Democracy and the threat of self-destruction


The corruption of a culture and the consequent corruption of a democracy which owes so much of its validity and integrity to the essence of a culture is a frightening prospect. It is a prospect facing not a few democracies in our time.
George Weigel hopes that Cardinal Walter Kasper’s comments in the aftermath of Ireland’s same-sex marriage referendum were misquoted. The Cardinal said: “A democratic state has the duty to respect the will of the people, and it seems clear that, if the majority of the people want such homosexual unions, the state has a duty to recognize such rights.”
That comment, taken at face value, Weigel says in a First Things article last week, “would suggest that a distinguished theologian-bishop has seriously misunderstood the nature of democracy and the Church’s teaching about just political communities.” Weigel also, “delicately” he says, without being too delicate, wonders how much of his own country’s sad recent history the good Cardinal has forgotten.
“For the first word that came to mind” Weigel says, “on reading Kasper’s remark was ‘Weimar.’” He wonders if he means ‘democratic’ as in the… democratic election (which) put Hitler and his Nazi Party in power, or the democratically elected German parliament which passed the notorious Ermächtigungsgesetz (Enabling Act), which effectively granted Hitler dictatorial powers?
He quotes St. John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus, which he describes as “the pinnacle of Catholic social teaching on the democratic experiment, which taught that “democracy” can never be reduced to mere “majority rule.”

“Majorities”, he reminds us, “can get the technicalities of public policy wrong. More gravely, majorities can also get the fundamentals of justice wrong: as many Germans did in the early 1930s, when the outcome of voting for the Nazi Party was clear to anyone who had read Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ or listened to his rants; as many French citizens did in the early twentieth century, when the representatives they democratically elected dismantled Catholic schools, exiled members of religious orders, and expropriated their property; and as too many Americans did during our long national struggle over racial segregation, legally imposed by democratically-elected legislatures.”

Weigel reminds us of the pope-saint’s insistence…that, of the three interlocking parts of the free and virtuous society—a democratic polity, a free economy, and a vibrant public moral culture—the cultural sector is the key to the rest. For it takes a certain kind of people, formed in the arts of self-governance by a robust moral culture and living certain virtues, to operate the machinery of democracy and the free economy in ways that promote decency, justice, and solidarity, not degradation, injustice, or new forms of authoritarian bullying.

Weigel says nothing more about Ireland in this article but it may be added that the biggest shock for the nearly 40% percent of the Irish electorate which voted against the change in their Constitution was not the change in itself but the realisation that the culture of the country had changed so radically. Added to that was the shock that it was the two younger generations in the country which had brought about the change on the basis of an almost entirely emotional platform. Reasoned arguments from the “no change” side were ignored and constantly responded to with emotions ranging from sentimentalism, through arrogance down as far as naked hatred. All this was bolstered by a thoroughly deceitful abuse of the concept of equality – equating the sexual relationship of opposite sexes with that between two people of the same sex.
That the faith-and-reason based culture of a country had been so thoroughly dismantled and replaced with a barely rational and thoroughly sentimental alternative, careless of consequences, was for many a very disturbing experience. How did it happen?
The recalling by Weigel of the French experience of the dismantling of Catholic schools in the early part of the last century deepens the sense of foreboding of those concerned about the erosion of foundations of Irish culture. Most Irish schools are still nominally Catholic and Christian. But that nominal status seems destined to be short-lived and they will soon be entirely secular if the forces of the State and the now apparently secularist majority in the country have anything to do with it. The corrosive and self-inflicted secularisation of Irish education which has been going on for at least three generations now is a large part of the reason for what Irish people wakened up to on May 23 last.
By secularisation we do not mean the removal of institutions from ecclesiastical control. We mean the “disembedding” of all faith-based values from the ethos of educational institutions. We are talking about the process which has been traced so thoroughly by Charles Taylor (A Secular Age), Brad Gregory (The Unintended Reformation) and others in the past few years.
How did this secularisation of education in Ireland come about – apart, that is, from what it owes to the global process Taylor and Gregory have studied? There are never simple cut and dried reasons for these things but a huge contributor was the failure of the baby-boom generation to resist the sexual revolution and the drift toward hedonism which began (roughly) in the 1960s. The generation which they begat didn’t simply not resist this. They swallowed it hook-line-and-sinker. After that no one now even knows what Pope John Paul was talking about when he reminded Ireland’s young people in 1979 that “something else is needed” in their lives instead of drugs, sex and rock’n’roll. Many of them don’t think of much else now – other than money, celebrity and spectator sports. How else do you explain the extraordinary flight from stable marriage to divorce and cohabitation, the disregard for the stable family with a mother and father which the referendum result revealed – not to mention the country’s ranking for binge-drinking and suicide among the under 40s.
Hand in hand with this social decay went the capture by political ideologues of state agencies and services – education, health, justice and social services – and the media of social communication, vital to the cultural life of a country. These were the secularised new graduates from the Irish universities which themselves had come under the influence of American academic politically correct ideology.
These state agencies and the media combined to promote social policies in their own image and likeness which a not-too-bright-or-courageous elected parliament duly went along with. That ninety percent-plus of these representatives supported the same-sex marriage referendum proposal which was rejected by nearly forty percent of those who elected them is – or should be – deeply worrying for any lover of democracy.
Unlike the French, Ireland’s Catholic schools did not even have to wait for the state to dismantle them. In the post-sixties flight from faith they went into self-destruct mode all on their own. On the wave of muddled-to-bad teaching of Christian doctrine – moral included – which can be traced back to the 1970’s, generation after generation were left clueless about the foundations of their faith. The Catholic Church leaders of the era must take responsibility for this and indeed it can only be seen as another side of the coin which produced the careless dealing with those clergy, wolves in shepherd’s clothing, who in those decades perpetrated sexual abuse on those in their care. These same wolves were not only slaves to their own vicious and illicit passions but also victims of the woolly moral thinking which resulted from the ambivalence of some of their theology teachers about the clear moral teaching in Humanae Vitae.
We are all victims now and the barbarians at our gates in the form of ISIS may be far less threatening to the survival of our civilization than those in our midst.
Jonah Goldberg in his book The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas talks about the dangerous adulation of youth which infects our age and which betrays not only young people themselves but also jeopardises our civilization. In an interview about the book he said:

