In a trend that alarms Catholic thinkers, for the 11th year in a row, freedom around the globe declined in 2016.
An annual report by the American think-tank Freedom House found just 45 per cent of 195 countries surveyed qualify as free. Another 30 per cent are “partly free” and fully a quarter of the world’s countries are rated “not free.”
The good news for Canada is that it remains a very free place (a rating of 99 out of 100 from Freedom House, compared to 89 for the United States and 95 for the United Kingdom), but Canada is not the norm.
Countries such as Brazil, Denmark, France and the U.S. have all declined from the previous year on a scale that measures political rights and civil liberties. For many, including prominent Catholics, there is mounting evidence of democracy being threatened, which raises concerns for the future of the Catholic Church and its values.
“Liberal democracy is under threat, and all who cherish it must come to its defence,” declared a document called the Prague Appeal for Democratic Renewal, published last May. The spectre of a “post-democratic world order” has caused a stampede of more than 170 statesmen, academics and artists around the world into signing the Prague Appeal.
Signatories include the American biographer of St. John Paul II, George Weigel, and Ukrainian Greco-Catholic bishop of Paris Borys Gudziak, as well as former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell and Irwin Cotler, a former Liberal justice minister and attorney-general.
After watching the U.S. elect Donald Trump, the Law and Justice Party of Poland undermine that country’s judiciary and constitution, and British apprehension about immigration lead to Brexit, Gudziak warns that when we give up on democracy we give in to fear.
“Today there is, globally, an increase in authoritarian rule,” Gudziak told The Catholic Register. “What really underlies, underpins that desire — unhealthy desire — for an order that leads us out of democracy is fear.”
“The danger we all face — Catholics or not — is the rise of new forms of authoritarianism on both the left and the right,” said Weigel in an email to The Catholic Register.
Pope Francis worries about the depth and genuineness of contemporary democracy. In the spring he told German newspaper Die Zeit, “populism is evil and ends badly, as the past century showed.”
But the church has not always been the greatest defender of democracy.
“It would be hard to say that the church has always embraced democracy,” said St. Mark’s College political theology professor Nick Olkovich in Vancouver. “It’s very clear that after the French revolution happens, liberalism is a dirty word.”
The church, of course, is not a democracy. Through the 19th century, Catholic bishops and theologians sneered at France’s revolutionary ideals of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” and loathed every instance of what they called “Americanism,” with its lack of an established aristocracy.
Pope Pius’ 1864 Syllabus of Errors and the Index of banned books which followed the revolution made abundantly clear what the Vatican thought of freedom of the press.
“The church wasn’t able, really, to differentiate between the good and the bad, the positive and the negative (in constitutional democracies). They threw out the baby with the bathwater,” said Olkovich. “Some people still want to withdraw from engagement in modern politics. They tend to think of democracy and liberalism primarily in that negative way that the church had condemned.”
But since Pope Leo XIII started issuing encyclicals in the late 1800s (85 of them, starting with one on “the evils of society”) there’s been a gradual opening up about democracy in Catholic social teaching.
“To say that democracy is necessary and religious freedom is a demand tied to human dignity — that’s something the church is called to defend in a very particular way,” Olkovich said.
It was the World Wars that pushed the church to reconsider its attitude.
“The democratic form of government appears to many as a postulate of nature imposed by reason itself,” Pope Pius XII said in his Christmas 1944 message.
Pius had seen the Nazi party undermine the democratic institutions of Weimar Germany and watched Mussolini’s populist rise to fascist control over every aspect of life in Italy, including the Church. He came to see any form of government that manipulates the masses as a danger to human dignity.
“The dignity of man is the dignity of the moral community willed by God,” said the pope as the Second World War ground through its ugly final stages. “The dignity of political authority is the dignity deriving from its sharing in the authority of God . . . a purely formal democracy may often serve as a mark for all that is in reality least democratic.”
The real pioneering work on democracy and the relationship between faith and liberty came more from the outer edge of the church than its centre. As the Byzantine Ukrainian Catholic Church suffered through five decades of official banishment and oppression under the Soviet system, Ukrainian Catholics looked to the democratic West for ideals to sustain them. When Ukraine’s fledgling, flawed and even corrupt post-Soviet democracy was threatened by a dark deal with Russian president Vladimir Putin in 2014, it was Ukrainian Catholics who occupied Kiev’s central square for what they called the “revolution of dignity.”
“Very cynically, politicians — especially in modern times — have appealed to that fear to get people to sell out on their freedom,” Gudziak said. “That’s why the good news of Christ, who calls us out of fear, is so substantive for the basic postures of democracy.”
That basic posture was the core of St. John Paul II’s teaching as he confronted Soviet power in Poland.
“A human being is a free and reasonable being. He or she is a knowing and responsible subject. He or she can and must, with the power of personal thought, come to know the truth. He or she can and must choose and decide,” said St. John Paul II.
When Catholics reflexively support politicians who promise to restore some old order or bygone social peace, it sets even Weigel’s teeth on edge. The American conservative simply wasn’t buying the deal candidate Donald Trump offered Catholic voters on abortion and religious liberty in 2016.
“President Trump has at least as many religious critics (like me) as acolytes,” he said.
“The notion that Donald Trump, self-professed admirer of Vladimir Putin, is going to defend persecuted Middle East Christians is as ludicrous as the claim that Mr. Putin, ex-KGB thug and current kleptocrat, gives a tinker’s dam about the Christian victims of ISIS,” he wrote in First Things just before last year’s U.S. election.
When Polish bishops give their blessing to the populist reactionaries in the governing Law and Justice Party, it leaves a sour taste in Weigel’s mouth. “Polish bishops who uncritically embrace Law and Justice are not following the social doctrine of John Paul II, but falling back on 1920s and 1930s patterns of church-state interaction in Poland,” he said.
“I do see some parallels (between today and the age of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin),” said Robert Ventresca, King’s University College history professor at London, Ontario’s Western University. “It’s in the social, cultural, economic and demographic anxiety that seems to be fuelling, at least in part, populist movements, ideas, figures.
“It also seems to be fuelling the popularity of demagogues who, like demagogues of the past century, are offering simplistic but seductive solutions to what ails today’s world — or what people think ails today’s world.”