Contemporary Issue: Democracy


Pope Saint John Paul II pointed out that since Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891, the Church

“presents the organization of society according to the three powers — legislative, executive and judicial — , something which at the time represented a novelty in Church teaching.” (CA, 44)

He went on to state

"it is preferable that each power be balanced by other powers and by other spheres of responsibility which keep it within proper bounds." (CA, 44)

Pope Saint John Paul II refers to this balance as

"...the principle of the "rule of law", in which the law is sovereign, and not the arbitrary will of individuals." (CA, 44)

This sounds very familiar to American ears.

In CAPP’s private audience with Pope Benedict XVI in 2006, His Holiness even called democracy

“the most effective historical instrument for ensuring its own future in a way befitting to human beings.” (Benedict XVI, Address to Members of The Centesimus Annus Foundation, 19 May 2006)

A Key Warning

However it must be pointed out that CST goes on to insist upon the dignity of each person, each who are made in the visible image of God, and thereby enjoy rights that no individual, group, or even nation can violate, “not even the majority of a social body.” (CA,44) 

So while endorsing democratic systems, CST implores that:

Authentic democracy is possible only in a State ruled by law, and on the basis of a correct conception of the human person. (CA, 46)

Pope Benedict XVI, as Pope Saint John Paul II before him, cautioned that democracy must have a juridical base and be ordered to the service of mankind:

"Democracy succeeds only to the extent that it is based on truth and a correct understanding of the human person. Catholic involvement in political life can not compromise that principle." (Benedict XVI, Address to the Bishops of the Episcopal Conference of Canada-Ontario on their “Ad Limina” Visit, 8 September 2006)

Human Rights on which the State Must be Ordered

Much like Rerum Novarum identifies a list of workers’ rights, Pope Saint John Paul II identified the most important human rights on which a democracy must be ordered:

  1. The right to life (and CA points out that an integral part of this is the right of the child to develop in the mother’s womb from the moment of conception).
  2. The right to live in a united family.
  3. The right to live in a moral environment (conducive to the growth of a child’s personality) .
  4. The right to develop one’s intelligence and freedom (in seeking and knowing the truth).
  5. The right to work  (and from that work to support oneself and one’s dependents).
  6. The right to freely establish a family (to have and rear children through the responsible exercise of one’s sexuality).
  7. The right to religious freedom (understood as the right to live in the truth of one’s faith and in conformity with one’s transcendent dignity as a person). 

Culture and Politics

Pope Saint John Paul II pointed out that at the heart of culture lay morality, and at the heart of morality lay religion. Insisting on a vibrant, publicly assertive moral-cultural order, he threw down a gauntlet to the modern world and what he called “skeptical relativism”, especially as it relates to politics and government (skeptical relativism basically holds that there is no such thing as an objective truth; there’s just what I believe, you believe, a group, a nation believes; ergo nothing is objectively true).

"It must be observed in this regard that 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." (CA, 46)

Pope Benedict XVI and Religion "in the Public Square"

This theme was picked up and aggressively confronted by Pope Benedict XVI, who made our battle with what he called the “dictatorship of relativism” a major theme of his pontificate.

"The greatest challenge of our time is secularization: that is, a way of living and presenting the world as if God did not exist." (Pope Benedict XVI, Encounter with the Youth, 6 April 2006, #3)

Society, His Holiness exhorted, creates an illusion that God does not exist, or that God can be restricted to the realm of purely private affairs; he insisted that Christians cannot accept that attitude primarily because 

"The “dictatorship of relativism”, in the end, is nothing less than a threat to genuine human freedom, which only matures in generosity and fidelity to the truth." (Pope Benedict XVI, Responses to Questions Posed by the Bishops, 16 April 2008)


"The preservation of freedom calls for the cultivation of virtue, self-discipline, sacrifice for the common good and a sense of responsibility towards the less fortunate. It also demands the courage to engage in civic life and to bring one’s deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate." (Benedict XVI, White House Welcoming Ceremony, 16 April 2008, Washington, DC)

Pope Benedict continued this theme in Caritas in Veritate in which he wrote:

"Without truth, without trust and love for what is true, there is no social conscience and responsibility, and social action ends up serving private interests and the logic of power..." (CIV, 5)
" to the truth... alone is the guarantee of freedom (cf. Jn 8:32) and of the possibility of integral human development." (CIV, 9)

Throughout his pontificate, Benedict stressed that when religion is excluded from the public square,

"Public life is sapped of its motivation and politics takes on a domineering and aggressive character. Human rights risk being ignored..." (CIV, 56)

Related Thoughts on Democracy

The Catholic Social Doctrine has its place where faith and politics meet. The Church’s aim is to not replace the State, but to simply help purify reason and to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just. Taken from "Adult Faith Formation in Catholic Social Teachings"
CST places economic freedom parallel to political freedom. It recognizes that free enterprise, rightly understood and implemented, is currently the best available vehicle for systemically caring for the physical needs of the poor, and true global economy is the key way to create lasting development and, thereby, peace. Taken from "Democracy and Free Market Economies"
I invite you to look around at the new things which surround us and in which we find ourselves… (Saint John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, 1991) Taken from "Catholic Social Teaching 101"

Related Speakers / Panelists / Authors on: Democracy

Latest Episode

Sign up for news, courses and events tailored to your interests. Watch Online

Voice your Opinion!
Send us a note!
Network & Learn
Just a Thought
THE CENTESIMUS ANNUS PRO PONTIFICE 2015 STATEMENT - "A Reformed Market Economy: Entrepreneurship for Human Development” - is the result of the May 2013 challenge by Pope Francis to members of CAPP  for recommendations on how the market economy might be made more sensitive to the needs of the poor and marginalized.   Read more