Monday, 26 July 2010

Of why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings: two competitions on tv last night

A week into the election campaign and some of my readers still seem to be under the impression that participation in our democracy is an optional extra.  So herewith a little catechism that issue.

Does the election matter?

Last night 3.4 Australians tuned into the surprisingly polite and staid but important Federal election debate.  Actually that's not bad ratings-wise for an event of this kind.  Far more like an old-fashioned school debate than any recent political gladiatorial event though, it had me sighing for the good old days of Paul Keating-esq rhetoric. 

Instead, Abbott did his best to try and convince us that he doesn't really foam at the mouth, while Gillard did her best to try and convince that her policies are exactly the same as Abbott's - unless it comes to industrial relations.  Both more or less succeeded in their aims at least with those of their own gender (though not the opposite one), making it hard to call a winner (though the worm apparently gave it to Gillard).

Perhaps the studied niceness was real (we know Abbott and Gillard actually do get along); perhaps they were taking their cue from the main event, the Masterchef finale which at its height had some 5.7m looking in on the Masterchef finale at its peak, and 3.9m watching the battle between Callum and Adam (the ultimate winner).  It too was filled with hugs and kisses, and not just policy air kisses.

Presumably, the commentators on my previous post who seem to regard our Government and participation in our democracy as something catholics can just opt out of were amongst the Masterchef watchers rather than the worm-followers. I do hope not though.

Can we opt out of Government?

Some commentors on my previous post have been arguing that we don't have to vote either because the right not to vote is an inherent right, because our Government is so immoral as to be no true Government, or because a liberal democracy can never be in the common interest.   Frankly all three of these views seem to me to be seriously out of court for any reasonable catholic.

Cardinal Pole has helpfully set out the arguments on why Australia's compulsory voting laws are reasonable laws.  Let me set out some first principles.

Presumption in favour of the Government

The Church's teaching is that Catholics have, prima facie, a duty to honour their civil rulers and obey their governments.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church for example states that:

"Submission to authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally obligatory to pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote, and to defend one's country..." (2240).

The Catechism of Trent makes the point that the fact that our rulers might be wicked and unworthy does not remove this obligation (see the discussion under the fourth commandment). 

It is true that if they pass unjust or immoral laws, we should not obey them.  So we should resist any laws that permit abortion for example.

That does not mean however that we have the right to reject our Government or system of Government, or simply to opt out altogether.

When can we legitimately resist a Government?

It is worth remembering that the Scriptural injunctions to respect Government (such as Mt 22:21, the various injunctions of St Paul and 1 Peter 2:13) were all written in the context of a Government that permitted both infanticide and abortion, amongst many other morally reprehensible laws.  Christians resisted laws that were unjust - but, unlike the Jewish people of the time, did not attempt to overthrow the Government.

Instead they prayed for it and their rulers, and worked for change.  And that is the obligation we have as well.

There are of course cases at the extreme where it is permissible to reject a Government or system of government, and the Catechism sets them out (2243) - certain, grave and prolonged violation of fundamental rights; all other means have been exhausted;  resistance will not make things worse; well-founded hope of success; no better solution reasonably foreseeable.

It is hard to see that these conditions could possibly be considered satisfied in the Australian context.

So please, let's stop this silly debate and focus on the actual issues at stake in this election...


Anonymous said...


You're emoting instead of thinking.

Of course we're allowed to "reject" governments founded on false principles - it's the natural law.

What we're NOT allowed to do is to overthrow such governments, unless the conditions precedent laid down by the constant teaching of the church are met.

+ Wolsey.

P.S. Care to explain how the common good is furthered by the ridiculous idea that "power comes from the people" when not only is it false on the level of principle, it's false in practice (as power comes from those who control the government's purse strings)?

You have studied the philosophical errors behind the French and American revolutions, haven't you?

Terra said...

Hmmm Wolsey, I'd argue the toss about who is emoting here.

1. We do have a duty to ensure, as far as possible given our state in life, that the State does work for the common good. If the State is not so ordered, then you have a duty to do what you cna to change it (and I'm not talking about overthrowng it, but working within the limits of the system).

2. I didn't suggest that power comes from the people, nor does democracy really depend on such an assumption. Rather it is a system that works by reference to the people, where the exercise of sovereignty (an entirely different concept) is transferred to its elected representatives.

Anonymous said...

Okay Terra, let's leave the debate about the morality of voting/not voting...

The major issue seems to be how do we stop immigration. Both major parties seem to set against it. I will not comment about the Greens, but they are not in favour of it either.

The only other debate seems to be about what women are allowed to wear - not too much it seems! Again both major parties agree on the outcome - to forbid women from wearing too much. We are in a liberal democracy and we are arguing that women should not be allowed to wear head coverings.

Surely this debate is absurd. We allow young criminals and thugs to wear "hoodies", and society is comfortable with this. However, we seem to uptight about women wearing something similar, we find it "confronting". Do we find religious sisters similarly confronting when they wear the veil?

What is disturbing is "feminists" supporting this attack on women's freedom.

What other issues are there of any significant difference between the two major parties?

Anne Nonny Mouse

Anonymous said...

Er, No, Terra,

in the very nature of things, sovereignty cannot be transferred to the people.

That's contrary to nature, and it's also using weasel words to avoid the scriptural teaching that all power comes from God:

"omnis anima potestatibus sublimioribus subdita sit non est enim potestas nisi a Deo quae autem sunt a Deo ordinatae sunt."

Rom XIII:1

+ Wolsey

Terra said...

I was quoting from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Chruch Wolsey, no 395.

The dignity of authority of course comes from God as its source and final end, but political authority is needed for society. Centesimus Annus endorses a democratic form of government...

Anony mouse - I think there are a few more issues at stake. One needs to distinguish between the media spin and the actual policies being put up.

Louise said...

Pole would make a distinction between democracy as a form of government and democracy as an ideology or theory, I think, but he'd have to tell you about this himself - I can't recall his main points.