Now, the Kasper Theory of Democracy?

Published June 17, 2015

The Catholic Difference

few weeks ago, after Ireland voted to approve so-called “same-sex marriage,” a correspondent sent me an e-mail quoting Cardinal Walter Kasper’s comment on the result: “A democratic state has the duty to respect the will of the people, and it seems clear that, if the majority of the people wants such homosexual unions, the state has a duty to recognize such rights.” I certainly hope the cardinal was either misquoted or mistranslated. For that comment, taken at face value, would suggest that a distinguished theologian-bishop has seriously misunderstood the nature of democracy and the Church’s teaching about just political communities.

As quoted, that comment would also suggest—to raise a delicate point—a curious myopia on Cardinal Kasper’s part about his own national experience.

For the first word that came to mind on reading Kasper’s remark was “Weimar.” As in the Weimar Republic, which succeeded the Hohenzollern monarchy after World War I and was in turn succeeded by Hitler’s Third Reich—after a democratic election put Hitler and his Nazi Party in power, and after a democratically elected German parliament passed the notorious Ermächtigungsgesetz (“Enabling Act”), which effectively granted Hitler dictatorial powers.

John Paul II, whose teaching about the free and virtuous society in Centesimus Annus remains the pinnacle of Catholic social teaching on the democratic experiment, constructed his social magisterium beneath the shadow that “Weimar” had cast across the history and future of democracy. That is why St. John Paul taught that “democracy” can never be reduced to mere “majority rule.” Majorities 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.

That is why John Paul also insisted 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.

Cardinal Kasper’s comments, as reported and translated, also imply a rather strange understanding of what “rights” are. As Catholic social doctrine understands them, “rights” are not bequests of the state—even when the state is implementing in law what it believes to be the will of the majority of citizens. Rather, the Church teaches that basic civil and political “rights” are hard-wired into us as the means to fulfill our duties to God and to our neighbors. A morally well-formed civil society recognizes and cherishes those rights (such as religious freedom, free speech, and freedom of assembly) and a just state, acting as the servant of civil society, affords those rights the legal protection they are due.

None of this suggests that the just state has a “duty,” under any circumstances, to afford legal recognition to “homosexual unions” as if they were true marriages to which people have a “right”—which reason and revelation tell us they are not. A just state may well create legal arrangements in which citizens in a variety of relationships are legally and financially enabled to care for those for whom they believe themselves responsible. But that’s not what happened in Ireland, and it’s not what’s afoot elsewhere.

Democracy depends on a broad public consensus that there are Things As They Are, including moral Things As They Are. Absent that consensus, the shadow of Weimar lengthens, and threatens, yet again.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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