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Pope Francis stresses importance of democracy. Why?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 07, 2021

In a summary of Pope Francis’ warnings against a “retreat from democracy”, our news story yesterday on the papal trip to Greece reported the Pontiff’s concern about the threats of authoritarianism, populism, bureaucracy and “the distance of institutions”. There are threats in all these things, of course, and I know that democracy has historically been a Greek intellectual theme, but the Church ought to be essentially agnostic about particular forms of government.

The condemnation of authoritarianism presupposes a regime which lacks authentic authority. Populism, for its part, can mean many different things, some good and some bad, but it is uniformly regarded as evil by the elites which “populists” invariably oppose. For better or worse, Pope Francis typically uses the term in the manner prescribed by the ascendant “progressive” European culture today. Nonetheless, the “distance of institutions” and the enervation of “bureaucracy” are in many ways the chief problems associated with highly-developed and densely-populated modern states, in cultures which have learned to look to government for solutions to most problems.

All Western nations suffer from these ills today, in which a bureaucratic functionalism replaces true personal concern. This is one reason we continuously quarrel over political outcomes, which seem to change very little over time. But there is an unmentioned confusion in all this that runs far deeper.

Democracy is not any kind of answer

All governmental forms can be used for either good or evil, and this is almost completely dependent on the virtue of those who govern. The ancient Greeks already knew that monarchy could be good or bad depending on the monarch, that aristocracy (the rule of the best) could easily degenerate into oligarchy (the rule of the wealthy, powerful and selfish few), and that democracy can degenerate into mob rule. Some associate this with populism, though mob rule in America is now accomplished primarily through bureaucracies guided by cultural elites. Interestingly, democracy can also degenerate into tyranny, in a direct mockery of monarchy, as when a “strong man” arises in the name of setting things right. There is, in reality, no salvation through governmental forms. What matters is the virtue of those who govern, however they have come to political power, and whatever structural mechanisms they may use.

We Americans love to debate political forms; this debate was built into our (dubiously moral) war for independence from England. And in truth, American forms of government can be defended as excellent forms—as long as the country is composed primarily of virtuous and intelligent citizens. But of course a monarchical form of government can be praised as well—when the monarch is both morally good and politically competent, such as St. Louis IX in France. In both cases, indeed in all cases, we must also have realistic expectations. After all, if we think of government as the single best way to solve all human problems, the weakness of our grasp of reality dooms us to governmental overreach and a constant buffoonish tinkering with reality.

But let my main theme come back to the surface: Namely that “democracy” has no particular superiority to other forms of government. On the undoubtedly sound basis of the principle of subsidiarity, socio-political decisions ought to be made on the lowest level possible for their effectiveness, and with the reasonable participation of those affected by the decisions. But there are many ways to participate in sound decisions without elections and voting, and undue emphasis on what we might call exclusively political structures does not necessarily provide the best or most realistic avenues to real participation.

One thinks, for example, of the medieval guild system in which those in particular lines of work and with particular expertise played such an important role in the regulation of their own crafts and in various contributions to the common good. In any case, as a matter of Western historical fact, the illusory promise of “one man one vote” tended to be exchanged for the elimination of robust intermediary institutions, leaving individualized citizens with nothing between their disaggregated selves and the prodigious power of the modern State.

In the end, good results depend not only on general competence but on what we might call moral competence, or virtue. We must understand the nature and abilities of the human person, we must grasp and commit ourselves to the good, we must distinguish between our own particular advantage and the common good of all, and we must excel at prudence—the virtue by which we match the right means to correct and achievable goals. Apart from these abilities firmly ingrained in those who govern, any and all governments will be bad governments. Absent virtue, one form of government is not intrinsically superior to any other form.

The triumph of evil

There is a famous quotation that has been unverifiably attributed to Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.” The same result achieved by “doing nothing” also ensues when good men and women cannot find a way to stop the evil in question and, of course, when there are no good men and women at all (or so few that they lack what we call critical mass). I suspect we have a mixture of all three conditions today: Lack of commitment, lack of opportunity, and lack of numbers. No form of government is proof against moral turpitude in those who govern—whether the governments are theoretically constituted by the one, the few, or the many. A preoccupation with governmental forms misses the point entirely.

At the same time, it is wrong to ignore the strengths and weaknesses of the governmental forms and procedures which are currently operative in any given society, for it is these, along with whatever psychological weight their traditions still carry, which provide the most likely political levers which, short of revolution, must be utilized for good in the moment. What I think is wrong-headed is to worry overmuch about whether a particular form of government is superior or inferior in itself. Take democracy, for example, which is so clearly rooted in voting. Over the last several centuries in what is now the United States we have gone from no “popular vote” on direct political questions and candidates, to the vote of all white property-holding males, to the vote of all males at least 21 years old born or naturalized in the United States, to the vote of both men and women 21 and older, and finally to all those 18 years and older.

I seriously doubt that any of those changes have had a significant impact on the quality of government in the United States. Voting rights typically guarantee little about the fundamental morality and competence of government. In fact, I take it as axiomatic that the same moral dramas replay themselves throughout history with very little reference to the form of government in place at the time. What matters far more are the moral commitments of those who hold the reins of power.

Today’s political reins lead back not only to politicians, but to business and finance, to the educational establishment, and to the media. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I will emphasize that politics is typically controlled within the moral parameters established by what we call “the dominant culture”, the culture largely created by our elites. If the dominant culture is not authentically Christianized, politics is unlikely to change, regardless of political forms. No nation needs a purely political or procedural reform as much as it needs the Gospel.


So I remain puzzled by religious leaders who worry about democracy. Democracy has rarely prevented political power from falling into the the hands of those who are committed neither to basic morality nor to the common good. Conversion remains primary in every society, and within every form of government. I admit that a moral king is no more likely now than a moral base of voters. But color me disillusioned: There seems to me no spiritual future for an ecclesiastical attachment to democracy, nor for the attempt to reduce the common good to political forms. Here, as in all else, only Christ saves.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: ewaughok - Dec. 07, 2021 6:51 PM ET USA

    Good points. But some forms of government are more conducive to the formation of virtue than others. While none are perfect, we must live under some form of government, and therefore it is important for all people seeking the public good (which should of course include Catholics) to invent and promote forms of government most conducive to the formation of virtue. Democratic Republics structured with robust checks-and-balances seem to have resisted the extremes of corruption better than most.