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Is There Only Secular Democracy?

Cardinal George Pell 

The recrudescence of intolerant religion is not a problem that secular democracy can resolve, but rather a problem that it tends to engender. Democratic personalism provides another, better possibility.

Cardinal George Pell

Democracy is never unqualified. We are used to speaking of “liberal democracy”, which as currently understood is a synonym for “secular democracy”. In Europe there are parties advocating “Christian Democracy”. Lately there has been interest in the possibility of “Islamic democracy.” These descriptors do not simply refer to how democracy might be constituted, but to the moral vision democracy is intended to serve.

This is especially true in the case of secular democracy, which some insist is intended to serve no moral vision at all. But as Pope John Paul II argues “the value of democracy stands or falls with the values which it embodies and promotes.” Democracy is not a good in itself. Its value is instrumental and depends on the vision it serves.

An attempt is sometimes made to evade this point by drawing a distinction between procedural and normative democracy. Procedural democracy’s claims are minimalist: democracy should be regarded as nothing more than a mechanism for regulating different interests on a purely empirical basis.

To speak of normative democracy, however, especially if one is a Catholic bishop, is to provoke panic in some quarters and derision in others. Many things underlie this response, not least certain ideological convictions about secularism. But most important of all is a failure of imagination. Democracy can only be what it is now: a constant series of “breakthroughs” against social taboo in pursuit of the individual’s absolute autonomy.

But think for a moment what it means to say that there can be no other form of democracy than secular democracy. Does democracy need a burgeoning billion-dollar pornography industry to be truly democratic? Does it need an abortion rate in the tens of millions? Does it need high levels of marriage breakdown, with the growing rates of family dysfunction that come with them?

Does democracy (as in Holland’s case) need legalized euthanasia, extending to children under the age of 12? Does democracy need assisted reproductive technology (such as IVF) and embryonic stem cell research? Does democracy really need these things? What would democracy look like if you took some of these things out of the picture? Would it cease to be democracy? Or would it actually become more democratic?

These are the things by which secular democracy defines itself and stakes its ground against other possibilities. They are not merely epiphenomena of freedom of speech, movement, and opportunity. The alarm with which many treat people in public life who are opposed to these things often implies that that they are a danger to democracy. This over-reaction is of course a bluff, an attempt to silence opposition almost suggesting that these practices are essential to democracy.

If we think about the answers to the questions above we begin to have an inkling about what a form of democracy other than secular democracy might look like, an alternative I call “democratic personalism.” It means nothing more than democracy founded on the transcendent dignity of the human person.

Transcendence directs us to our dependence on others and our dependence on God. And dependence is how we know the reality of transcendence. There is nothing undemocratic about bringing this truth into our reflections about our political arrangements. Placing democracy on this basis does not mean theocracy.

To re-found democracy on our need for others, and our need to make a gift of ourselves to them, is to bring a whole new form of democracy into being. Democratic personalism is perhaps the last alternative to secular democracy still possible within Western culture as it is presently configured.

From outside Western culture, of course, come other possibilities. It is still very early in the piece, of course, but the small but growing conversion of native Westerners within Western societies to Islam carries the suggestion that Islam may provide in the twenty-first century the attraction which communism provided in the twentieth, both for those who are alienated or embittered on the one hand, and for those who seek order or justice on the other.

So alternatives are required. The recrudescence of intolerant religion is not a problem that secular democracy can resolve, but rather a problem that it tends to engender. The past century provided examples enough of how the emptiness within secular democracy can be filled with darkness by political substitutes for religion. Democratic personalism provides another, better possibility; one that does not require democracy to cancel itself out.

Democratic personalism does not mean seizing power to pursue a project of world transformation, but broadening the imagination of democratic culture so that it can rediscover hope, and re-establish freedom in truth and the common good. It is a work of persuasion and evangelization, more than political activism. Its priority is culture rather than politics, and the transformation of politics through re-vivifying culture. It is also about salvation — not least of all the salvation of democracy itself.


Cardinal George Pell. "Is There Only Secular Democracy?" The Acton Institute (October 12, 2004).

This is an edited version of an address delivered at the Acton Institute annual dinner in Grand Rapids, Mich., on October 12, 2004


Cardinal Pell is archbishop of Sydney, Australia. He holds a Licentiate in Theology from Urban University, Rome (1967), a Masters Degree in Education from Monash University, Melbourne (1982), a Doctorate of Philosophy in Church History from the University of Oxford (1971) and is a Fellow of the Australian College of Education. He was Visiting Scholar at Campion Hall, Oxford University, in 1979 and at St Edmund's College, Cambridge University, in 1983.

In September, 1996, Oxford University Press published Issues of Faith and Morals, written by Cardinal Pell for senior secondary classes and parish groups. Other publications include The Sisters of St Joseph in Swan Hill 1922-72 (1972), Catholicism in Australia (1988), Rerum Novarum — One Hundred Years Later (1992) and Catholicism and the Architecture of Freedom (1999). Since 2001, he has been a weekly columnist for Sydney's Sunday Telegraph.

Copyright © 2004 Acton Institute




Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved