Democracy’s Dark Shadow

The collapse of communist regimes in east central Europe in the revolution of 1989, followed within 20 months by the collapse of the Soviet Union itself, seemed to vindicate the most exuberant claims of the world’s democrats.

John Paul II, who had ignited the revolution of conscience that made "1989" possible during his June 1979 pilgrimage to Poland, and who had carefully laid the moral foundations for the creation of a post-communist democracy in Poland during his June 1987 pilgrimage there, certainly shared in the exultation of his Slavic brethren, released from decades of bondage to totalitarianism.

But, amidst the exultation, the Pope quickly decoded new threats to the dignity of the human person and the well-being of law-governed democracies. Those threats were not material, like Warsaw Pact tanks, or a Soviet SS-18 aimed at one’s capital city.

Instead, the new danger was in the order of ideas. In both old and new democracies alike, political theorists and politicians were suggesting that democracy was by definition value-neutral. John Paul took up these new challenges in his 1991 social encyclical, Centesimus Annus. There, the Pope taught that the Church valued democracy because it fostered citizens’ participation in public life and provided for both governance and political change by peaceful means.

'Political theorists and politicians were suggesting that democracy was by definition value-neutral'

But he also taught that democracies were not machines that could run of themselves. "Authentic democracy", he continued, "is possible only in a State ruled by law, and on the basis of a correct conception of the human person." Then the Pope came down to cases, noting that there had recently been suggestions that only "agnosticism and sceptical relativism" could provide the intellectual and cultural foundations of democratic politics; some had even argued that moral truth was fungible and could be determined by plebiscite.

This was unacceptable, John Paul argued, for "if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power." Nor was this a merely theoretical concern, he said, for the history of the twentieth century had shown how "a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly-disguised totalitarianism."

The last word stung. Surely, critics asked, the Pope was not suggesting that the democracies, which had defended freedom from two twentieth century totalitarianisms, risked becoming exemplars of those evil systems? That was, exactly what John Paul was suggesting, but with a crucial difference. A new and subtle form of tyranny was encoded within secularist and relativist ideologies that tried to banish transcendent moral norms from democratic political life.

If a democracy did not recognise the reality of those moral norms and their applicability to public life, then conflicts within that democracy could only be resolved through the raw exercise of power by one group—exercising its will through legislation, judicial fiat, or more violent means—on another.

'True freedom meant doing it the right way'

The losing faction would, in turn, think that its basic human rights had been violated. And the net result would be the dissolution of democratic political community.

There was a new spectre haunting, not just Europe, but the democratic world as a whole: it was the spectre of Weimar Germany, an edifice of finely calibrated democratic institutions built on wholly insufficient moral-cultural foundations. The only way to exorcise that spectre, John Paul was suggesting, was by re-linking democracy and moral truth.

John Paul deepened his critique of post-Cold War real existing democracy in the 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor, which had several things to say about the cultural foundations of democracy.

Against the thin concept of freedom as a neutral faculty of choice that could attach itself legitimately to any object (a concept the Belgian Dominican Servais Pinckaers has called the "freedom of indifference"), the Pope proposed freedom for excellence: freedom tethered to truth and ordered to genuine human flourishing.

There were universal moral norms, John Paul argued, and we can know them by a disciplined reflection on human moral agency. Thus freedom, as Lord Acton had understood a century before, was not simply a matter of personal autonomy, of doing what we like—"I did it my way", as that notable political theorist, Frank Sinatra, put it.

No, true freedom meant doing it the right way: freedom was the right to choose freely what we ought to choose, which is the objectively good. 
 

About the Author:
George Weigel is Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington, D.C, and the author of Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II.  This article is an extract of Mr  Weigel’s 2000 Acton Lecture on Religion and Freedom, delivered for The Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney on 23 October, 2000.

For a full copy of the Acton Lecture, please click HERE.