Democracy is Relative

Fr. Frank Pavone
National Director of Priests for Life
Publication Date: July 31, 2000

Democracy, by definition, is something we get involved in. The word means "rule by the people." Our bishops, in Living the Gospel of Life (1998), urge us to get involved and vote. Preparing to do so calls for some reflection on "democracy."

John Paul II has written in his Encyclical letter The Gospel of Life, "Democracy cannot be idolized to the point of making it a substitute for morality or a panacea for immorality. Fundamentally, democracy is a "system" and as such is a means and not an end. Its "moral" value is not automatic, but depends on conformity to the moral law to which it, like every other form of human behavior, must be subject: in other words, its morality depends on the morality of the ends which it pursues and of the means which it employs. If today we see an almost universal consensus with regard to the value of democracy, this is to be considered a positive "sign of the times", as the Church's Magisterium has frequently noted. But the value of democracy stands or falls with the values which it embodies and promotes. Of course, values such as the dignity of every human person, respect for inviolable and inalienable human rights, and the adoption of the "common good" as the end and criterion regulating political life are certainly fundamental and not to be ignored" (EV 70).

In other words, certain things need to be beyond the reach of the majority, precisely because they embody values that a society needs to survive, and that nobody has the right to ignore or shun. No majority can make what is wrong into something that is right.

This nation is an experiment in self-governance. Whether this experiment will succeed or fail depends on our faithfulness to this principle. People cannot govern themselves if they have lost the sense of what is right and what is wrong. We govern the country. If we exempt ourselves from that admittedly challenging process, then we are letting someone else govern us!

Some call our teaching on the right to life "divisive." Our country was founded on the recognition of certain basic moral principles, among which is that the right to life is unalienable, is bestowed by the Creator, and is to be protected by the government. The very greatness of America depends on her adherence to this truth. How, then, can one consider "divisive" the very principle on which our unity as a nation stands?

Some speak of "a pluralistic society." There are many forms of legitimate pluralism in our society: there are varieties of cultures, of art, of races, of schools of thought. Yet the very phrase "a pluralistic society" indicates that it is one. The word "pluralistic" here is modifying a singular noun. What holds this "pluralistic society" together, keeping it from becoming a disconnected chaos? There need to be certain basic, foundational principles to which everyone in the society adheres if it is to survive. The right to life is the first among them.

Priests for Life
PO Box 236695 • Cocoa, FL 32923
Tel. 321-500-1000, Toll Free 888-735-3448 • Email: