How Catholicism Can Renew Democracy

Kenneth Grasso on Going Beyond the «Individual-State-Market Grid»

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

SAN MARCOS, Texas, OCT. 18, 2004 ( 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 ZENIT 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.

Their ability to do so, of course, depends — among other things — on their fidelity to the teachings of Christ, and on their having the courage to stand as a «sign of contradiction» to the cultures in which they live.

Q: The Church is facing a rising tide of secularism in the West. In light of the fight over the mention of Christianity in the European Constitutional Treaty, what special challenges does the Church face in that continent?

Grasso: As an American whose expertise regarding contemporary Europe is limited, I hesitate to comment in any detail on the question of Christianity and contemporary European society. It seems to me, however, that the fundamental challenge that confronts the Church in Europe today is that of adjustment to a post-Christian cultural universe.

As Malcolm Muggeridge remarked, we’ve witnessed the end of Christendom, and the likelihood of its reconstitution any time soon is remote. This, I take it, is the significance of the European Union’s constitution’s conscious omission of any mention of Christianity.

Astonishingly, in view of Europe’s history, much of Europe today is essentially mission territory, and the task ahead would seem to be essentially one of evangelization. To adapt a famous remark of Alasdair MacIntyre: European Christianity awaits a new, but doubtless very different, St. Benedict.

Q: A related question: In light of the controversy in the United States over Communion and pro-abortion politicians, what special challenges does the Church here face?

Grasso: The immediate challenge that the Church faces in America is denominalization and secularization.

In American today, a large segment of the Catholic community sees Catholicism as simply another denomination and takes its moral and cultural bearings from the larger secular ethos of the surrounding society. To successfully confront this challenge will require both far-reaching re-catechesis and resolute episcopal leadership.

It is against this background, I would suggest, that the recent controversy over Communion and pro-abortion politicians must be seen. The fact that for several decades now America’s most visible Catholic politicians have embraced the cause of a right to abortion on demand is symptomatic of the degree to which American Catholicism has embraced the views I just mentioned.

The position adopted by these politicians amounts to an implicit rejection of the ability of the Church to teach authoritatively and the repudiation of one of the constitutive principles of Catholic moral teaching.

The failure of the hierarchy as a whole to respond decisively to this grave scandal not only damages the Church’s witness on the abortion question — by putting in doubt her understanding of the gravity of the evil which abortion involved — but also encourages the very attitudes that threaten the integrity of American Catholicism.

Q: What can be done to reclaim Christianity’s role in democracy and in society?

Grasso: I only wish there were an easy answer to this question.

I think we have to make the case that we offer a conception of human
nature and society decisively richer than those which inform the sterile and corrosive secularism that dominates the contemporary cultural scene; and that this conception represents the indispensable starting point for any effort to truly address the problems which beset us today.

In the long run, however, inasmuch as our problem is ultimately spiritual in nature, only a spiritual solution will suffice. Christianity will not «reclaim» its «role in democracy and in society,» absent a far-reaching religious revival.

And while such a revival, humanly speaking, seems rather improbable, we must not give up hope. The Spirit, after all, blows where he wills. And, in any case, as Mother Teresa was fond of saying, God doesn’t ask us to be successful, just faithful.

Q: One of the major principles of Catholic social teaching is subsidiarity. What could this principle offer specifically to democracies?

Grasso: Recent decades have witnessed a far-reaching erosion of what is sometimes called «civil society,» of the family and other communities of memory and mutual aid, other non-state, non-market institutions.

It is now widely agreed that this erosion is one of the principal causes of the social pathologies that afflict us today, and threatens the vitality of our democratic institutions.

This erosion, in turn, is related to the individual-state-market grid that dominates our public life and argument, whose effect is to create a cultural and legal environment corrosive of these groups and institutions.

Subsidiarity offers us an alternative model of social life. This vision is characterized by a commitment to what is sometimes called normative or institutional pluralism, to the view that our nature as social beings finds expression in a wide array of institutions beginning with the family and including groups of a social, cultural and religious nature.

These groups are irreplaceable because they discharge functions which are essential to human flourishing, and because they provide the primary sites, as it were, where we live out the relationships of communion and self-giving for which God created us and through which we find ourselves.

If, from the Catholic perspective, the state and network of social relations constitutive of the marketplace play indispensable roles in the overall scheme of social life, these solidaristic institutions and groups constitute the center of social gravity.

Subsidiarity moves these groups to the center of our social vision, and insists on their right to discharge their distinctive responsibilities.

It also affirms the obligation of the state to both respect their autonomy and establish an order of law and public policy supportive of them. For these reasons, it could help lay the groundwork for the revitalization of civil society.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation