By Sixto J. García, Ph.D.
“Non autem praecipit Scriptura nisi caritatem, nec culpat nisi cupidtatem” -(“Scriptures command nothing but charity, condemn nothing but cupidity”) St. Augustine, “De Doctrina Christiana,” III.10.15
“Do you think that I have come to establish peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division” – Luke 12: 51
“Democracy in peril!” - Thus blazed the screaming title of a prominent political magazine’s cover story. The entire issue – a “special issue,” indeed – was devoted to exploring and discussing the contemporary global political situation, rife with the tensions between autocratic and democratic systems. The tragic and devastating war in Ukraine, the offspring of an autocratic figure’s blatant disregard for democratic processes and human dignity, contributed, no doubt, to the magazine editor’s decision to devote an entire issue to the present-day savage onslaught on democracy,
I fear, however, that this magazine´s justifiably alarming issue – intended, no doubt, as a warning – may well come a generation too late. The unraveling of democracy antedates the U.S. elections of 2016 and Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. Eric Voegelin’s “Hitler and the Germans” documents with frightening and implacable precision how the German people – as a people! – contributed in different ways, to the emergence of Nazism and the horrors of the Holocaust. The demands and self-givenness that all democratic processes require had been already severely eroded in the U.S. before the shadows of autocracy began to spread over the country.
Democracy, as a system of societal and political life, appears for the first time in Athens ca. 504 B.C.E., its progeniture attributed to a fellow named Cleisthenes. Athenian democracy was rather short-lived: it came to an unhappy terminus in 338 B.C.E., more precisely, at the battle of Chaeronea, when Philip of Macedon (the father of the conquering youngster, Alexander the Great) completed his relentless unification of the Greek city-states, and brought Athenian independence, and its democratic system, to an end.
Other democratic experiments have come and gone. Democracy in the USA is now 246 years old – a rather imprecise chronology, if we take into account the endless, systemic problems of racism and exclusion, the painful and difficult path towards emancipation, that resulted in a bloody Civil War that took the lives of (according to more recent estimates) of almost 700,000 people – this, in a nation of about 30 million; proportionally, it would be the equivalent today of about 6.5-7 million Americans. Democracy in the U.S.A,¡., as an ideal that presumably the Founding Fathers aimed at, has had a rather unhappy journey.
The presumed ideal of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence (“all men – presumed, women – are created equal”) was clearly stated – Yet, when the Constitutional Convention was summoned to supersede the Articles of Confederation, that had but a loose and tenuous hold on the new independent colonies, Benjamin Franklin´s attempts (spurred by his fellow Quakers) to have slavery banned by the new Constitution, was thwarted by the fiercely pro-slavery delegation of South Carolina, who threatened secession if slavery were constitutionally outlawed – so it was that, when the final initial draft of the Constitution of the USA was finally approved on September 17, 1787, slavery remained very much a legal structure.
The Bill of Rights, ratified by Congress on December 15, 1791, did not correct the situation. The seeds for the torrents of blood spilt during the Civil War were sown. But the end of the war did not provide full democratic rights to emancipated former slaves. Terrorists groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (1867, Pulaski, Tennessee) emerged to terrorize and kill by lynching African Americans. It took the XIII Amendment of the Constitution (December 6, 1865) to finally and officially forbid slavery, and the XIV Amendment (July 9, 1868) to grant African Americans full rights of citizenship – Need we recall that XVIII Amendment (August 18, 1920) granted women the right to vote for the first time?
The point of the above is that when we speak of “democracy” in the USA, we must recognize its fractious history – a history that tells us that for a very long time democratic privileges were denied to substantial percentages of the people. It was not supposed to be like that, not in a country whose founding document states, in plain English, that “all men are created equal.” In a fit of sarcasm, Abraham Lincoln observed that, in his time, “equal” did not apply to (quoting verbatim) “Negroes, Jews or Catholics.” It could be replied that in Cleisthenes and Pericles´Athens, only full citizens were allowed to vote, not slaves – but twenty-three hundred years of political evolution had passed since . . . and then again: “all men are created equal” – Are they, really?
The genocide taking place in Ukraine is not an aberration, an intrusion of autocratic evil in an otherwise morally well-ordered international situation, It is rather a reflection of a debacle in the fundamental, essential sense of respect for human dignity, for the image of God sealed in every human being (Genesis 1: 26), indeed, upon the whole of creation.
