On a day marked by our gratitude to those who have given of themselves in service to our country, it is hard not to be struck by the demonstrations brought about by Tuesday’s election—a right that those men and women we honor today have paid a great price to protect. It speaks to the greatness of our country and to the genius of the Founders. The Founders themselves were no strangers to division within the newly formed country. But their response to the division was unique. What set the American Founding apart from nearly every revolution throughout history though is that the disagreements did not lead to blood soaked scenes at the guillotine. Instead they fostered a system that allowed ongoing argument to occur; a system that eventually led to the creation of political parties. One advantage that the Founding Generation has over us was that they had the capacity to have an argument; a capacity, that anyone who witnessed both the campaigns and the fallout from the election results quickly realizes, has been lost. Terms are thrown back and forth without any concern for the meaning. This often betrays a lack of clear thinking or understanding. In consideration of Pascal’s first moral obligation—to think clearly—it is important that we begin by offering a Catholic primer of sorts on the terms that can be used in the discussion.
Why We Need Government
First a word about why the Government or, the State as the Church calls it, is even necessary. Man is social by nature. He cannot reach his natural fulfillment on his own and therefore depends on others. To achieve our fulfilment, we form communities, each with a structure of authority that is tasked with promoting the common good of that society. The State, like the family and the Church, is a society that mankind forms. The State has a single role—to promote and protect the common good of the subjects. Its authority is ordered towards that one goal.
Why is authority necessary? If man is a social being by nature and forms societies ordered to collectively achieving the good by nature, then authority is also natural. Even in a society of perfect people, there is almost always more than one way to achieve the common good. Ultimately someone must decide how that will be done so that the whole society is pushing in the same direction. For example, a society may agree that the good of protecting the borders from outside invasion is a part of the common good. But how that is best carried out is open to debate. Ultimately someone must be tasked with making the decision. This is often a hard pill for Americans who have been hard-wired to mistrust authority.
The Common Good
If the common good is the State’s raison d’être then we should have a firm grasp on what this is. In short it is the “sum total of social conditions that leads to the thriving of each member of society.” This is vastly different than the democratic notion of the “greatest good for the greatest number.” The common good is common meaning that everyone shares in it. Some members of society may have to forgo a personal good, for the common good, but only because that good flows back over that person.
For example, a soldier and his family may have to make a great personal sacrifice for the common good when he goes off to war. But he only does so because the common good of freedom flows back over the family. It is a higher good than his own personal good because more people share in it.
Getting Our Hands Dirty
Why should a Catholic get their hands dirty in the political order? The Church is in the business of saving souls, but that doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The Gospel touches every part of man’s natural life—the supernatural life in God, builds on our natural life here. As proof of this, we need only see Christ’s actions toward the State. Our Lord takes flesh in a time where almost the whole world lives under a tyranny of some sort. The State had both the power and the prerogative to do with its subjects as it willed. Rather than ignoring the political realm Our Lord promises that it too will be caught up in His Redemptive act by showing that authority comes from God Himself (c.f. John 19:10-11). This is a reminder of what we said above about authority being natural. That which is natural, comes from God by design. This means that when ordered to the common good, leaders enjoy a grace of state thanks to Christ redeeming the political realm.
Christian Roots of America
Catholics are also in a unique position in our country to help foster discussion because the American Democratic Republic has its foundation in Catholic theological principles. It can be argued whether America is or was a Christian country, but there can be no doubt that it was a Christian worldview that formed its founding. The philosophic principles underlying democracy are based on three Christian principles. First that all men are created equal and therefore worthy of respect and holders of certain inalienable rights. Second is that although man is a part of the State, he also transcends the State. Finally, because authority itself comes from God and man is free it is only with the consent of the governed that one can rule over another
But it is another important Christian doctrine that also greatly influenced the Founding—Original Sin. All political forms are imperfect because mankind is fundamentally flawed. More specifically, all democracies suffer from a fatal flaw, namely that they always turn into mob rule. It may be kept in check for a time by a virtuous people, but that can only last so long. The majority always ends up tyrannizing the minority; as in the classic illustration of the 2 wolves and 1 lamb voting on what is for dinner. But the purpose of government is to secure the rights of all citizens and therefore there must be a way to protect the minority from the will of the majority. The Founders knew this and so they framed the democratic principles within a republican setting. It was the building of a system, even if imperfect, that attempted to neutralize Original Sin that made the American Founders such geniuses and the reason why our country is perhaps the longest lasting single polity in the history of mankind.
This need to protect the minority from the majority because of Original Sin has been lost in the current debate over the Electoral College versus the popular vote. The Electoral College allows the will of the majority to be tempered by the needs of the minority. It may not be perfect, but those who would remove it must replace it with something that is designed to achieve a similar end. To turn our country into a pure democracy would signal its downfall as it has every other democracy throughout history.
Abraham Lincoln once said that greatest threat to America would come from within. —“ as a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” The most effective antidote to suicide is gratitude for what we have been given. This will require us to better know what it is we have been given by forming ourselves both on the corpus of Catholic Social Teaching and the American Founding Principles. As Catholics, love of neighbor demands that we not stand by idly, but instead do what we can within our sphere of influence.