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The Foundations of Democracy

According to Theologian Father Michael Hull

NEW YORK, SEPT. 1, 2006 (Zenit) - Here is the text of an address Father Michael Hull of New York delivered at a theologians videoconference on race and culture June 27. The Congregation for Clergy organized the international videoconference.

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"Democracy" is difficult to define, and its foundations are difficult to articulate, because the word is used in many and diverse ways, especially by special-interest groups including political parties, the media, and governments.

At its root, democracy means "rule by the people" (Greek: democratia).

Such is the foundation for all democratic thought, namely, that the ruled should participate in some capacity in their ruling; but the extent of that capacity, whether total or partial, and the means by which that capacity is exercised, whether by the people themselves or their representatives, are hardly standard or standardized.

In fact, the range of meaning ascribed, often speciously, to the word democracy is so wide as to make it almost meaningless.

Yet the root of the word expresses well its foundational principle: rule by the people.

A sincere desire for the people to have a voice in their government reflects knowledge of and respect for the fundamental dignity of the human person as a creature of God. Although such an understanding may be a crude one, as in the ancient Greek or Enlightenment understanding, unaided human reason can come to know God, the created order, and the natural law (see "Dei Filius" of Vatican Council I).

Such knowledge ought to lead to a profound respect for human persons and their dignity. Over 40 years ago, "Gaudium et spes" spoke of "a keener awareness of human dignity" as the catalyst "to establish a politico-juridical order in which the rights of the human person in public life will be better protected" (73).

That catalyst has been accelerated by revelation, wherein we see the sacrifice of Christ -- "greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13) -- as the prism through which we see every human being: one for whom the Son suffered and died, one to whom eternal salvation is offered.

Thus, "the Church recognizes that while democracy is the best expression of the direct participation of citizens in political choices, it succeeds only to the extent that it is based on a correct understanding of the human person" (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "The Participation of Catholics in Political Life," no. 3).

The foundation of democratic thought -- that the ruled should participate in some capacity in their ruling -- assumes a weighty character when the ramifications of revelation are taken into consideration.

This character compels a recognition of the natural law described by St. Paul as "written" on human hearts (Romans 2:15) and defined by St. Thomas Aquinas as "nothing else than the rational creature's participation of the eternal law" (Summa theologiae, part I-II, q. 91, a. 2; cf. Pope John Paul II, "Veritatis splendor," no. 43).

Without the recognition of the primacy of natural law, democracies are condemned to little more than tyranny of the majority, not to mention a plethora of social and moral evils.

The single, clearest example of such evil is found with respect to every human being's right to life. Recall for a moment those millions upon millions of babies legally murdered in their mothers' wombs in so-called democracies like the United States and most European countries.

The foundation of democratic thought -- that the ruled should participate in some capacity in their ruling -- has failed the common good in this (and in many other areas).

Great care must be taken, as St. Augustine of Hippo so wonderfully reminds us in "De civitate Dei," to avoid mistaking the kingdom of men for the kingdom of God.

Winston Churchill may have been right when he remarked, "Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

But we know for sure that something better is coming along at the end of time: the reign of Christ the King.


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Democracy, Politics, Hull, Clergy, Freedom

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