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  • Two Cheers for Democracy from St. John Paul the GreatRhonheimer, Kraynak, and the Unfinished Agenda of Dignitatis Humanae
  • Gregory R. Beabout and Daniel Carter

So two cheers for democracy: one because it admits variety and one because it permits criticism. Two cheers are quite enough: there is no occasion to give three. Only Love, the Beloved Republic, deserves that.

E. M. Forster, Two Cheers for Democracy

Genuine democracy . . . can come into being and develop only on the basis of the equality of all its members. Before the demands of morality we are all absolutely equal. An alliance between democracy and ethical relativism would remove any sure moral reference point from political and social life, and on a deeper level make the acknowledgement of truth impossible. Indeed, "if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism."

St. John Paul the Great, Veritatis Splendor

In early April 2005, shortly after St. Pope John Paul II died, Aleksander Kwasniewski, the president of Poland, gave credit to the Polish pope for having played an important role in the collapse of communism. "We wouldn't have had a free Poland without him," declared Kwasniewski.1 In the days that followed, countless newspaper headlines focused on the "political" aspect of John Paul II's legacy. As the Wall Street Journal put it, "When John Paul II went to Poland, communism didn't have a prayer."2 Of course, playing a role in the collapse of Communism was just one aspect [End Page 79] of his rich legacy; after all, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, on Christmas Day of 1991, was roughly the midpoint of John Paul II's long tenure as the bishop of Rome. During the second half of his pontificate, part of the task he took up was to address the "unfinished agenda" of clarifying the Second Vatican Council's teaching with regard to religious freedom. Taking up this question gives rise to questions about church and state, especially regarding the Church's posture toward democracy as a form of government. Is democracy compatible with the Catholic faith? Should Catholics support democratic processes or decisions that are the result of democratic processes? Is constitutional democracy the political structure that is most compatible with Catholicism?

Our goal in this article is to engage these questions and to advance the conversation regarding the complex relationship between the Catholic Church and democracy, especially by returning to several of the encyclicals promulgated by John Paul II in the 1990s, during the years soon after Communism was abandoned by many countries in central and eastern Europe. We proceed in six steps. First, we provide a brief historical overview of the Church's generally negative assessment of democracy for most of the history of the Church, especially prior to the Second Vatican Council. Second, we consider briefly and in broad terms the "unfinished agenda" of the council on religious liberty, human dignity, and modern democracy. Third, we turn to John Paul II's 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus, to examine the (limited) endorsement provided there in support of democracy. Fourth, we consider the arguments set forth by two important voices, Martin Rhonheimer and Robert Kraynak. Rhonheimer is generally positive about democracy, while Kraynak is much more cautious. Fifth, we bring into focus several passages from John Paul II's encyclicals, especially Veritatis Splendor and Fides et Ratio, to center attention on both features of democracy that John Paul II praised as well as other features he criticized. Finally, we conclude that advancing the discussion about the relationship between the Catholic Church and democracy requires drawing a series of distinctions, including between politics narrowly construed (as a set of institutional structures) and politics more broadly understood (as a set of social practices, habits, and customs embodied in the lived-world of civil society). Our thesis is that the contributions of St. Pope John Paul II on this topic help us see that democracy (as a set of institutional structures) rests on a set of social practices and habits of civil...


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pp. 79-101
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