Democracy and Natural Ethics

By Francesco D'Agostino
President of the 'Union of Italian Catholic Jurists'

Commentary on a 'Doctrinal Note' issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

In the modern world, there is no doubt that only democratically-elected Governments can claim full legitimacy for their power, since today democracy is universally recognized as the only naturally justifiable form of government. This observation, taken absolutely for granted in itself and for itself, nonetheless contains a paradox, because the idea that there exists a single natural ethic which can be objectively shared by all, irrespective of their religious, political and cultural differences, has never been so eroded as in our age.

There is only one way to solve this paradox: by interpreting the logic of democracy in a strictly procedural manner. The natural primacy of democracy would thus depend on the fact that it is the only ethically neutral political regime, hence, one able to embrace visions of the world in the perspective of values that are not only different but actually in opposition.

The universal value of democracy

If one succeeds in this way — to tell the truth, brilliantly — in justifying the universal value that many attribute to democracy, at the same time they are draining it of its life-blood. Every political regime — and democracy is no exception — needs to be motivated by values (Montesquieu spoke explicitly of religious motivation); but a merely procedural democracy which formally aims to neutralize the conflictual values present in the social fabric in the conviction that it can give them the only possible legitimate foundation, cannot refer in its turn, on pain of contradiction, to prior founding values. This gave rise to one of the most subtle forms of unrest that pervades democratic awareness in these early years of the new millennium, at the time it is coming to realize the tragic fragility of that democratic model it so enthusiastically helped to build and spread.

There is one thoroughly mistaken way out of this difficulty: fundamentalism. Contrary to what many people still believe, fundamentalism is not anti-democratic but post-democratic; likewise, fundamentalism is not a regressive, backward-looking paradigm but, in its own way (aberrant, of course), it is progressive, that is, oriented to building a future.

Indeed, for the fundamentalist, ethical-political truth has such a dazzling fascination that it does not allow any to stray from it, not even a few; but at the same time, this [ethical-political] truth has a universal character which forbids all discrimination: it is a truth of and for everyone.

A regime founded on it can never be anything but democratic because, from the outset, it is hostile to any undue privilege, to any crystallization of caste, category, class or race. All the great totalitarian experiences of the 20th century had fundamentalist connotations, but not everyone perceived them clearly because they appeared to be essentially ideological processes marked by the State.

On the other hand, fundamentalism in our day attributes no special value to the role of the State in the historical process, nor, consequently, to the role of any collective movements. It calls upon the individual who is an absolute protagonist of political dynamics.

Adverse affects on Christianity

Within this dialectic, Christianity is suffering obvious hardships. It runs the risk, because of its constant reference to the primacy of truth, of being likened to a fundamentalist movement. If this comparison is not made to its ultimate consequences, it is because, materially, the outlook of Christian Churches and their faithful is very different from that of fundamentalists.

But for non-Christians, and especially, those who have a stereotypical vision of Christianity, which today is more and more frequently the case, the material distance of Christianity from fundamentalism does not exclude the discernment of a disturbing formal similarity between them: after all, the same God is invoked by both Islamic fundamentalists and Christians!

Moreover, there are always some who, with a smattering of religious-historical culture, do not remember that the very expression fundamentalist originated within the Christian (and precisely, Protestant) tradition.

As Christians feel their comparison to fundamentalism is unjust and unwelcome, they often give in to the temptation, against their better judgment, of becoming pale, unwilling and somewhat passive apologists of a procedure-oriented democracy: thus, by bringing grist to another's mill, they rouse neither particular sympathy nor gratitude.

Yet in this way they manage to remain within that typically modern game, the game of democracy, but without realizing that this, like any other political game, is not one that belongs to them constitutively, since the eschatological essence of Christianity prevents it from being wholly integrated into the framework of any kind of political paradigm; this is why any reduction of Christianity to fundamentalism is absolutely out of the question.

The nature of 'authority'

If, on the one hand, knowing that the human being is "a political animal", Christianity has always preached the divine origin of authority and has always urged people to proper, if not unlimited obedience to it, on the other, it has always encouraged and fostered the awareness that political and social structures are unnecessary for salvation. "Quid interest sub cuius imperio vivat homo moriturus?" (what does it matter in which empire man lives when in any case he is destined to die?), St Augustine asked himself.

That is why the Christian faith has never forced believers to adhere to any specific political ideology and has always demythicized all ideologies whenever it was desired to impose them as exclusive paths to salvation.

In the same way, democracy itself also requires demythicization when it claims, as it frequently does today, to set itself up as a superior form of mediation for not only political but also ethical conflicts.

If it is true, as Maritain wrote, that democracy, as a movement that champions the freedom and dignity of the person, "emerged in human history as a temporal expression of evangelical inspiration" and as such is closely "linked to Christianity", it is equally true that the connection between democracy and Christianity is historical and not dogmatic; and that also today the historical connection is tending to deteriorate, to the extent that democracy in our time seems to be putting its basic focus on the person in parentheses in order to accentuate its formalistic foundation.

At this point we can return to rethinking the relationship between natural ethics and democracy.

Far from making us run fundamentalist risks, respect for natural ethics can quite safely be assumed as an a priori of the democratic paradigm, because the object of the outcome of these ethics is not concern for the last things, but the next-to-last things, to use an expression dear to Bonhoeffer.

Last vs. next-to-last things

The pursuit of the last things — in short, the logic of meaning and faith that goes beyond the limits of time and space — cannot be set bindingly by the political community with its laws and through its institutions: failure to understand this point constitutes the dramatic and at times criminal error of fundamentalism.

But pursuit of the next-to-last things, that is, the temporal good of human beings, is well-suited to politics and in particular to that form of political experience called democracy, precisely because it leaves people free to identify, albeit by chance and as the occasion arises, the most suitable political objectives. In this context and for various reasons, both fundamentalist universalism and democratic relativism appear aberrant and violent to Christians: the former because, by sacralizing profane things, it seeks to reduce the polyphonic riches of goodness to monophony; the latter, when it claims to subject radical options of life to systematic control, thereby showing that it is obtusely blind to the objective dimension of goodness and value that are inherent in profane things and which natural ethics enables everyone to see with perfect clarity (as Rousseau knew well when he described ethics as the sublime science of simple souls).

To conclude, let us return to our previous reference regarding the religious motivation that should form the basis of every political regime (and not only of democracy!).

Those who, in the name of misunderstood secularization, hold that this religious motivation should be marginalized or even suppressed are mistaken (as De Tocqueville well knew). Understood correctly, it does not express in itself a temptation to fundamentalism but a simple, profound principle: to provide a sound guarantee for the democratic search for the common good, which is at the root of every authentic political process (given that a policy which does not promote the common good is merely violence and abuse).

A policy that reduced democracy to a mere convention could not do this, as is demonstrated by the nihilistic yet impeccably democratic result (from the strictly formal point of view) of so much contemporary legislation in areas that do not involve a casual evaluation, but life itself: I am thinking of legislation that legalizes abortion, euthanasia and genetic manipulation. When decisions regarding life are put to the ballot, the binding character of laws is flawed: no conscience feels duty bound to bow down to mere numbers, nor can a polling booth be exchanged for a chapel.

The violence of fundamentalism has succeeded in awakening from their dogmatic torpor the theorists of democracy who have forgotten this simple truth, and with them, all Christians who have deluded themselves into thinking that the global imposition of the democratic model has made their social commitment as Christians superfluous once and for all by definitively secularizing politics.

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