Monday, August 08, 2005

The Church & Democracy: from "hostility" to "internal critique"

The Church's encounter with democracy, from the days of Gregory XVI and Pius IX to the present, can be described as a process of transition from hostility (Gregory XVI and Pius IX) to toleration (Leo XIII and Pius XI) to admiration (Pius XII and John XXIII) to endorsement (Vatican II and John Paul II), and now, in the late 1990's, to internal critique. Prior to the Council, the Church was speaking to democracy from "outside"; since the council, the Church has, in a sense, spoken to democracy from within the democratic experiment as a full participant in democratic life, commited, through its own social doctrine, to the success of the democratic project.

To describe the relationship in these terms is by no means to subordinate the Church to politics; it is to note, however, that as the Church's understanding of democracy has evolved, so has the Church's understanding of itself vis-a-vis democracy. Because of the teaching of the Council and John Paul II, an "exterior" line of critique has given way to an "interior" critique. Far from being a neutral observer, and without compromising its distinctive social and political "location," the Church now believes that it speaks to democracy from "within" the ongoing democratic debate about the democratic prospect.

John Paul II developed this "internal line" of analysis -- which now constitutes the world's most sophisticated moral case for, and critique of, the democratic project -- in a triptych of encyclicals: Centesimus Annus (1991), Veritatis Splendour (1993) and Evangelium Vitate (1995).

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If a single sentence could sum up the main thrust of this new "internal critique" of democracy in the social magisterium of John Paul II, it might be this: Culture is "prior" to politics and economics. In this sense, John Paul II is a "postmodern" pope. Since Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, he has become markedly less interested in the old structural questions of politics and economics (democracy vs. ancien regime vs. totalitarianism, capitalism vs. socialism vs. the "Catholic third way"). Those questions, the Pope seems to suggest, have been largely answered. If, under the conditions of modernity, you want a free and prosperous society that protects basic human rights while advancing the common good, you choose democracy and the market (or, in the Pope's preferred phrase, the "free economy"). The really interesting and urgent questions today have to do with culture: with the habits of the heart and mind that make democracy and market work to promote genuine human goods.

George Weigel, Soul of the World: Notes on the Future of Public Catholicism (Eerdmans, 1996). p. 120. (Chapter 6: "Catholicism and Democracy: Parsing the Twentieth-Century Revolution" pp. 99-125 charts in greater detail the development of the Church's relationship and critique of liberal democracy described above. Regretfully it is not available online).