Is personal virtue required in democracy?

By  Donald Demarco, Catholic Register Special
  • September 26, 2008
{mosimage}The primary function of the state is to ensure justice for all. This noble idea resonates nicely through the particularities of the fair wage, anti-discrimination policies, affordable housing, universal health care and social justice.

Justice, however, is a virtue. Moreover, it is, in its essence, not bureaucratic, but personal. Politicians, nonetheless, who love to talk about justice, rarely understand this. In general, they assume that justice is imposed on people by a liberal government, forgetting, somehow, that a society is nothing without its constitutive people. If there are no virtuous people, there is no social justice.
Pope John Paul II understood this. In an address to the United Nations he told the countries of the world that “democracy needs wisdom. Democracy needs virtue, if it is not to turn against everything that it is meant to defend and encourage. Democracy stands or falls with the truths and values which it embodies and promotes.”

The distinguished Harvard social psychologist, Gordon Allport, conveyed the same message to the world back in 1954 when he pointed out that “the mature democratic person must possess subtle virtues.”

 While the state should be concerned about justice, it is not in the business of cultivating moral virtues. That is more the work of religious institutions, especially those of a Christian nature. In his recent book, Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver sheds most important light on the relationship between the church and democracy: “By forming people in virtues the world cannot, the church provides a vital service, especially in a democracy.”

The church both transcends democracy and is at its service. By encouraging, teaching and cultivating personal virtues (and justice, not to mention wisdom, is but one), the church is providing something that is not only “vital,” but also essential for a true democracy. For democracy without virtue is a sham. It is politics bereft of a soul, society devoid of guiding principles.

If separation of church and state meant that all the church’s teachings should be separated from political activities, then democracy would lose its lifeblood.

In 1962, Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans excommunicated three prominent Catholics for publicly defying the teaching of their church by opposing desegregation. The good bishop’s action won high praise from the secular establishment. The New York Times (April 19, 1962), for example, stated that “men of all faiths must admire (Rummel’s) unwavering courage” since he “set an example founded in religious principle and is responsive to the social conscience of our time.”

The Times did not castigate the New Orleans bishop for imposing his religious values on the secular world or acting like a bully in excommunicating three of his own fellow Catholics. It was a situation in which justice was recognized by the church and the state as having the same meaning.

The abortion situation is an entirely different story. Justice does not change, but politics certainly does. The church holds that justice should apply to the unborn. The secular world does not. But this disagreement should not alienate Catholics from the democratic process. The disagreement, in essence, has nothing to do with church and state. It is a disagreement about justice, a virtue that is almost always better understood by the church than by the state.

The state should be separated from the church so that the church can be herself without government intrusion. But the church should not be separated from the state because she is in the business of supplying the virtue that the state needs in order to be itself.

As Pope Benedict XVI stated in Deus Caritas Est: “The just ordering of society and the state is a central responsibility of politics.” How far politicians have strayed from the view of America’s second president who insisted that the American Constitution “was made for a moral and religious people.”

(Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus of philosophy at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.)

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