What Catholics Should Do About Democracy

A Week of Brainstorming on the Role of Faith in Modern World

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BOLOGNA, Italy, OCT. 16, 2004 (Zenit.org).- The complex and often controversial relationship between politics and faith was the subject addressed in a congress held Oct. 7-10 in Bologna. The 44th edition of the "Social Week," first held in 1907, brought together almost 1,200 participants.



The format mixed speeches and round-table discussions bringing together Church prelates, politicians, economists and academics. Themes examined during the sessions included the role of Catholics in today's political world, politics and power, information and democracy, economics and science.

In his opening welcome to the participants, Bologna Archbishop Carlo Caffarra drew attention to the underlying ethos that should inspire a democracy. Citing the Second Vatican Council's document "Gaudium et Spes," he explained that this ethos can be discovered in the spiritual and moral nature of the person.

Two main enemies hinder the development of the human person and this ethos today, the archbishop said. First is the influence of moral relativism, which denies the existence of objective truths in ethics, justice and politics. Second is the incapacity to coordinate individual liberty with social obligations.

In his introductory speech to the proceedings, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, president of the Italian episcopal conference, spoke about the role of Catholics in Italian society. The faithful, he noted, can legitimately opt to take differing positions in the political spectrum, though not at the cost of sacrificing their specific identity as Catholics.

Cardinal Ruini recalled the words of John Paul II on Nov. 23, 1995, during a meeting in Palermo. The Church, the Pope explained, does not intend to ally itself with individual parties. This does not mean, the cardinal said, that all political and social groupings are compatible with the Catholic faith. Nor does it mean that they all give sufficient weight to key principles of Catholic social teaching on matters such as respect for human life, the family, solidarity, and the promotion of peace and justice.

Defending transcendence

The principal contribution Catholics can make to democracy today, noted Cardinal Ruini, is to defend the transcendence of the human being, notably the transcendence that implies our capacity to know and transform reality. In this sense it is a mistake to imagine that the Church is opposed to scientific progress, as it is often accused of being in conflicts over bioethical questions. But scientific progress should not cut itself off from ethical principles, he added.

Liberty is another important dimension of human transcendence. This liberty, the cardinal said, must respect the principle that the person is an end in himself and should never be reduced to a means. Only by respecting this principle does it make sense to talk of the rights that are common in modern democracy.

Guiding principles

An underlying concern in a number of the Social Week presentations was the search for principles or values that can inspire and guide today's world. Francesco Paolo Casavola, ex-president of Italy's supreme tribunal, the Constitutional Court, drew attention to the centrifugal forces affecting many nations.

Many countries are affected by a combination of globalization, increasing levels of migration, and the force of egoism. Many societies are becoming multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural. Democracy in ancient Greece did not survive when hostile forces overcame the city-state structure, Casavola noted. The challenges to the nation-state model today also bring with them dangers for democracy, he explained.

During a round-table discussion on economics and finance, Stefano Zamagni, a professor at the University of Bologna, explained that there is a diversity of opinions on what the relationship should be between economics, politics and civil society. Some maintain that the market is the solution for all social ills. Others consider that a market-inspired logic is damaging for society. Models range from those inspired by the ideal of redistribution in the welfare state, to the more recent propositions contained in the concept of compassionate conservatism.

Zamagni also drew attention to the difficulties created for democracy by globalization. One of the principles of the democratic model of government is that citizens can exert influence in the decision-making process, and that those who govern are answerable to the voters. But increasingly the nation-state is no longer the author of juridical norms. The norms are more often imposed by global institutions that are not directly answerable to individuals via any democratic process.

Yet, it would be exaggerated to say that democracy is in a crisis, opined Lorenzo Ornaghi, rector of the Catholic University of Milan. As he sees it, we are in the midst of a readjustment process.

The common good

At another round-table discussion, Ornaghi called on Catholics to contribute to this reorientation of democracy. His call was echoed by another ex-president of the Constitutional Court, Cesare Mirabelli. In an interview Wednesday with Italy's Catholic daily, Avvenire, he explained that Catholics can play an important role by ensuring that democracy pursues the common good of society, rather than the more-limited interests of partisan groups.

Milan's archbishop, Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, also called for a greater attention to the common good in the political process. In his speech the archbishop explained that the Church's social doctrine, based on the Gospel, has an important role to play in providing an anthropological base for democracy.

This anthropological foundation is needed so as to avoid false ideas about the human person, social relations, sexual matters and relations with the world. Democracy should be centered on the person, he argued, but too often it seeks to manipulate or even destroy, instead of fomenting, personal development.

Cardinal Tettamanzi also spoke of a number of dangers for democracy. Among the threats he identified were ethical relativism, populism, and an excessive concentration of media and economic power. He called upon Catholics to help renew the moral and civil conscience of Italy by means of the promotion of values such as solidarity, subsidiarity and respect for the law.

Authentic democracy

In his message to Cardinal Ruini for Social Week, John Paul II recalled that in his text for the previous Social Week, in 1999, he spoke of the need for ethical principles that can underpin civil society.

Citing his encyclical "Centesimus Annus," the Pope noted that the Church values the democratic system in that it ensures all citizens can participate in the governing process. But an authentic democracy is present only when there is a correct conception of the human person, the 1991 document said.

A current threat to this authentic democracy is the tendency to relativism, added the Pontiff. This relativism can lead to the error of thinking that adhering to the truth is an obstacle to the democracy. But the truth as revealed by Christ is a guarantee for the human person of a full and authentic liberty, the Holy Father said. This truth, he continued, is the best antidote against ideological fanaticism, be it of a scientific, political or religious nature.

John Paul II concluded by calling upon Catholics to be active in society and in political life, guiding themselves in this effort by the Church's social teaching. Advice that many Social Week speakers found as relevant as ever.