4.3.5 Democracy in CST texts (iv): John Paul II, Centesimus Annus

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Unit 4 Contents


Among future popes, Karol Wojtyła’s experience of political power was certainly unique.  In 1939, when he was nineteen, his homeland of Poland was invaded by Hitler’s Nazi Germany from the west and Stalin’s Communist USSR from the east, and divided between them. During the Second World War which followed, Wojtyła did forced manual labour, in a quarry for four years and then in a chemicals factory.  At the same time he began to train for priesthood in an underground seminary.  After the end of the War, Communists allied to the USSR came to power in Poland and ruled it throughout the period that Karol Wojtyła was a priest and bishop before he became pope in 1978.  In the decade from then until the unexpected collapse of the European Communist regimes in 1989-91, Pope John Paul played a significant part in bringing that about.  You might like to read one article about this. The author is a prize-winning journalist who specializes in Polish and eastern European politics.


Optional reading

Washington Post, 6th April 2005:

Anne Applebaum, ‘How the Pope “Defeated Communism”’


This article is a reading in Module A also, together with others on the same theme.  See 8.2.3.


In the years that followed, Pope John Paul was an ardent supporter of the embrace of democracy in former-Communist eastern and central European countries – which formed part of Huntington’s ‘third wave’ of democratization (recall 4.2.1).

It was in the context of the recent collapse of the European Communist regimes that Pope John Paul wrote the encyclical from which the next reading comes. However this had been long planned, as its occasion was the hundredth anniversary of Rerum Novarum in 1991 – its title is Centesimus Annus, ‘The Centenary Year’.  While very explicitly directed to the context of Europe after the end of Communism, it is a re-articulation of the main themes in CST as this had developed ever since 1891.  (Module A, Unit 8, gives you the opportunity to study Centesimus Annus in full: see 8.2.)

Here we shall look at part of a chapter headed ‘State and Culture’. The first two sections focus on ‘totalitarianism’ and make a critique of it.



Do you know what ‘totalitarianism’ means?


The pope’s own life experience lies behind the chapter on ‘State and Culture’ in Centesimus Annus perhaps more obviously than it does any of the others.  He had known what it means to live under ‘totalitarian’ rule, which is when a political regime seeks total control over people’s lives, especially how they think.  In Poland, the post-WW2 Communist regime moved gradually and quite subtly towards totalitarianism, and over the next three decades the Catholic Church – which was itself too powerful in the country’s culture for the state to suppress directly – became the principal source of resistance to that.  The development of totalitarianism in early years of Communist government in Poland is the subject of a brilliant book, now a classic, which conveys the insidious process by which that takes place. This was The Captive Mind (1953), by Czesław Miłosz, a poet who defected from Poland to the West in 1951 and later won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Nine years younger than Miłosz, Karol Wojtyła became intimately familiar with the context Miłosz described, of a creeping take-over of people’s minds by state ideology.

In the reading, ##44-45 outline John Paul’s critique of totalitarianism and ##46-47 discuss democracy.  While he obviously intends to contrast these, he is certainly not presenting democracy as simply the antidote to totalitarianism.  Rather, he sounds a number of warning notes about democracy – ways in which it can go wrong.  We shall consider these after the reading.

Note that Centesimus Annus (CA) came more than 25 years after the CST documents of the 1960s that we studied on the last two screens, and that ##46-47 form the longest discussion directly of democracy in any Vatican document since Pope Pius XII’s 1944 Christmas Message.


Reading (3pp)

Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, ## 44-47




What points about democracy in this reading reiterate positions already expressed in CST statements?  I think there are three, but possibly you will identify more than this.




We can say, in summary, that here Pope John Paul is re-articulating, if in a more direct and fuller way, the position on democracy that the Catholic Church had come to in the 1960s: support on the ground of the value of participation, in the context of the more fundamental importance of justice and the common good.

However John Paul expresses a further concern too: “Authentic democracy is possible only… on the basis of a correct conception of the human person”; it is not possible on the basis of “sceptical relativism”. He goes on to outline the inherent connection between freedom and truth:

[F]reedom attains its full development only by accepting the truth. In a world without truth, freedom loses its foundation and people are exposed to the violence of passion and to manipulation, both open and hidden. (#46)

I introduced this point that freedom is inherently connected with truth briefly in Unit 1.  (This was in the context of study of CST’s main principles; see 1.3.5).  After its initial articulation by John Paul II here in CA, this point has come to have a prominent place in Vatican statements about democracy. We shall explore what it means on the next few screens.  It is important to grasp what it does and does not imply.  To begin, let us seek to see it in historical context.

Within John Paul II’s papacy (1978-2005), CA (1991) can be seen as marking the half-way point – and also a kind of turning point.   It is here that we find for the first time a strong emphasis on the importance for democracy of refusing relativism and recognizing the inherent connection of freedom and truth.  This contention was then spelt out more fully by John Paul in Evangelium Vitae (1995) – the subject of the next screen – and it became a major theme in the papacy of Benedict XVI (2005-2013).

