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Quote of the Week

February 28, 2007

“If those societies (bound by Nazism and communism) sensed a new freedom after the collapse of the totalitarian systems, a fundamental new problem arose almost immediately–the proper use of that freedom. The problem affects both individuals and societies: it therefore requires some kind of systematic solution. If I am free, I can make good or bad use of my freedom.”

“The danger of the situation in which we live today consists in the fact that we claim to prescind from the ethical dimension in our use of freedom–that is, from consideration of moral good and evil. A certain concept of freedom, which has widespread support in public opinion at present, diverts attention from ethical responsibilities. Appeal is made today to freedom alone. It is often said: what matters is to be free, released from all constraint or limitation, so as to operate according to private judgment, which in reality is often pure caprice. This much is clear: such liberalism can only be described as primitive. Its influence, however, is potentially devastating.”

“This brief sketch of the history of different forms of government allows us to arrive at a better evaluation of the democratic credentials of a system according to the criteria of social ethics. While in monarchical and oligarchical systems (for example, the Polish democracy of the nobility), one part of society (often the vast majority) is condemned to a passive or subordinate role, because power is concentrated in the hands of a few; this ought not to happen in democratic regimes. Does it really not happen? Certain situations which can arise in democracies justify the question. Catholic social ethics favor the democratic solution in principle, because it corresponds more closely, as I mentioned earlier, to the rational and social nature of man. Yet it is important to add that we are still a long way from ‘canonizing’ this system. Each of the possible solutions–monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy–can, in certain conditions, help to achieve the essential purpose of exercising power, that is to say, to serve common good. An indispensable presupposition for any solution, though, is respect for fundamental ethical norms. Politics is simply social ethics, as Aristotle recognized. This means that civic virtues have to be exercised if a given system of government is not to turn corrupt. Greek tradition gave a name to the degeneration of each of the systems mentioned. That of the monarchy was known as tyranny, while for pathological forms of democracy Polybius coined the term ‘ochlocracy,’ that is to say, domination by the populace.”

Pope John Paul II, Memory and Identity: Conversations at the Dawn of a New Millennium

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