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Does Catholic Social Doctrine Address Democracy?
By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.
April 5th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)
In her social doctrine, the Church is less concerned about form than substance when it comes assessing any kind of government, including democracy. However, there are some natural procedural components of democracy that are intrinsic to it, and some which through history have been found to be valuable in that particular form of government.CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - In her social doctrine, the Church is less concerned about form than substance when it comes assessing any kind of government, including democracy. However, there are some natural procedural components of democracy that are intrinsic to it, and some which through history have been found to be valuable in that particular form of government.
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church mentions some of the more important of institutions. To the extent a people decide to have a democratic form of government, these features ought to be present.
One important principle is the division of powers in a State. As John Paul II states in his encyclical Centesimus annus, "it is preferable that each power [legislative, executive, judicial] be balanced by other powers and by other spheres of responsibility which keep it within proper bounds." The check and balances caused by the separation of powers promotes the rule of law. (Compendium, No. 408) (quoting Centisimus annus, 46)
The rule of law is also an important feature of democratic systems. The rule of law is the notion that "law is sovereign, and not the arbitrary will of individuals." (Compendium, No. 408) (quoting Centesimus annus, 46) Of course, the law here must be based upon reason--as Coke called it, "artificial reason and judgment of law"--yet one not repugnant to the natural moral law. The rule of law was famously described by Chief Justice John Marshall who, in the famous case of Marbury v. Madison stated that there ought to be "a government of laws and not men."
But the branches of government are not only limited by checks and balance and the rule of law. They ought also to be answerable to the people in a democracy. In this case, particularly the legislature, the representative body, "must be subjected to effective social control." The principal means by which such "social control" is exercised is through elections. These must be free and meaningful in that they allow "the selection and change of representatives." Thus the representatives are to be held accountable to their constituents for their work.
Legislators are not merely passive agents of their constituents. Nor are they independent agents entirely unresponsive to their constituents. As John F. Kennedy summarized it in his Profiles in Courage, a legislator must "on occasion lead, inform, correct and sometimes even ignore constituent opinion, if [he is] to exercise fully that judgment for which [he was] elected." The Compendium recognizes this tension in the role of the legislator:
"Those who govern have the obligation to answer to those governed, but this does not in the least imply that representatives are merely passive agents of the electors. The control exercised by the citizens does not in fact exclude the freedom that elected officials must enjoy in order to fulfill their mandate with respect to the objectives to be pursued." (Compendium, No. 409)
Legislators therefore have duties to the common good above and beyond their specific constituents. "In their specific areas (drafting laws, governing, setting up systems of checks and balances), elected officials must strive to seek and attain that which will contribute to making civil life proceed well in its overall course." (Compendium, No. 409)
The common good is always threatened by special interests. While the concerns of special interests are something that must considered as a component of the common good, these must be assessed--not based upon the needs of the special interest as against the common good--but in relation to the common good.
As the Compendium puts it, the mandate and objectives to be pursued by legislators "do not depend exclusively on special interests, but in a much greater part on the function of synthesis and mediation that serve the common good, one of the essential and indispensable goals of political authority." (Compendium, No. 409)
Politicians have a bad name. In Shakespeare's Hamlet, Hamlet looking at Orick's skull thinks it may be the "pate of a politician . . . one that would circumvent God." (act V, sc. 1) More modernly, H. L. Mencken said that a good politician is as unthinkable as an honest burglar.
The Church, however, reminds politicians that they must engage in their "art of the possible" in a virtuous, moral way. Here there is an insistence of personal morality as well as the recognition that there is an objective moral order which they must not ignore. We are to have both virtuous legislators and virtuous law.
"Those with political responsibilities must not forget or underestimate the moral dimension of political representation, which consists in the commitment to share fully in the destiny of the people and to seek solutions to social problems. In this perspective, responsible authority also means authority exercised with those virtues that make it possible to put power into practice as service (patience, modesty, moderation, charity, efforts to share), an authority exercised by persons who are able to accept the common good, and not prestige or the gaining of personal advantages, as the true goal of their work." (Compendium, No. 410)
This notion of a virtuous legislator of course would exclude any notion of political corruption, something which the Compendium recognizes as being a "most serious" deformity, a blight on the democratic process. Corruption "betrays at one and the same time both moral principles and the norms of social justice. It compromises the correct functioning of the State, having a negative influence on the relationship between those who govern and the governed."
"It causes a growing distrust with respect to public institutions, bringing about a progressive disaffection in the citizens with regard to politics and its representatives, with a resulting weakening of institutions. Corruption radically distorts the role of representative institutions, because they become an arena for political bartering between clients' requests and governmental services."
"In this way political choices favor the narrow objectives of those who possess the means to influence these choices and are an obstacle to bringing about the common good of all citizens." (Compendium, No. 411)
The common good is the end of government. Whether we are dealing with the executive, legislative, judicial branch, or any organ of public administration--national, regional, or municipal-the government must recognize that they are "oriented towards the service of citizens." They are the "steward of the people's resources, which [they] must administer with a view to the common good." (Compendium, No. 412)
As Abraham Lincoln put it in his Gettysburg Address, the people's representatives must remember that we are a "government of the people, by the people, for the people."
One evil which seems to be endemic and which must always be fought against is the problem of excessive bureaucratization. Excessive bureaucratization occurs when "'institutions become complex in their organization and pretend to manage every area at hand.'" (Compendium, No. 412) (quoting Christifidelis laici, 41).
Excessive bureaucratization works against the common good and against efficient stewardship of public resources. "In the end," excessively bureaucratic agencies of government "'lose their effectiveness as a result of an impersonal functionalism, an overgrown bureaucracy, unjust private interests, and an all-too-easy and generalized disengagement from a sense of duty.'" (Compendium, No. 412) (quoting Christifidelis laici, 41).
The danger of excessive bureaucratization is, of course, is frequently lost among the advocates of bigger government, even if they may be well-meaning. "The role of those working in public administration is not to be conceived as impersonal or bureaucratic, but rather as an act of generous assistance for citizens, undertaken with a spirit of service." (Compendium, No. 412). Excessive bureaucratization is the foul fruit of having forgotten the principle of subsidiarity.
Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas. He is married with three children. He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum. You can contact Andrew at email@example.com.
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