As I write these lines, the horror and the pain of the racially-inspired killing of ten people in Buffalo, N.Y., still echo in our consciences. This was, as we need not be reminded, an isolated, punctual tragedy. Rather, it has become so commonplace that the news no longer disturb or convulse many people. Sadly, many have become numbed to these tragedies; there is a widespread growth of moral callousness upon society´s soul at large – and this is yet another threat to democracy! If we but engage in serious social and political discernment, the ten victims of Buffalo are somehow within the same sphere of oppression as the people of Ukraine.
Hannah Arendt, the German-American Jewish philosopher, was a witness to Adolf Eichmann´s trial in Jerusalem. She wrote a book suggestively titled: “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the Banality of Evil.” Eichmann had offered the usual excuses for his criminal actions in Nazi Germany: “just obeying orders.” But the “banality of evil” has not been historically restricted to Eichmann: it has undergone metastasis, it has spread, above and beyond the historical boundaries of World War II, to other, “democratic” societies . . . The media and the public reaction to the racial shootings in Buffalo has evinced a tepidity that seems to bespeak a society “getting used” to evil . . . the banality of evil, indeed!
But, “democracy” is only one of the three components of this issue’s title: where do the Church and the Second Vatican Council come in? To begin with, the obsessions with wealth, control and power that seep, eo ipso, into all those societies where “unbridled capitalism” rules, are very much within the competence and the duty of the Church to speak on, denounce and confront. The shopworn shibboleth: “The Church should not meddle in politics,” should, by now, be part of a deservedly forgotten past in Christian consciousness. I say: “should” – alas, our experience at the diocesan and parish levels gives us a painful sobriety check in the opposite direction.
The Church has had a rather fractious attitude towards democracy, democratic values and dynamics, as Emile Sausine-Perrine has documented. All we need to do is but recall the case of Felicite de Lammenais (1782-1854), the French priest whose advocacy of a free press, freedom of conscience and the abolition of slavery eventually earned him, eventually, an excommunication from pope Gregory XVI. Closer to our time, the Jesuit John Courtney Murray (1904-1967) came under silencing censure from U.S. Catholic bishops for developing a public theology that called for similar notions as those proposed by Lammenais: religious beliefs cannot be imposed or coerced, freedom of conscience is an inviolable human right – only to be rehabilitated by the Second Vatican Council’s promulgation of the Declaration “Dignitatis Humanae,” which can claim the authorship of Courtney Murray, paragraph by paragraph.
The Church, in spite of herself, has somehow bred within her womb prophetic figures who have advanced political and social thought, more often than not in the face of fierce opposition from hierarchs. The Salamanca Master, Francisco de Vitoria (1483/93-1546), the founder of the Salamanca School of Theology, taught in his “De potestate civile” (1527) that political authority was given directly by God to the people, which in turn grants it (by several means: monarchic succession, democratic vote, etc.) to the ruler. Vitoria translated this in theological outlines in his “De indis” (1539), a merciless condemnation of the coercive and deceiving methods of evangelization used at the time in the New World. For his troubles, Vitoria was accused before the Emperor, Carlos V, who petitioned the Rector of Salamanca to dismiss Vitoria. In an unusual moment of courage, the Rector ignored the imperial demand, and Vitoria continued to teach in Salamanca until his death in 1546.
The Second Vatican Council proved to be a turning point: the general spirit and dynamics of (most of) the conciliar fathers, as reflected in documents such as Gaudium et Spes and Dignitatis Humanae, while always cautious to remind the people that the Church is never wedded to any particular political system , effectively singled out democracy as that social and political system that coheres best with the Church´s mission to witness and voice out the Gospel of justice and compassion.
Yet, many of the expected reforms that the Council demanded, or pointed to, have fallen short of the horizons set out by the conciliar documents. Alternating periods of wide-open optimism and prophetic boldness have been followed by (very) conservative withdrawals behind walls of misconceived doctrine and dogmas, have partially frustrated conciliar hopes. Wars, racism, xenophobia, a general disregard for human dignity and the common good have met, on the one hand, with certain prophetic clamors demanding justice and renewal, but, on the other, by a passivity, when not a direct collaboration, of Church leaders, who failing to call upon the spirit and norms of Vatican II, have opted to cast their lot with the perpetrators of inequity, repression and intolerance – or, in the best of cases, to adopt a passivity that stands in direct violations of the subversive Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I propose to do a brief analysis of the case of Nazi Germany; it is tragically and painfully instructive on the issues concerning the role of the failures of the Church´s hierarchy in the undermining of democracy – as well as those audacious spirits who dared to speak out and give their voice to the voiceless – and attempted to give democracy a warrant. It can also give us sobering reminders of how fallible the Christian churches can be concerning their prophetic mission to denounce injustice and oppression.