The ‘third wave’ of democratization since the mid-1970s, including not least in much of Latin America as well as in former Communist countries in Europe, meant that by 1991 democracy had come to be seen across most of the world as the default form of legitimate government.  Even in China a large pro-democracy movement had emerged, and its brutal suppression by Chinese troops in Tiananmen Square in 1989 only reinforced that widespread sense.  The Catholic Church’s own support for democracy over the 25 years since Vatican II had no doubt made a contribution to the growth of this sense, and Pope John Paul was a tireless advocate of moves towards democracy in practice.1

Yet CA suggests that, in the moment of democracy’s triumph after the Cold War, the Pope concluded it was necessary to sound a serious warning about a danger inherent in it.  His concern was one that anyone will share who believes that what is true about the world and human beings matters for how we should live.  It pivots on the fundamental distinction between what is true and what a majority of people decide.  To the extent that in practice people accept what majorities decide as right because this has majority support, there is in principle a grave danger that democratic debate will cease to be a search for truth about the human condition and what justice requires, and will become largely a contest of power aimed at gaining popular support.  Some would say that this deformation of democracy has already been evident for some time.

Let us unpack this point further.  In the reading from CA, John Paul II addresses on one hand the evil of totalitarianism, and on the other the problem that some people see “sceptical relativism” as a sound basis for democracy.   What is striking is that he sees the solution to both problems as fundamentally the same: to base social life on what is true, and especially on the truth of the transcendent dignity of the human person.

In the case of totalitarianism, it is easy to see why resisting and overcoming it requires reassertion of and insistence on what is true: a totalitarian state itself attempts to prescribe what is ‘true’ and uses state power to suppress dissent.  (Infamously, the newspaper of the Soviet Communist Party was called Pravda, which means ‘truth’.)

In relation to democracy, however, John Paul’s point can be harder to understand.



Do you know what ‘moral relativism’ or ‘ethical relativism’ means?  (These are two labels for the same thing.)


John Paul’s target is a view which disbelieves that it is possible for us to know what is true about how we should live or what we should do. This is ‘scepticism’ in ethics or morality.  If we are sceptical in this way, the obvious practical solution can seem to be for everyone individually to decide what they will do – and to regard what is ‘right’ for you or me as just what you or I choose it will be.  This is moral or ethical ‘relativism’.  What is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is relative to each individual.  There is no shared standard.

Buy how then do we decide what to do politically?  We use democratic procedures to vote, and the majority view prevails.  What we decide in this way bears no relation to what is true.  But what is right for us is just what we decide to do.   On a relativist view, this is what democracy means.  A majority favour it and there is no other way to decide.

It is this way of seeing things that John Paul criticises.

Now, anyone who thinks clearly about such moral relativism acknowledges that it is intellectually incoherent.  This is for the basic reason that, if everyone individually decides what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ for themselves, no-one’s view has any more validity than anyone else’s and there can, of course, be no shared moral standards at all.  There is complete moral anarchy: someone who is violently racist is just as ‘moral’ as Mother Theresa.  This gives no grounds for ethical agreement about anything, not even about whether government should protect our individual freedom to decide for ourselves.

In such circumstances, democracy becomes, in effect, a tyranny of majority opinion. But this ‘opinion’ is unrelated to what in truth is good and right for human beings.  Therefore it represents a real danger to us, especially those among us who are weak and vulnerable, for example frail and ill elderly people.  Relative to what healthy and fit individuals choose to do in their lives, such people can seem an inconvenience, so we put them in care homes staffed by people paid the minimum wage.

The argument against ethical relativism, in the sense of this outlined above, is clearly decisive. Such relativism is sometimes labelled ‘vulgar’ because of its very obvious incoherence.2



What is your first reaction to reading this outline about what John Paul II referred to as ‘sceptical relativism’?

Can you see the way that, in principle, it poses a danger of disconnecting democracy from what is true about the human person?

What is your impression of how widespread this way of seeing the world, sceptical relativism, is in the society you live in?  (Of course, in the absence of empirical evidence – from surveys, for example – we cannot know whether impressions we have really give an accurate picture.)

What do you think are the main factors that lead people not to have a relativist worldview?


To conclude, here is an extract from the reading above that sums up what John Paul II says on this in CA:

Nowadays there is a tendency to claim that agnosticism and sceptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life. Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it are considered unreliable from a democratic point of view, since they do not accept that truth is determined by the majority, or that it is subject to variation according to different political trends. It must be observed in this regard that if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism. (#46)


End of 4.3.5

Go to 4.3.6 Democracy in CST texts (v): John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae

Module B outline

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  1. “It wasn’t hard to figure out where Pope John Paul II stood on the democracy issue. He made a point of criticizing military-run governments and dictators throughout Latin America. When he became pope, you could only rely on Costa Rica, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic to be fully democratic. But he visited those places where tyranny and civil war took place. He vigorously condemned human rights abuses.// It’s no accident that within a decade of taking office, you saw real progress. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Uruguay…throughout South America, Central America and the Caribbean, a historic democratic wave swept the hemisphere. And such trends continued throughout Catholic countries in East Europe. Neighbors mimicked their behavior, and communism fell in East Europe.” John A. Tures, ‘Pope Benedict XVI Doesn’t Push Democracy the Way Pope John Paul II Did’, Yahoo! News, 5 Apr. 2012, accessible 20 June 2014 at http://news.yahoo.com/pope-benedict-xvi-doesn-t-push-democracy-way-203300513.html 

  2. The term ‘vulgar relativism’ became prominent after its use by the philosopher Bernard Williams in Morality: An Introduction to Ethics (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1973), pp. 34-39. By it is was referring especially to the plainly flawed line of argument that recognition of the cultural relativity of some or even all moral assertions gives a reason for tolerating the moral positions of people in cultural contexts different from one’s own. 

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