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The moral foundations of freedom: lessons from the religious encounter with democracy

By George Weigel - posted Wednesday, 15 November 2000

In the early 1980s, Sir Michael Howard, the Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, suggested in a conversation that there had been two great twentieth-century revolutions. The first was in 1917, when Lenin’s Bolsheviks expropriated the Russian people’s revolution and launched the world’s first totalitarian state. The second was going on as we spoke – the evolution of the Catholic Church into the world’s premier institutional defender of human rights.

There can be no democracy in the institutional sense unless there is a critical mass of democrats in a society. That critical mass – civil society" – is formed by moral convictions: about rights and duties, about the proper relationship between the governors and the governed, about the rule of law and the norms of public justice. The formation of Catholic consciences through the Church’s teaching on these matters will have a considerable impact on the democratic future, and not simply in countries where Catholics are a significant part of the local population.

In the developed democracies, the threats to the democratic future are political, philosophical, and technological. On all three fronts, Catholicism will likely find itself in a counter-cultural position, forging a religiously-grounded moral-philosophical critique of contemporary political culture.


The political threats include the increasing hegemony of unelected judges in settling basic issues of public policy, which involves an attenuation of democratic process and a weakening of the people’s democratic instincts. This malady is most advanced in North America, and while the Catholic Church in the United States and Canada has publicly responded to the effects of the judicial usurpation of politics on the life issues of abortion and euthanasia and on the definition of "marriage", it cannot be said that the basic democratic question – are we now ruled by unelected lawyers? – has been forcefully engaged by Catholic leaders.

A further question for the Catholic engagement with developed democracies is raised by John Paul’s teaching in Evangelium Vitae, that statutory laws or constitutional interpretations of "rights" which violate the basic moral law are, in truth, no law, and must be consciously resisted. It may be assumed that the Pope was not calling the Catholic population of the established democracies to violent insurrection. Still, very serious questions remain: if a structure of morally-repugnant "non-law" becomes so deeply imbedded in a democracy that its reversal by normal democratic means seems impossible, has that democracy lost its moral legitimacy? What ought to be the stance of Catholics toward such a democracy? These are large questions indeed, but it is not impossible – indeed, it is quite likely – that they will have to be faced in the next generation or two.

The philosophical threat to developed democracies is the prevalence, among both elites and the general public, of a soft utilitarianism married to a concept of freedom as radical personal autonomy. In John Paul II’s triptych of Centesimus Annus, Veritatis Splendor, and Evangelium Vitae, Catholics have powerful intellectual tools for proposing "freedom for excellence" over the "freedom of indifference" of the utilitarians and the sceptical relativists, particularly when responding to the myriad of issues proposed by the sexual revolution. Whether the Church’s teaching authorities in the developed democracies have grasped these tools and are deploying them imaginatively is another question.

The technological threat is posed primarily by the new biotechnologies and their linkage to the almost unimaginable power of super-computers. When Great Britain establishes a governmental agency called the Human Fertilisation and Embryological Authority, then the question is not whether the brave new world is on the horizon but whether its advance can be reversed. Here, in the world of designer babies, cloned human beings, a reprogrammed genome, and "spiritual machines" capable of creating an alternative "virtual reality" is the "culture of death" at its most imposing. And the questions this raises for democracy are profound. For these are truly ideas with consequences, including political consequences. As legal scholar Phillip Johnson has written, "In real life ... the dark side of the technological utopia is that it implies a huge difference in power between the few who do the programming and the many who are programmed." And in a society defined by that gap, democracy is gravely imperilled, if not impossible. The Catholic Church’s capacity to help meet this challenge to the democratic future, in consort with ecumenical, inter-religious, and philosophical allies, is not certain.

On the one hand, and to cite the best test-case in the American context, the Church and its allies have kept the abortion issue alive when virtually every other centre of culture-formation has declared the issue resolved in favour of abortion-on-demand as an expression of a woman’s autonomy rights. On the other hand, the laws in favour of a free-standing abortion license remain in force, and the Church and its allies have been unsuccessful, in the main, in educating both the public and the politicians about the public implications of an alleged "privacy right" to commit lethal violence.

The Church and its allies have been successful in making the public case against state-sanctioned euthanasia; but it must be admitted that the most effective arguments on this front have been pragmatic, appealing to the elderly’s disinclination to have insurance companies and medical bureaucrats decide whether it is time for them to become less "burdensome". The stakes, for democracy, are enormous in these debates and in others that the new biotechnologies are generating. It is not an accident that the fictional brave new world (in Aldous Huxley, C.S. Lewis, and others) is invariably an authoritarian world.


Finally, the Church in the early twenty-first century must confront the fact that these and related threats to the inner architecture of democracy are being mounted on the international plane. No institution in the world has been more supportive of post-World War II international organisations, including the United Nations and its affiliated agencies, than the Catholic Church. Yet it is precisely in these institutions that the culture of death is being vigorously promoted by activists who seek a way around what they perceive as the recalcitrance of unenlightened national governments, democratic or otherwise.

The effort to define a universal human right to abortion-on-demand at the Cairo World Conference on Population and Development in 1994 was the example par excellence of this phenomenon. An international campaign of resistance led by John Paul II blocked the efforts of the Clinton Administration and its European allies at Cairo. But the issue has come up time and again in U.N. fora since Cairo, and will certainly not be going away in the future. The fact that an institution to which the Holy See continues to pay considerable deference is a primary culprit in the deterioration of the idea of "human rights", must give pause to those in the Holy See who care about the democratic project in the twenty-first century and the Church’s relationship to it.

The question is whether a democratic project that does not take seriously, and then act upon, Pope John Paul II’s critique of its current intellectual and moral condition, and his defence of classic democratic notions of the relationship between freedom and moral truth, can long endure.

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This is an edited extract from the Centre for Independent Studies' Acton Lecture on Religion and Freedom, held at The Australian Stock Exchange Theatrette, Sydney, on Monday, 23 October, 2000. Full text of the Acton Lecture is available here.

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About the Author

George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the John M. Olin Chair in Religion and American Democracy and heads the Catholic Studies project.

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