At the time of Adolf Hitler´s appointment as Chancellor of Germany, on January 30, 1933, Germany boasted of 38 Nobel Laureates, compared to 28 in Frrance, 22 in the United Kingdom, and 14 in the United States. Granted that these parameters alone are insufficient to gauge the true degree of “civilization” and social and political ethics of a nation . . . and yet . . .
From different perspectives and presuppositions, Donald Joshua Goldhagen (“Hitler´s Willing Executioners¨) and Eric Voegelin (“Hitler and the Germans”) have shown how an entire national social conscience – indeed, how the “average” citizen - can, either by virtue of systemic anti-Semitism (Goldhagen) or by an erosion of fundamental human values (Voegelin) become accomplices in mass murder – and even attempt to provide grounds for justification. The research of the French Catholic priest, Patrick Desbois (recognized by the State of Israel) has shown that, not only do the numbers of six million Jews exterminated fall short of the actual reality (perhaps closer to seven million), but also how the “neighbors” of the victimized Jews were willing collaborators in the Nazi genocide.
The response of some members – not all! – of the German Catholic hierarchy to Adolf Hitler´s murderous, vicious anti-Semitism was often plain and simple permissiveness, if not outright endorsement. Granting the distance and difference in terms of historical context, levels of criminality, and modes of despotism, it does present eerie similarities with our present-day, appalling onslaught of autocracies, even in our own backyard, and the failure of a not insubstantial number of the Catholic hierarchy and community to address the situation with boldness and prophetic audacity.
Oswald Lewy, in his instructive work, “The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany,” reports on Archbishop Conrad Grὕber´s sermons during the period 1933-39. Grὕber had been Archbishop of Freiburg since 1932. Lewy says that “the embarrassing fact that Jesus had been a Jew was handled (by Grὕber) in a similar (dismissive, historically-distorting) manner.” Lewy continues: “In a pastoral letter of 1939 Archbishop Grὕber´s conceded that Jesus Christ could not be made into an Aryan, but the Son of God had been fundamentally different from the Jews of his time, so much so that they had hated him and demanded his crucifixion, and their murderous hatred has continued in later centuries.” Archbishop Grὕber´s supposititious remarks are nothing short of tragic and despicable . . . by any standards, even in the face of palliative arguments seeking to place the archbishop´s remarks “in context.”
The most influential member of the German Catholic hierarchy, the Cardinal Archbishop of Munich, Michael Faulhaber, upon been informed in June 1936 that a Swiss Catholic had asked children to pray for Hitler´s death, aware of how the Nazi-controlled press had begun accusing all Catholics of disloyalty, preached a “damage control” homily: “You are witnesses to the fact that on all Sundays and holidays, at the main service, we pray in all churches for the Fὕhrer as we had promised in the concordat . . . Catholic men, we will now pray together a paternoster for the life of the Fὕhrer. That is our answer.”
These are only two examples of Catholic direct and indirect support and tolerance of the Hitler´s regime. Yet, somehow, in the midst of this betrayal of the Gospel, the Holy Spirit always manages to arouse prophetic voices.
Most of those who have an acquaintance with the history of the Nazi period are familiar with the great Lutheran pastor, theologian and co-founder of the Confessional Church, which openly defied Hitler’s atrocities, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945). Bonhoeffer was arrested, tried and executed by slow hanging at Flossenburg camp, about a month before Nazi Germany formally surrendered.
But, from my experience, the Catholic martyrs under Nazi rule are relatively less known. I will briefly mention two Jesuits, Alfred Delp and Rupert Mayer, as representatives of the Catholic resistance.
Alfred Delp, S.J., (1907-1945), a member of the anti-Nazi “Kreisau Circle”, was falsely accused of participating in the July 20, 1944, failed attempt to kill Hitler – but his association with the Kreisau people sealed his sentence and martyrdom. He was hanged on February 2 1945, at the Plὅtzensee prison, in Berlin.
Rupert Mayer, S.J., was beatified by John Paul II in 1987. From the dawn of the Nazi regime, he preached about the radical incompatibility between the Gospel and the principles of Nazism. He was arrested several times, eventually sent to Ravensbrὕck camp. He survived the war, and died on November 1, 1945, at the Jesuit church of Skt. Michael, where, in the same year, Karl Rahner preached his post-war sermons, later published (English version) as the “The Need and the Blessing of Prayer”.
