John Paul II: Conscience v. the Tyrant State

Why is conscience the key to understanding the relationship of Church and state? Without men and women with strong moral convictions and well formed consciences, the individual will more easily succumb to the dictates of the majority opinion and the pressure of majority rule.  But on this point John Paul II warned us against the tyrant state, whose disturbing visage first emerges in liberal society with the issue of abortion.  There is a danger when a society seeks to impose the will of the majority without reference to truth or objective moral order. John Paul II said:

“Right” ceases to be such, because it is no longer firmly founded on the inviolable dignity of the person, but is made subject to the will of the stronger part. In this way democracy, contradicting its own principles, effectively moves towards a form of totalitarianism. The State is no longer the “common home” where all can live together on the basis of principles of fundamental equality, but is transformed into a tyrant State, which arrogates to itself the right to dispose of the life of the weakest and most defenseless members, from the unborn child to the elderly, in the name of a public interest which is really nothing but the interest of one part. The appearance of the strictest respect for legality is maintained, at least when the laws permitting abortion and euthanasia are the result of a ballot in accordance with what are generally seen as the rules of democracy. Really, what we have here is only the tragic caricature of legality; the democratic ideal, which is only truly such when it acknowledges and safeguards the dignity of every human person, is betrayed in its very foundation. (EV §20)

The alliance between an ideology of relativism and democracy will spell the end of true democracy, which must stand upon the truth of human dignity. The civil law in its turn is decided by a “parliamentary or social majority.” (EV §69) If such a majority “decrees that it is legal, at least under certain conditions, to kill unborn human life,” this shows a tyrannical character because the weak are subject to the stronger. Thus, the Pope warns that “Democracy cannot be idolized to the point of making it a substitute for morality or a panacea for immorality.” Again, conscience must be formed with a moral backbone and a willingness to stand against the tide.

The sinister connection of relativism with the tyranny of the majority spills over from legislation to the very education and formation of the soul. The opinion of the majority intimidates independence of thought and the openness of conscience needed for personal growth. So in 1960 Kennedy assured the Baptist ministers that he would not turn to Catholic faith for formation of conscience; now the politician must assure the New York Times or Washington Post, the purveyors of a majority liberal opinion. The intellectual elites are sceptical about the very possibility of moral truth;  the neutrality of the public square is doctrine cleverly used by those who would regularize the irregular and normalize the aberrant. It is a manifestation of the “mighty pressure” of public opinion which Tocqueville warned would comes to “penetrate men’s very souls.” 

Tocqueville pointed out that in a healthy society there will be outstanding men and women who set the standard of opinion and respect for the authority of a religious or traditional body of opinion. Not so in a democracy; no authority is unquestioned. Men are less inclined to believe blindly in any man, class, or authority. In fact the “traditions of class, profession, and family” are often repudiated, leaving a vacuum and emptiness. There is a tendency to look within and make private judgment. But by an inevitable dialectic in a democracy, what begins as a sense of individual assertion, empowerment and liberation may turn to fatigue, a sense of impotence, and surrender to a greater power. Freedom of thought (i.e., confident assertion of a judgment in the face of majority disapproval) becomes hateful because of the sheer number of claims, assertions, and opinions. The individual becomes readier to “trust the mass.” Tocqueville says that the majority do not need a law for such an effect, “its disapproval will be enough.” Thus, men will lose self-confidence. The individual will “even come to doubt his own judgment, and he is brought near to recognizing that he must wrong when the majority hold the opposite view.”At this point, the Church can help us stand as independent thinkers with the courage of convictions.

It is well know how much Tocqueville celebrates the influence of intermediate groups, such as churches, in democratic societies, because in these intermediate associations “feelings and ideas are renewed, the heart enlarged, and the understanding developed.” He feared government usurpation of such institutions and the juggernaut of mass opinion over the minds of men. We must hope that individuals will stand firm in their particular judgments about moral standard and decency and not back down in the face of the onslaught of the media, the radical activists, and relativists and deconstructionists of academe. We need public leaders who will not conspire with the zeitgeist of moral relativism. We need public leaders who act as if they have convictions. We need leaders who consider themselves bound by and challenged by a moral purpose. Our hope for the future lies in the integrity and activity of those essential intermediate groups — family, school, and church..

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