Ukraine soldiers are fighting — and dying — to preserve the democratic tradition in their nation since the fall of the Soviet Union. CNS photo/Gleb Garanich, Reuters

Christian culture best served by democracy

  • April 28, 2022

If the definition of “freedom fighter” is in the eyes of the beholder, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau beholds Ukrainians.

“Ukrainians have fought like heroes over the past number of months,” Trudeau declared to reporters April 18. “And they’re not just fighting for Ukraine. They are fighting for the values that underpin so many of our free and democratic societies.”

So is it democracy that’s on the line in Mariupol? Does the defeat of Ukrainian forces in Donbass threaten democracy here in Canada? Is Russian victory in Kharkiv a blow for freedom in Western countries?

“What I think Prime Minister Trudeau and other Western leaders are saying — and it’s the right sort of argument to make — is let us not take democracy for granted. It’s not a given,” said Cardus think tank expert on religious freedom Fr. Deacon Andrew Bennett. “If you want to have a democratic culture, let alone democratic elections and democratic institutions, you have to nurture that.”

Bennett is a deacon in the Byzantine Rite Ukrainian Catholic Church. He shies away from a direct connection between Ukrainian soldiers defending territory against Russian soldiers and a defence of democracy in general.

“It’s a useful rhetorical device for the Prime Minister and other Western leaders, but really what’s at stake here is the self-determination of peoples,” Bennett said.

But it does not escape Bennett’s notice that Ukraine is democratic and Russia is not.

“Ukraine is fundamentally different in terms of its political culture from Russia,” he said. “Although they both are dealing with the post-Soviet hangover, the difference is that Ukraine wants to cure the hangover, whereas Russia wants to continue to drink.”

But it isn’t just political theory that’s up for grabs when we talk about democracy.

“Christian culture at this point in time, it’s best served by a democratic system,” he said.

In other words, the Church needs democracy to thrive.

The connection between democracy and Christianity runs much deeper than just which kind of government creates a better environment for the Church, said Fr. Archpriest Andriy Chirovsky, founding director of the Sheptytsky Institute at the University of St. Michael’s College.

“Democracy is important because it’s about human dignity,” said Chirovsky. “An authoritarian government crushes the human spirit.”

Chirovsky acknowledges that for centuries Catholic popes and philosophers favoured monarchies, while democracy made them uneasy — right up until the Second Vatican Council.

“The old image of the Catholic monarch only works if it’s a saintly, enlightened monarch,” he said. “I can’t imagine any form of rule is perfect, any form of governance. That’s why the psalmist says, ‘Do not put your trust in princes, in the sons of men, for in them there is no salvation’ ” (Psalm 146).

Catholic social teaching now favours democracy because it creates space for the human heart and for Christian solidarity, said Chirovsky.

“This is theological anthropology. We were created free,” he said. “I have to be free in order to love.”

Being able to love is what it means to be created in the image and likeness of God, Chirovsky said. And that capacity for love extends beyond romance to our instinct for solidarity.

“I really believe in the solidarity of the human race,” said Chirovsky. “I remember the day of the tsunami in southeast Asia. Remember when like 100,000 people were wiped out in a second, or maybe 10 seconds? Do you know that I felt that like a gut-punch?... If one part of the human race is hurting, I cannot be fully free.”

That kind of freedom is not something the state grants by decree or in a Bill of Rights.

“The Soviet Union allowed freedom of worship. What they didn’t allow was freedom of religion,” Chirovsky said. “You were allowed to worship inside that church building. But you could not do any charitable work. You couldn’t work with young people. But you were allowed to worship. The Russian people were allowed to worship, but they weren’t allowed to do all of the other stuff that makes us Church — to express our faith in our daily actions.”

That’s the deeper meaning of freedom of religion and freedom of expression, said Chirovsky.

“It’s not vanity to express ourselves. God expressed Himself in the Word and the Word created the world. The world is there as part of God’s self-expression,” he said.

Chirovsky does believe democratic culture and freedoms are what Ukrainians are fighting for.

“Ukrainians see democracy. They see that people can express themselves. This is deeply part of the Ukrainian spirit,” he said. “If Russia defeats Ukraine, all these dictatorial rulers — whether it’s individuals or whether it’s group rule — they will then feel emboldened to pursue their anti-democratic goals.”

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