Delp, Mayer (and others) gave witness to the truth, justice and mercy of the Gospel, in horribly painful circumstances. The chief judge of the People’s Court, Roland Freisler, after verbally abusing Delp (“you miserable creep, you clerical nobody . . . you, a rat”) asked him why had he “given up the pulpit” and become involved with the anti-Nazi resistance. Freisler´s question bore implicit within it the odious escapist clause (still heard today): “the Church should not intervene in politics.”). Delp answered: “I can preach forever, and with whatever skills I have I can work with people and keep setting them straight. But as long as people have to live in a way that is inhuman and lacking in dignity, that’s as long as the average person will succumb to circumstances and will neither pray nor think. A fundamental change in the conditions of life is needed . . . These words sealed his fate and martyrdom.
Alfred Delp, Rupert Mayer, and others, lived the Ignatian “magis” to the fullest. They speak to us today, in our present situation, very directly. They committed their lives with the justice and compassion of the Gospel, they opted, “in order to imitate and be more actually like Christ Our Lord, for poverty with Christ poor rather tan riches, opprobium (sic) with Christ replete with it rather tan honors” (slight paraphrase of the Third Manner of Humility, Spiritual Exercises, 167, David Fleming, S.J.´ rendering). They went beyond punctual “acts of charity,” that so often are but excuses to drowse and appease the stings of conscience, and demanded radical structural changes in a political climate of injustice and death – and they paid the ultimate price: they hung with Jesus in the cross, from which there still shines the luminous splendor of their witness. They were martyrs of truth, martyrs of the Church – and, by an inevitable reverberation, martyrs of democracy as well!
In recent decades, (St) Oscar Romero, Rutilio Grande, S.J., and others have also become prophet / martyrs of the Church and democracy. Many objectors to Romero´s beatification and eventual canonization argued that he was not a martyr of the Church; rather, he was killed for political reasons. And, in a manner of speaking, they were right: insofar as “politics” is, as pope Francis has remarked, “a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good,” then the concerns of politics, understood within the hermeneutical lens of the Christian Gospel, are the dignity of the human person, justice, the common good, the universal distribution of the goods of the earth, solidarity, fraternity . . . all of these intrinsically bursting forth from the bowels of the Gospel of Jesus Christ . . . and, yes, mutatis mutandis, defining of democracy as well.
Why the universal, obsessive proclivity for autocratic systems, for the “strong men or women”)? One may argue that insecurity about the future, the failures of democratic governments in procuring social and financial security to their peoples, increase in crime, converging with popular obsessions with control, power and a misguided patriotism (“let us make America – or the country of your choice – great again”), etc., drive voters to seek the shelter of despotic-minded, self-proclaimed Messiahs, to hide behind seemingly impregnable walls of military power, of inflexible doctrine and dogma . . . After all, they sense the obvious truth: opting for Gospel values of justice, dignity and compassion can be risky business, can be . . . well, subversive.
Johann Baptist Metz (1928-2919), Karl Rahner´s beloved disciple, and the founder of European political theology (whose Latin American version is best known as Liberation Theology) has written about the survival of the Church´s Gospel-driven mission, and, implicitly, of democracy through memory and prophetism. He has, indeed, called to make present “the dangerous memory of Jesus”, for a rejection of our “amnesic culture”, that desires to forget her own disasters and horrors, to assume that Auschwitz and similar atrocities never happened, and replacing it with an “anamnetic culture”, where memory is celebrated in praxis and subversive theology. Indeed, Metz has called for society to heed the “authority of the suffering” as the only way to protect, re-define and renew a political and social order where the concern for the Common Good, the foundational ground of democracy, becomes the defining element.
There is a mystical dimension, which is not merely ancillary, but essential to the issue of Church and democracy. Gustavo Gutiérrez, one of the co-founders of Liberation Theology, is an acknowledged expert on St. John of the Cross. His essay, “John of the Cross: A Latin American View” (from his work, “The Density of the Present”) argues that the mystic of the Dark Night of the Soul can contribute a theological language of freedom, gratuitousness, love and prophetism to a continent plagued by poverty, injustice and oppression. Dr. Maria Teresa Morgan, a resident columnist of El Ignaciano, and a recognized expert on Carmelite spirituality, has done much creative work on the mystics´ contribution to social and political theology, particularly on St. Teresa de Jesús. Her essay in this issue pursues that tradition.
The collaborators to this issue of El Ignaciano: “Church,, Democracy and the Second Vatican Council: Part One” have accepted the challenge to dive into this rather complex web of theological, political and social issues, to share possible beacons of light toward the future.
