Ireland has become the first nation to use the popular vote to strip the unborn of the right to life. It is a sign of just how far the cult of proceduralism has gone that this fact tends to impress us favourably. Anyone who doubted that we live in an age of democratic idolatry need only observe how readily we accept the death of the innocent when it is sanctioned by the appropriate electoral procedure.
Of course, we tend to honour democracy more in theory than in practice. Very often, we overrule or ignore democratic verdicts in the name of a higher, purer set of democratic “values”. No court of appeal is superior to the ballot box, however abstractly conceived.
One admirably consistent democrat is Brendan O’Neill, who cheered the Irish referendum as a great victory for his beloved system: “It fills me with Irish pride that the Irish have voted in staggering numbers for the right of women to end unwanted pregnancies.” He rebuked those lukewarm believers who “support democracy, not in principle, but only if it gives them what they want”. Such Laodiceans “should try believing in democracy for real, full-time”.
This is a bit like saying that one should believe in hammers for real, full-time, whether they are used to build one’s house or tear it down. For ultimately democracy – like any political system – is simply a tool, whose moral value cannot be judged independently of the uses to which it is put. To assign it ultimate value, as though it were an end in its own right, is the very definition of idolatry, an act as absurd as bowing before dumb stone or wood.
No one knew this better than Pope John Paul II, who in 1995 issued Evangelium Vitae, a stirring warning against the cult of proceduralism. “Democracy cannot be idolised to the point of making it a substitute for morality or a panacea for immorality,” John Paul wrote. “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.”
Reading the document after Ireland’s vote, one has an uncanny sense of prophecy fulfilled. John Paul warned Catholics against complacency when “the original and inalienable right to life is questioned or denied on the basis of a parliamentary vote or the will of one part of the people – even if it is the majority.” In such cases, “the appearance of the strictest respect for legality is maintained” but the fundamental moral law is trampled under foot. Whenever this happens, “democracy, contradicting its own principles, effectively moves towards a form of totalitarianism.” John Paul, who knew totalitarianism first-hand, did not use such language lightly.
But the argument of Evangelium Vitae is not simply that democracy, like any other political system, is capable of producing evil outcomes. John Paul believed that there was a particular peril in today’s economic and political arrangements. By valorising efficiency, capitalism tempts us to view certain lives as “useless”. By elevating procedure, democracy encourages indifference to ultimate ends. When a cult of superficial procedural legality arises without reference to the fundamental moral law, the stage is set for a “war of the powerful against the weak”.
John Paul II is sometimes depicted as a simple booster of economic and political liberalism, but in Evangelium Vitae he showed himself to be one of its most astute critics. He identified a “veritable structure of sin” with “powerful cultural, economic and political currents” all working in concert to benefit the strong at the expense of the weak.
This is precisely what has happened in Ireland. A nation dazzled by economic success and eager to prove its modern, democratic bona fides has overwhelmingly voted to strip the unborn of the right to life. The result will be the silent extinction of those with Down Syndrome, an evil already well underway in the rest of Europe.
In a homily on the feast of the Assumption at the 1993 World Youth Day in Denver, John Paul described the ultimate spiritual meaning of the war on the weak in terms drawn from the Book of Revelation. On the one side stands a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and a crown of 12 stars. On the other side stands a dragon, who seeks to destroy “the Child, the symbol of new life”.
In the wake of Ireland’s fatal vote, we must be ready to follow John Paul II in challenging the economic and political forces that support the culture of death. Capitalism and democracy, for all their advantages, tempt us to make idols of efficiency and procedure, thus leading to contempt for the unproductive and indifference to ultimate ends. When this occurs, the spirit of democratic capitalism turns out to be satanic.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor at First Things and a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow
This article first appeared in the June 8 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here