Illiberal Democracy and the Dignity of the Human Person

by Christianus

There is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See this is new’? It has already been in the ages before us.” Ecclesiastes 1:10

Photo by László Beliczay/MTI Source:

Photo by László Beliczay/MTI Source:

Political crises are nothing new under the sun. They are as old as politics, and when viewed from faith, they represent an occasion not for fear, but to commit ourselves again to the common good and the cause of human dignity. For Christian politicians a “Western crisis” cannot be reason to turn from the West and toward Eastern, non-Christian political arrangements for the solution to political, social, and economic ills. In times of crisis, the Christian politician should look to the teaching of the Church and the wisdom of its tradition to find those moral principles indispensable for a just society.  Important among these are respect for human dignity, solidarity with the weak, regard for subsidiarity, and adherence to the rule of law. Since these principles are central to liberal democracies, a plan to replace a liberal democracy with an “illiberal” one cannot be considered a Christian democratic program.

First of all, one must distinguish clearly between liberalism as an intellectual orientation, and liberal democracy as a political system. Obscuring the difference between the two is dishonest populism. Justified criticisms of liberalism as an intellectual orientation and political practice do not justify rejecting liberal democracy. Because respect for human dignity is at the heart of Christian social teaching, the Church esteems democracy as a political system dedicated to the realization of authentic freedom. Although the Catholic Church rejects “liberalism, understood as unlimited competition between economic forces” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 91), it approves of liberal democracy’s fundamental aims. “The Church values the democratic system inasmuch as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices, guarantees to the governed the possibility both of electing and holding accountable those who govern them, and of replacing them through peaceful means when appropriate” (Centesimus Annus, 46). The Magisterium of the Church has both recognized and endorsed the most important elements of liberal democracy, e.g., separation of powers, rule of law, civil oversight of representative bodies of government, free elections, and the multi-party system (Compendium, 408-409).

By contrast, “illiberal democracy” builds on principles rejected by the Church in the past century. Identifying a few important tenets from Christian social teaching serves to illustrate the extent of its difference from the ideal of “illiberal democracy.”

1) The church has always taught that rulers are subject to rule of law; “Lex facit regem, non rex facit legem.” To invoke the will of the majority in matters concerning the common good is inappropriate. All citizens are equal before the law, including those in the minority. When a majority places itself above the law, it acts no differently than did ancient tyrants, petty medieval lords, and oriental despots. “It must not be forgotten that in the democratic State, where decisions are usually made by the majority of representatives elected by the people, those responsible for government are required to interpret the common good of their country not only according to the guidelines of the majority but also according to the effective good of all the members of the community, including the minority” (Compendium, 169).

2) The Church teaches, also, that the state is not identical with society. Human dignity, which stands at the center of a just society, transcends both politics and the temporal good. Because the final end of the human being lies beyond politics, neither the state nor civil society should be expected to provide an answer to the deepest questions of human existence. The purpose of the state is to promote the temporal common good, but the final good of the individual is God himself. In protecting the common good, the state creates space in civil society where individuals can find their true and deepest good. By promoting the common good, the state serves civil society and not the other way around. “The State, in fact, must guarantee the coherency, unity and organization of the civil society of which it is an expression, in order that the common good may be attained with the contribution of every citizen” (Compendium, 168). For these reasons a Christian politician will never claim that professional politicians may replace civil organizations in caring for the common good.

3) The common good is ordered to the good of the individual. The task of state and society in the natural order is to assist the individual in attaining his perfection, and to promote the realization of his full capacities and freedom (Compendium, 170). The individual can only achieve his full capacities and potential if state and society recognize his inalienable dignity. “Only the recognition of human dignity can make possible the common and personal growth of everyone. To stimulate this kind of growth it is necessary in particular to help the least, effectively ensuring conditions of equal opportunity for men and women and guaranteeing an objective equality between the different social classes before the law” (Compendium, 145). Human community can be founded on nothing other than the recognition of human dignity.

4) Worthy of emphasis is the fact human dignity does not rest on work. “However true it may be that man is destined for work and called to it, in the first place work is ‘for man’ and not man ‘for work’” (Laborem exercens, 6). The true dignity of work is found in the mystery of creation. God makes man and woman is his own image and gives them dominion over the earth. The creative activity of human work, reflecting in part the creative activity of God, enhances human dignity in a just society, rather than diminishing it. Because work is ordered to human dignity, and as it is an instrument of self-realization, the Church consistently admonishes against inhumane work conditions and the abuse of workers. “It should be recognized that the error of early capitalism can be repeated wherever man is in a way treated on the same level as the whole complex of the material means of production, as an instrument and not in accordance with the true dignity of work—that is to say, where he is not treated as a subject and maker” (Laborem exercens, 7). The notion of a workfare state and a workfare society does not reflect the true spirit of Christian social doctrine.

5) Christianity teaches that the conscience of each person is touched by an awareness that one’s life is not one’s own, but rather a gift, in the receiving of which we accept responsibility for others and for ourselves. This inner awareness is expressed universally through the Golden Rule, formulated in the Gospel as, “Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.” (Mt 7:12, Luke 6:31). At the same time, the Golden Rule follows not only from the Gospel, but also from the Natural Law. It is basic to a just society and has been formulated in different ways over the centuries. Before the revelation of the Gospel, for example, it was expressed as, “Do to no one what you would not want done to you.” (Tobit 4:15). Starting in the 18th century it was frequently formulated as, “the limit to my freedom is the freedom of others.” These different formulations of the Golden Rule cannot be set against each other without distorting the Natural Law and Christian teaching.

6) Alien to Christianity is the notion that national politics should aim to create a successful nation-state in competition with other nations. Christianity teaches that individuals and peoples are equal. The diversity of nations is a gift of providence. Each nation, through its distinctive culture, contributes to the realization of human dignity. But human dignity is safeguarded through cooperation, not rivalry, among nations. “Together with equality in the recognition of the dignity of each person and of every people there must also be an awareness that it will be possible to safeguard and promote human dignity only if this is done as a community, by the whole of humanity. Only through the mutual action of individuals and peoples sincerely concerned for the good of all men and women can a genuine universal brotherhood be attained” (Compendium, 145).

Finally, Christian politicians would do well to consider the Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation by the Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith: “[The Church] considers that the first thing to be done is to appeal to the spiritual and moral capacities of the individual and to the permanent need for inner conversion, if one is to achieve the economic and social changes that will truly be at the service of man” (Libertatis conscientia, 75).


Share Button

Leave a Reply


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *