Demokrati: En Europæisk arv for det fælles bedste

I anledning af kommunalvalget er her nogle tanker sociallære og demokrati. Det er en forarbejde til et dokument som kommer ud fra JP Europa senere på året.

Democracy – A European Heritage for the Common Good

I. Democratic engagement in the light of the Social Teaching of the Church and of the Gospel

As Catholic Christians we remember that first of all that democracy is highly valued in the Social Teaching of the Church. In his encyclical letter Pope Jean Paul II wrote “the Church values the democratic system inasmuch as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices, guarantees to the governed the possibility both of electing and holding accountable those who govern them, and of replacing them through peaceful means when appropriate”. [1]  Pope Paul VI, the author of the encyclical letter Populorum Progressio on Human development stressed the duty of every Christian to take part in the search to promote a democratic type of society. [2]  An authentic democracy, however, is not merely the result of respecting formal procedures. According to the Compendium of the Social teaching of the Church it is “the fruit of a convinced acceptance of the values that inspire democratic procedures: the dignity of every human person, the respect of human rights, commitment to the common good as the purpose and guiding criterion for political life”.[3] In his speech to the European Parliament in November 2014 Pope Francis warned, that “keeping democracies alive is a challenge in the present historic moment ».[4] With this warning of our present Pope in mind we call for a renewal of democratic engagement of citizens in Europe.

We also take inspiration from the Holy Scriptures, which teaches us the fundamental truth that every human being is created in the image of God and we are called to love our neighbour as ourselves. In the way that God came to us in that way we should be part our society. The “challenge to keep democracy alive” may be taken up by rediscovering the virtue of meekness and the praise of the meek we find in the sermon on the mountains.  Jesus says “blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5,4). This beatitude holds a central place in the sermon and may be considered as the basis for a Christian ecology, but there is more in this phrase. The Greek word used here derives from πρᾳεῖς. Yet, in the cradle of democracy, in the classical Athenian Greek civilisation democracy was founded on a combination of freedom and equality, which is understood as the right to take part in political decision-making, but this couple was completed by a third principle. This third principle is exactly πρᾳεῖς and it stands for openness to others and their concerns. It means firm kindness or determined empathy, a spirit of mutual benevolence.[5] The loss of meekness as a virtue, its disappearance from public life may explain at least part of the challenges European democracies are currently facing. The question to answer for democratic engagement today is then also the question of how to reintroduce the virtue of meekness in public life?  Some considerations of how to this concretely are assembled in the second part. It is organised around the key action democracy has to offer, which is the vote. What can or should voters and candidates do to prepare an election: How to make the election a celebration of democracy? How to maintain democratic engagement and the virtue of meekness after the vote has taken place?

II. Democratic engagement before, during and after each vote

The vote is the key to democracy. It needs to be properly prepared and firmly respected. Election day is the climax of democracies. It needs to be cherished. Renewing democratic engagement needs to take place before, during and after each election.   

Democratic engagement is a responsibility

Responsible voting requires voters to prepare before each election day. First of all it is essential that the discussions and debates are based on good knowledge of the political system. Democracies are fundamentally challenged when people don’t have a basic understanding of the framework. In Europe, the imbrication of different levels of decision-making - local, regional, national and European Democracy – requires from citizens to distinguish between each of the levels and to prepare for a vote in relation to the level concerned and the corresponding issues it is meant to help decide upon.

Candidates for election or proponents of one side or the other in a referendum are even more responsible for the proper preparation of a vote. They have to present the facts and proposed solutions through many different channels but always in a simplified and understandable way whilst restraining from any offending rhetoric and language. They should also ask themselves whether their ideas and proposals take into account not only the interest of their potential electorate but also the interest of the yet unborn generations, of the people who live in the country without having the right to vote and of the people who live abroad but who will be affected by the consequences of the policies promoted. Finally candidates need to examine in conscience whether they will have all qualities and strength required to withstand all temptations of political corruption, because corruption radically distorts democracy and its institutions. Individual cases or repeated and even systemic corruption have done a lot to discredit democracy in Europe and to diminish democratic engagement.

