moral order.

In the face of the pervasive individualism of contemporary culture, Catholics can bear witness to our nature as intrinsically social beings at the heart of whose nature is found a vocation to love and communion, and to the obligations that flow from this fact, which the Church treats under the rubric of the duty of "solidarity."

In the face of our proclivity to see social life through the prism of what Mary Ann Glendon has aptly termed the individual-state-market grid, Catholics can bear witness to the distinctive nature and irreplaceable role of non-state, non-market institutions starting with the family.

In the face of contemporary culture's tendency to diminish the person, Catholics can bear witness to the nobility of the human person and the greatness of the destiny to which we are called by our Creator, as well as to the sacredness -- the surpassing dignity -- of each and every human being no matter how poor or vulnerable.

In the face of this culture's consumerism, Catholics can bear witness to the spiritual dimension of human existence, to our nature as creatures who, to paraphrase St. Augustine, are made for God and can only find our rest in him.

Finally, in the face of contemporary culture's tendency to absolutize freedom, Catholics can bear witness to the fact that freedom is by its very nature ordered from within to truth, goodness and love, so that it finds its fulfillment in the demands of the moral order.

Now, it's certainly true that Catholics are not the only believers who have something valuable to contribute to contemporary society. But by virtue of the depth and richness of the Catholic tradition, and its insistence upon the sanctification of all of life, however, I would argue that Catholics are uniquely equipped to take the lead in revitalizing democracy. ...

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