We have a popular culture that exalts young people simply because they’re young and I have a deep and abiding contempt for youth politics, certainly as it’s practiced on the Left… The assumption that we have to cater to young people because they’re young, and they’re the future and all that kind of stuff, is just a naked form of power worship. It assumes that since they’re going to run everything one day, we might as well cave into them now. This completely turns the idea of civilization on its head. Hannah Arendt once said that in “Every generation, Western civilization is invaded by barbarians – we call them ‘children.’”

The champions of same-sex marriage rode to victory in the Irish referendum thanks to tyrannical clichés. They had no arguments. All they had were meaningless slogans about a meaningless equality, based on the ludicrous Humpty Dumpty principle that we can make things mean what we say they mean. They did so by mobilising the under-forty voters and feeding them a great deal of romantic nonsense. It worked. The liberal Left now knows how it works and they are setting out to apply the same strategy to introduce abortion-on-demand to the country.
The way back from this trough of desolation will be long and arduous. It is not just an Irish problem. It is a problem for the remnant of Western civilization and it can only be countered at the level of education. The culture we had is now corrupted and only that remnant can revitalise it: by their families, by their devising adequate strategies for communal education, by Christians and all those of good will, whether Christian or not, with their commitment to the universal truths rooted in our very nature. The barbarians who descended on the Roman world destroyed the old civilization. They in turn, however, eventually withered away and their children’s children ceased to be barbarians because they grew into the light of the truth which had been slowly but surely growing inside that old Roman world. It can, and will, happen again. Believe.

We CAN know the truth

Charles Taylor explained it in his own way in A Secular Society. That was a difficult but rewarding read. Alasdair MacIntyre worried us all about it in his very sobering After Virtue. Then Brad Gregory took up the theme compellingly in The Unintended Reformation. But if you want to go for a very short and succinct treatment of what happened to our Christian Civilization over the past 500 years try Fr. Brian McKevitt’s version of the story in a short homily he delivered last month. Not only did he tell us how we got here but he very helpfully suggested to us what we might do to get ourselves back on track before we all eat ourselves alive.

Fr. Brian is an Irish Dominican priest who edits a monthly paper which some feel is one of the few things which is keeping Irish Catholics informed about the state of their religion in the world today. The paper plays all the tricks of the tabloids without being a tabloid and is read, standard systems of estimating these things would calculate, by at least a million people every month. Others feel that if there is one single organ keeping some semblance of Catholic orthodox belief in the country alive and kicking today it is Fr. McKevitt’s Alive!

If you like it please spread it around.

In Passing…Imagining a Better World

Two shivers ran down my spine last month. One was when I read something by a columnist in The Daily Telegraph commenting on her reaction to the news about the pregnancy of Sarah Palin’s daughter. The other was the account of the three teenage girls buried alive in Pakistan to maintain the “honour” of their tribe. But I was brought back to some semblance of hope and optimism by the Canadian philosopher-historian-sociologist, Charles Taylor whose great book, “A Secular Age”, I’m ploughing through at the moment. It is a rewarding but demanding read.