Celebrating democracy

Election day is the summit of democratic life. Democratic engagement shows also in the way we respect and cherish this day. Obviously, it needs to be prepared. Voters have to register in time. Public administration has to work with accuracy and diligence in preparing and counting the votes, but casting a vote is not a bureaucratic act. It is an outstanding political feat deserving the protocol and even liturgy of a celebration with as much flowers as paperwork. The immediate preparation of a vote requires concentration and a cool head. The bishops of England and Wales recently reminded: “Voting in a general election should seldom, if ever, be based on a single issue. Elections involve a whole range of issues, some without doubt more central than others, particularly those concerned with dignity and value of human life and human flourishing.”[6] Media coverage and comments on social networks could stress the particular quality of the election as a celebration. Through their behavior and comments on the election candidates set an example and stress that democracy is worth being celebrated.

Democratic engagement - a way of life

Renewal of democratic engagement finally requires reconsidering the time after an election, the first days and months but also the whole electoral term. Voters do not stop to be citizens once they have voted. They can pursue their engagement, especially in local politics. Often people don’t see the point of participating because they don’t think things can change. Many of the same people, are very active in other forms of participation, such as volunteering. Being "political" is often seen as something negative – a term we need to win back.

The growing complexity of our world demands from those who have been elected great energy in investigating facts, an elaborate culture of debating and discernment. For believers one can add meditation and prayer. Growing complexity also means to integrate that not all solutions are available at the national level. International agreements and supranational structures are inevitable for example to respond to the challenge of the climate change, the increasing economic power of multinational companies, the persistent threat to collective security. Elected politicians are often confronted with difficult choices. Their wish to keep their electoral promises runs into the necessity to make compromises However, as the French bishops recently put it: « The compromise, always suspected of connivance, is what, in the eyes of some, contributes to devaluing politics. It is a misunderstanding of what really a compromise must be, an indispensable and particularly noble task of political debate. The true compromise is more than a grey in between, a simple consequence of the power balance. It is that we enter into a real dialogue from different positions in which we do not seek to take the upper hand but to build together something else, in which no one denies oneself, but necessarily leads to something different from the starting positions. It must not be a confrontation of truths, but a search together, in truth. »[7]  


Democracy is the best political system at hand. It has always had its flaws, but in recent years European societies have tended to emphasise individual autonomy. This is not wrong in itself, but it should be balanced by valuing also the promotion of the common good. If not, populist tendencies will prevail and threats by terrorist attacks may achieve their work of intimidation. European democracies are in need of the courageous engagement of citizens, who are attentive to the plight of those in need and who wish to protect our planet – locally and globally.


[1] John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, 46. The Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church has consecrated a whole chapter to the « Democratic System » (cf. Part II, Chapter 8,4)

[2] Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Letter Octogeseima Adveniens, 24

[3] Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church, 407

[4] Pope Francis Address to the European Parliament, 25 Novmeber 2014

[5] cf on this Jacqueline de Romilly, Une certaine Idee de la Grèce, Paris 2003, 140 – 150; La douceur dans la pensée grècque, Paris 1979. 


[7] Conseil permanent de la Conférence des évêques de France « Dans un monde qui change, retrouver le sens du politique », n° 8 :  « Le compromis, toujours suspecté de compromission, est ainsi ce qui, aux yeux de certains, contribue à dévaluer le politique. C’est mal comprendre ce que doit être véritablement le compromis, tâche indispensable et particulièrement noble du débat politique. Le vrai compromis est plus qu’un entre deux, simple résultat d’un rapport de force. C’est, à partir de positions différentes, entrer dans un vrai dialogue où on ne cherche pas à prendre le dessus mais à construire ensemble quelque chose d’autre, où personne ne se renie, mais qui conduit forcément à quelque chose de différent des positions du départ. Ce ne doit pas être une confrontation de vérités, mais une recherche ensemble, en vérité. »