If democracy is in danger, what do we Catholics do?
Miguel Angel Velasco cmf
Doctor in Pedagogy
Licentiate in Systematic Theology
Master in Development and Diplomacy
Dedicated to my students of Religion of the Second Baccalaureate Claret of Madrid.
I do not believe that the title of this article is out of context or particularly alarmist. In it, I present a brief reflection on the dangers of names and surnames; what we should understand by democracy; the ways to strengthen democratic life, and finally, the attitude Catholics should have towards politics.
A turbulent and clarifying few years
Social turbulence has not ceased to occur in recent years. In addition to the emergence of populist leaders with all sorts of political names, such as Nicolás Maduro, Donald Trump, Jair Messias Bolsonaro, and Boris Johnson, we must add the names of dictators such as Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, or Kim Jong-un. We could go over more terms and countries, but I just wanted to give a few examples. Two models of political organization have been mutually presented as alternatives: democracy and autocracy. There is no doubt that all countries have a bit of both extremes, although there is also no doubt that the Chinese political regime is not similar to that of the Federal Republic of Germany.
In recent years we have been hearing propaganda about how dictatorial regimes like China’s are more effective in resolving conflicts and problems. For example, it seemed that China had controlled the COVID-19 epidemic much better than Western countries and that its GDP was growing well above the average of OECD countries. Moreover, China appeared to be very generous to countries in Asia, Africa, and the Americas when it came to granting loans for civil infrastructure construction. Soon, with the relative overcoming of the COVID-19 pandemic and Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, most of these claims have been revealed to be plain and straightforward lies.
China is having a profound crisis of GDP growth, has failed to control COVID-19, and continues with solid social repression, especially with Muslim minorities; regarding the generosity of credits, they are being used to manage the recipient countries politically. If we refer to Russia, Putin’s smiles and good words of yesteryear have been proven to be profoundly false, especially for Ukraine. It has become abundantly clear that the autarky promoted by China and Russia could be better, at least for people who do not hold power in those countries. I think (almost) all of us have been happy to live in democracies, but “all that glitters is not gold.”
Improving democracy in all countries
In February 2023, an article appeared in Foreign Affairs magazine, signed by Samantha Power, entitled “How Democracy can win,” in which she outlined the priorities for promoting democracy: “…supporting independent media, the rule of law, human rights, good governance, civil society, pluralistic political parties, and free and fair elections”. Samantha is the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. I think we all agree that promoting the above mentioned in her article is essential to developing Democracy in those countries that dream of it. However, the point is that, as the approach of the 2030 Agenda has pointed out to us, we do not have to focus only on promoting what Samantha mentioned in the countries that do not have democracy.
We have to take care of and improve democracy in countries that call themselves democratic or even in those that have been democratic for many years. The assault on the Congress of the United States, the first nation with a democratic structure in history, shows us how important it is to consider what Samantha Power said seriously. But it is not only the United States; we must analyze the situation of every democracy in the world, of the specific democracy in which we may live. Do our nation’s government, the political parties, and politicians, in general, have the awareness that they have been elected to serve the citizens? What should be done to make it a reality in our country if they do not have this awareness?
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development titles goal 16 in this way: “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, facilitate access to justice for all, and build effective and inclusive accountable institutions at all levels.” The UN General Assembly wanted to link stable peace with creating stable and genuinely democratic institutions. This linkage between Peace, Justice, and Democracy is nothing more than an explicit statement of the content of the Founding Charter of the United Nations. We can recall some of the targets of this SDG: “ensure equal access to justice for all” (16.3); “significantly reduce corruption and bribery in all its forms” (16.5); “build effective and transparent accountable institutions at all levels” (16. 6); “Protect fundamental freedoms, by national laws and international agreements” (16.10); “Strengthen relevant national institutions, including through international cooperation, to build at all levels, particularly in developing countries, the capacity to prevent violence and to combat terrorism and crime” (16a).
Democracy, the people, and politicians
A better democracy is not defined by having many votes to elect the rulers. In a country, one can have many votes and discover that they are rigged; one can have fundamental laws based on human rights and circumvent them by having the executive branch manipulate the legislative and judicial branches, or one can try to seize power, with pretended legitimacy, by claiming that the election results were rigged. The essence of democracy is defined in the very term “Government of the People,” in which national sovereignty resides. Once the people of the government are elected, sovereignty ceases to be in the people and passes to the Executive Branch. Elections mean that the people select the people who will serve them for a given period. This is why empowering civil society organizations and structures are so important. A nation’s government and the entire political class must feel at the service of the people; they are elected to serve them.
At this point, I would like to bring a reflection of Pope Francis on the importance and mission of politicians, taken from his encyclical Fratelli Tutti.
“This provokes the urgency to resolve everything that undermines fundamental human rights. Politicians are called to “concern themselves with fragility, with the fragility of peoples and individuals. (…). The greatest anxieties of a politician should not be those caused by a fall in the polls, but by not effectively resolving “the phenomenon of social and economic exclusion, with its sad consequences of human trafficking, trade in human organs and tissues, sexual exploitation of children, slave labor, including prostitution, drug and arms trafficking, terrorism and international organized crime. Such is the magnitude of these situations and their toll on innocent lives. We must avoid the temptation to fall into a declaratory nominalism that has a calming effect on consciences. On the contrary, we must ensure that our institutions are truly effective in fighting against all these scourges” (FT, 188).
Francis perfectly defines the “raison d’être” of political action. Politics and politicians are indeed discredited, and that is a disgrace. A disgrace to which we must find a solution because only people and groups of people who lead countries can lead humanity toward a better world. Politicians must assume their responsibilities and understand their actions as a service to the people. This statement is not against the party system; quite the contrary. The concrete ways a country is to be served are primarily subject to opinion. Therefore, it is best to channel this diversity through opinion-action groups: the parties. To affirm the existence of the parties implies: first, not to fall into partisanship with its iron disciplines of opinion; second, to have an attitude of dialogue with other ways of thinking and deciding to seek the best for the country.
A society with democratic values has the right politicians
Politicians are born in a concrete context, a concrete society, a concrete country. Therefore, for democracy to work, society must articulate and is the protagonist of its political dynamics. From this assumption, we can assume as our own: the principles presented by Samantha Power, the goals of SDG 16, and the statements of Pope Francis. If it is society as a whole that lives these values and attitudes, it will produce politicians who live them and help us to live them.
There are many actions and dynamism and projects proper to a society with democracy as an ideal of social functioning. But there is something that every democratic society has to take care of with care if it wants not only to maintain the democratic mood but to increase it, having excellent politicians: the educational system. Therefore, one of the fundamental axes of our educational processes must be education in democratic forms and criteria. For this, the following are necessary: the analysis of reality, the learning of values, informed criticism, the debate on ideas based on the serious study of the topics to be debated, the experience of life in a group of students and teachers who are different and respectful of a diversity that must enrich us.
Conclusion for Catholics
These themes are situated directly within the principles of the Social Doctrine of the Church. We must allow a line of formation and thought that came to solve so many problems experienced in the 19th and 20th centuries to be recovered. Christian Catholics must enter decisively into the study of the Social Doctrine of the Church and concretely into the study of Laudato Si and Fratelli Tutti. In what environments? Schools, parishes, formation centers for evangelizers, religious communities, and groups of priests. A study that must lead clearly and decisively to action and political commitment of the laity and communities, but the political promise of quality, as is the commitment of which Francis speaks in Fratelli Tutti and Laudato Si: in line with the tradition of the Social Doctrine of the Church.
Miguel Ángel Velasco cmf