On a personal note: Every time I drive from Boynton Beach to Miami, and back, I am forced to face the same painful reminder of the social ugliness that defines our society: mile upon mile of road past billboards of “injury lawyers,” promising disproportionately obscene amount of money – without any regard for justice, for guilt and innocence – we’ll get the money for you, we’ll make you rich, even if that means trampling upon the most basic canons of social justice – a public endorsement of the prostitution of the legal profession . . . it may seem a stretch, but this is a wound into the soul of an ethically-guided democracy.
The other image: my wife Elena and I stopped recently at an IHop to have a late breakfast. As I examined the menu, I saw an attractive breakfast platter, with the number of calories next to it = 1120, to be exact. We began to discuss, in a humorous vein, how a breakfast like that could ruin any diet, when, suddenly, Elena said: “Here we are, worrying about excessive calorie consumption – How many people in the world lack even the essential calories to stay alive?
How many, indeed? In the U.S., alone conservative estimates say that 45-50 million people in the U.S. (12% of a population of about 330 million) go to bed hungry, 60% of whom are children. Catholic Relief Services and other agencies record that anywhere between 22 and 34 million children under the age of 18 die of starvation and starvation-related diseases every day. Over 25% of the population of the planet live on earnings of less than $1. 25 a day ... and so on...
Greed and obsession with power, control and money (the “cupiditas” of St. Augustine quoted above), hunger and poverty undermine democracy.
But these are precisely among the crucial topics that should define
Catholic homiletics and witness to the Gospel, and thereby to the building blocks of democracy – the essential elements of the Church’s prophetic witness. Here in the U.S., a disproportionate number of clergy, in general, and lay leaders (granting the exceptions that should always be kept in mind), display attitudes that bespeak of the timidity or even the deadly silence of a Church whose very essence, whose very reason for being, is to give voice to the voiceless – to those preferentially loved by Jesus. Their silence, and occasionally their words (need we be reminded of Archbishop José Gómez´ unsavory remarks about the Black Lives Matter movement?), stand in open defiance of the ever-risky Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Mahatma Gandhi is credited with affirming that “the quality of life of a society is measured by how well it takes care of its more vulnerable members.” Elie Wiesel, speaking from the side of the survivors, from within the horrors of Auschwitz (where he watched his mother and sister perish) Buna, and Buchenwald (where he stood helpless as his father breathed his last), held that “human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere”:
This sense of commitment with the universal Common Good defines the groundwork of democracy – and it is pure Gospel! It is the intersection where the Church, democracy and the Second Vatican Council meet in paschal confluence . . . and it echoes pope Francis´ call: “Once more, I appeal for a renewed appreciation politics as a ´lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it works seeks the common good.´” (“Fratelli Tuti,” 180) – Politics, charity, the common Good – Gospel and democracy conjoined in happy connubium!
Lorenzo Pérez, Ph.D, retired economist, queries, by means of rigorous economic analysis, the options for social policy initiatives that deserve public support.
Alfredo Romagosa, M.A., leads the reader into a journey of nineteenth and early-twenty centuries social and political reforming philosophers and theorists in the Protestant tradition, whose advocacy of social justice provides a substantial parallel to the Catholic proposals of John Ryan, and later John Courtney Murray.
Maria Teresa Morgan plumbs the depths of St. Teresa of Avila´s mystical writings, and finds social and existential advocacies for equality of classes truly upsetting in a century of rigid class consciousness. Morgan correlates Teresa´s insights with the texts of Vatican II, in particular the Constitution Lumen Gentium and its ecclesiology grounded in the notion of People of God, wherein the equality of the baptized is the key foundation.
Emilio Travieso, S.J., Jesuit priest, doctor in Economics, helps us discern how, within the worldview of Ignatius of Loyola´s spirituality, the Christian is called to a political engagement, and beckons him/her to a self-examination on the authenticity of his/her Christian social call.
Helio González engages the reader in a history of the unfolding of democratic proposals and structures, pointing out those options more clearly behooving a commitment to Catholic Social Doctrine. Helio´s analysis of St. John Paul II´s social teaching, and pope Francis´ reflections on the rehabilitation of politics, allow the reader to place the main themes of Christian political involvement in context.
Sixto J. García, Ph.D., is the Editor-in-Chief of El Ignaciano. He holds a Ph.D. in Systematic and Philosophical Theology, with a second concentration in New Testament from the University of Notre Dame. He taught at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary for 30 years. He remains as a Senior Lecturer at SVDP. He has contributed to theological anthologies and journals.