We live in an era of human history quite unlike any other; in the so-called most advanced nations, that is in the West, politics more than traditional religion defines the way most people perceive their place in the world. Supernatural beliefs, at best, are treated as secondary, private concerns of individuals and have no place in extending their influence into the public sphere. If there is some public wrong which needs to be fixed, one does not look for “religious beliefs and practices” to fix them, but political solutions, because the sphere of politics, unlike “religion”, properly finds its place in the public sector.
True religion is never just a private affair: it will always manifest itself in one’s public activity. Moreover, while many people think religion has been pushed aside, one might wonder what has actually been pushed aside; is it religion or the old religious beliefs? If religion is defined as “ultimate concerns,” we must then consider what it is that is labeled as an ultimate concern. What is it that we are pursuing, and by what means do we believe it is possible? Usually the answer to the first is happiness, and the answer to the second, in some fashion or another, is human ingenuity. Western democracy, as much as Marxist communism, puts the answer to human destiny solely within human hands. Both systems seek to create and establish utopias which provide for the welfare of humanity, and believe their system is the means by which such a utopia is possible and by which that utopia is to be sustained. With such a belief, both systems become quite evangelical – they have the good news, but it must be acted upon and put into effect; if others do not share their vision, they are a threat, and they must either be converted or eliminated.
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Catholics should never consider political institutions and states as anything more than transitory goods. Each political system has its strengths and weaknesses; each provides benefits which others do not, and each can be, and often is, abused. Original sin and concupiscence mar all political systems. Usually the one we are raised in, if we are not living in a tyrannical age, is the one we prefer because we are raised within it, and see its benefits, and we have been given little reason to see its deficiencies. If we take it for what it is, as a relative good, we can take pride in it, but as soon as we forget ourselves and turn it into an absolute good, and the only means by which human goods such as freedom and equality can be affirmed, then more often than not we turn it into an idol, and as with all idols, soon it turns upon us asking from us unwholesome sacrifices for the sake of its continued existence.
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The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church relates the relationship that Jesus had with political authorities: ”Jesus refuses the oppressive and despotic power wielded by the rulers of the nations (cf. Mk. 10:42) and rejects their pretension in having themselves called benefactors (cf. Lk 22:25)…” . (Compendium 379). ”Jesus, the promised Messiah, fought against and overcame the temptation of a political messianism, characterized by the subjection of the nations (cf. Mt 4:8-11; Lk 4:5-8).. (ibid.). While acknowledging many of the good characteristics found within democratic societies, the Compendium discusses the qualities needed in any just political society, such as moral force (Compendium 396 -398), the right to conscientious objection and resistance to the political norms of a given time and place (Compendium 399-401), and the power to defend the common good with a just penal system (Compendium 402-405), and one does not need a democratic system for these to be followed.
Many believe in the utopian, messianic claims of democratic systems, and so are easily led by the nose to follow them to ungodly ends; they have been raised to be true believers and not to ponder the deficiencies of the political system they adhere to. Again this is not to say there is no good in our present system, but it is a relative good at best, and not an absolute one. Those who lived outside of a democratic system are often not so blinded so as not to see the problems the system faces than those who are raised to believe in its glories; if we want to understand the system we live in, we must come to terms with those weaknesses so as to put them into check.
Read it all. This is an important reminder. Our political institutions are human and transitory, and therefore imperfect. As Niebuhr warned us, it is always dangerous to think we can reach salvation through any such fallible human institution.