Taylor, among other things, reflects in his book on the way our sense of morality has evolved over the centuries, indeed over the millennia, in which we have tried to live and work together as human beings in this world. Out of this reflection comes an awareness that while these two specimens of accepted “moral” behaviour that so disturbed me – the one a specimen of a primitive and backward tribal custom, the other a specimen of ultra sophisticated 21st century civilization – may always be with us as forms of behaviour, they can ultimately be consigned to the category of barbarism to which they belong.

Liz Hunt, writing in the Telegraph, wondered how good a “mom” U.S. Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin could be if her pregnant daughter Bristol was in some way not being given the choice of whether or not to bring her baby into this world. Taylor has devised a term, “social imaginary”, to represent the kind of images, visions, ideas we all have about our time in this world and they way we should live together. Think of what we mean when we say “I can’t imagine myself doing this that or the other” and you get an idea of where he is coming from. We think of ourselves “putting theories into practice”. Well he is using “imaginary” instead of “theory” because, he says – and he is probably right, – people live and act more on the basis of what they can imagine themselves doing than on theories.  For many in the western world the “imaginaries” (theories) they have can, tragically, with the greatest of ease encompass the killing of unborn living human beings.  This imagining allows, for example, that 17-year-old Bristol Palin, might take the life of her unborn child if, as Liz Hunt puts it, “becoming a wife and a mother at such a young age” just didn’t fit in with her other plans.

Such a killing might not be an “honour” killing of the horrific kind reported from Pakistan. It would pure and simply be nothing more or less than a “convenience” killing.  But why should we be any less disturbed by it than we are by the killing in tribal Paksitan? How different in fact are the western social conventions – enshrined in law in so many societies now – which readily accept the killing of the unborn from the conventions defended by the politicians of the province of Balochistan who in the Pakistan parliament defended the punishment of the three teenagers? Their claim was that the practice was part of “our tribal custom”. What was the girls’ crime? They refused to marry the husbands chosen by their families.

What light does Taylor’s theory of “social imaginaries” throw on all this? In essence we see that while the two societies in which both these acts take place – the ruthless and relentless slaughter of the unborn in one; the terrible but much less frequent honour killing of young girls who want to assert their independence in the other –  look worlds apart they are in fact no different from each other in real terms. They are only different in the “imaginings” of those who perpetrate them.

The encouragement I get from my reading of Taylor is in his reflection on how the process of change takes place in these “social imaginaries”. In it we can see how mankind and societies have moved from the social acceptance of forms of behaviour to non-acceptance and even revulsion and horror at the same behaviour.

The tribal chiefs of Balochistan are clearly at ease with the practice of their tribe – as were many of the “great and good” of the 18th century with the practice of slavery and the brutality of the slave-trade. Many of the “great and good” of our own time have no qualms about the mass slaughter in progress in hospitals and clinics across the western world. Indeed, for many, contributing to it could just be part of what “being a good mom” might be about.

What Taylor’s thinking suggests is that all this need not always be so and that moral sensibility does change if our “social imaginaries” can be changed. William Wilberforce effected the change in social imagination of his time and this was what brought the slave trade to its knees. Slavery sadly still exists but the “civilised” world at least has set its face against it and seeks to eradicate it. Sadly also, human beings will continue to kill each other, born or unborn, – probably until the end of time – but we can hope for a time when our imagining and our vision of how our society should be will always seek to prohibit such slaughter.

And a further consideration which I glean from Taylor seems to deepen the hope that we might have that rather than being on a slippery slope to more and more of this mayhem, we may in fact be climbing to a new flowering of the civilization of life.  The practice of abortion is not new. What is new – at least on the scale on which we have it now – is the legal sanction of the practice. It is now carried out in the name of every member of those democratic societies in which it is legalised.

But this very sanction has the effect of bringing the practice into deep and potentially disturbing focus and therefore can be the very catalyst which may bring about the moral revulsion which should be the natural and rational response to such slaughter of innocent life. A Royal Navy which protected the slave ships crossing to and forth across the Atlantic in the 18th century revolted the British people thanks to the work of William Wilberforce and his friends. In the 19th the Royal Navy became the agent for the abolition of that brutal trade. This is a process of change which can be brought into play again. Indeed it is already in play. We can hope that the day will come when the conventional “wisdom” which says that it is moral and proper for one human being to chose to terminate the life of another in certain given circumstances will have no place in the social imagination of anyone.