Christian Democracy Has to Live in Tension



The Christian revelation thrives in and on tension and paradox.  Indeed, a very good definition of orthodoxy might well be “Refusal to abandon tension” just as the very essence of heresy (or as it is often called in our more political era “ideology”) is the urge to destroy tension in favor of over-simplicity.

That impulse has ever been with us.  The Church asserts that Jesus is God and Man.  Unbelieving Jews insisted he was only a man and Docetists insisted he was only God.  The Church insists God is one God in three co-eternal persons and Arians insisted that God the Father is God and the other persons were creatures.  The Church says we are saved by grace through faith expressing itself in works of love and Pelagians said we are saved by hard work while Protestants insisted we are saved by faith alone.  Everywhere you go in the history of the Church, you find the human itch to makes things simpler than they actually are, resulting in things becoming more complexificated than they need to be.

This perennial human itch does not recede when we turn to the modern age. For we now live in an era when, depending on the heretic/ideologue you are listening to, everything is evolution, or electricity, or capitalism, or Marxism, or feminism, or political, or sexual, or racial, or digital or scientific.  Ideology is the attempt to reduce reality to some All-Explaining Theory of Everything.  The Marxist ideologue proclaims that all of history and everything in human experience can be explained in terms of Marxist analysis.  The academic ideologue screens every single human act through the grid of race/class/gender conflict.  The evolutionist ideologue concocts Just So stories to explain why both throwing oneself on a grenade to save schoolchildren and throwing grenades at schoolchildren are both magically explicable as preservative of the species (since one saves lives and the other weeds out the unfit).

Catholic faith, in contrast, is the assertion of a few truths, coupled with a huge openness to Mystery.  The Faith does not claim to explain everything, but rather says, “We don’t know much, but this much we do know: there is one God, the Father, the Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, etc.”.  Because of this, it can cope with the fact that the universe is a weird place where not only is light a particle and a wave, but God is one and three, Jesus is God and man, we are both predestined and free, and salvation is a matter of faith and works.

Likewise, the answer of the Tradition to the old question of whether man is good or evil is “Yes.”  On the one hand, man is a rational animal made in the image and likeness of God and capable of bearing an enormous weight of glory.  His natural dignity makes him a little lower than the angels.  His supernatural dignity in baptism raises him above even Gabriel and makes him a participant in the life of the Blessed Trinity himself.  As creatures made in the image and likeness of God himself, man has a dignity that makes him the only creature God wills for his own sake.  Therefore, all things (including the state) are under his feet and the law exists for his sake, not he for the law.

This is the foundation for all democracy, including Christian democracy: that the rights of human beings come, as John F. Kennedy said, not from the generosity of state, but from the hand of God.  It is therefore a thing suited to our dignity as human beings that we have a say in ordering our common life.  Chesterton captures this idea perfectly:

“This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately. And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common. Falling in love is more poetical than dropping into poetry. The democratic contention is that government (helping to rule the tribe) is a thing like falling in love, and not a thing like dropping into poetry…. It is… a thing analogous to writing one's own love-letters or blowing one's own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly… In short, the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves—the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state. This is democracy; and in this I have always believed.”

At the same time, Christian democracy must, by the nature of the case, confront the fact that man is fallen and requires a savior.  It’s not all “Fanfare for the Common Man.”  As the Athenians discovered when their democratic civilization committed suicide in the Peloponnesian War, pure democracy is a fertile seedbed for mob rule and cheap demagogues.  Democracy is that form of government that says “Give us Barabbas!”

So Christian Democracy is forced to avoid the simplifying temptation of ignoring either human dignity or human sin.  It cannot subscribe to the delusions of some elitist notion of establishing a state in which only Christians can vote (since the human right and responsibility of ordering the common good belongs to all humans and not just the baptized ones). On the other hand, we Christians must approach the common good in light of apostolic tradition and not subordinate that tradition to political expedience.  We cannot do evil that good may come of it.  Nor can we forget James Madison’s point that if men were virtuous, there would be no need for government at all.

That tension between our dignity and our fallenness is what Christian Democracy has to abide in for it to survive.  And it will be that tension that every competing ideology will relentlessly assault.  It’s up to those who believe in Christian Democracy to refuse to let that happen.

—Mark Shea

Mark blogs at Patheos and at The National Catholic Register The National Catholic Register  

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