One of my new intellectual heroes is Cardinal George Pell, Archbishop of Sidney. In an address given a couple of years ago, he reminds us that democracy is not necessarily good in itself, but is only an instrument for meeting goals which may be good or not. He also asks us to consider different kinds of “democracies." The following few paragraphs are from his address.

"The purpose of my observations about television standards, and the past and present situation on contraception and abortion, is to highlight the point that for secular militants today democracy, more than anything else, means that anything is possible. Freedom today, in its everyday sense, means the limitlessness of possibility: whatever you want, whatever you like, you can do it. This is nonsense, of course. A moment’s reflection on any number of “possibilities” reminds us that they are impossibilities. The American sociologist Philip Rieff has written of the important part that culture plays in creating a basic resistance to possibility, something within us that can give a compelling answer when our desires and will ask us the question “why not?” [8] Compelling answers to this need for self-restraint, for delayed gratification, are in short supply. The resources secular democracy has for this purpose seem to be exhausted, in a sea of rhetoric about individual rights.

I use the term “secular democracy” deliberately, because 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 (or were) parties advocating “Christian democracy”; lately there has been much interest in the possibility of “Islamic democracy”, and the shape it might take. These descriptors do not simply refer to how democracy might be constituted, but to the moral vision democracy is intended to serve. This is true even, or especially, in the case of secular democracy, which some commentators—John Rawls, for example—insist is intended to serve no moral vision at all. In his encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II makes just this point when he argues that democracy “is a means and not an end. Its ‘moral’ value is not automatic”, but depends on “the ends which it pursues and the means which it employs. . . . [T]he value of democracy stands or falls with the values which it embodies and promotes”. [9] Democracy is not a good in itself. Its value is instrumental and depends on the vision it serves. "

"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. George Weigel has recently pointed out the urgent need for a Catholic theory of democracy.[11] To some this can only mean theocracy, with bishops as party bosses and the citizenry being denied the opportunity to think or speak for themselves. To others, it can only be a contradiction in terms. Catholicism and freedom, it is assumed, cannot go together. In Richard Rorty’s words, democracy is “an endless, proliferating realisation of Freedom”.[12] Making democracy Catholic or Christian could only mean the end of this proliferation. Democracy can only be what it is now: a constant series of “breakthroughs” against moral prejudice and social taboo in pursuit of the absolute autonomy of the individual.

Here we face a paradox. When it comes to self-realisation, there is a mythology that there is almost nothing that cannot be done or desired. There are no limits to what we might will. But when it comes to how we should arrange our life in common, and how we should order society and politics, we only have a very limited range of ideas. Over the course of history there have been monarchies of various sorts, republics of various sorts, dictatorships and tyrannies, and now secular democracy. What else can there be? It is impossible to imagine anything other than what we know now—except dictatorship. Limitless desire and limited imagination constitute another indication of the peculiar situation in which we find ourselves in the present age.

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 pornography industry worth billions of dollars to be truly democratic? Does it need a rate of abortion that produces totals in the tens of millions? Does it need high levels of divorce and marriage breakdown, with the growing rates of family dysfunction and individual suffering, especially for children and young people, that come with them? Does democracy need homosexual or polygamous relationships to be treated as the moral and functional equivalent of families based on monogamous marriage? And does it need these choices to be protected from any sort of public criticism? Does democracy (as in the case of Holland) need legalised euthanasia, extending to children under the age of 12? Does democracy need assisted reproductive technology (such as in vitro fertilisation) and embryonic stem cell research? Does democracy really need these things? What would democracy look like if you took many or all of these things out of the picture? Would it cease to be democracy? Or would it actually become more democratic?"

(An Okie Gardener again) Even though America’s founders frowned on “democracy” and deliberately created a republic, they would have agreed with his thought. For our founders, the universe was a moral universe, with laws and consequences for bad behavior. Whether speaking in terms of “natural rights” given by a “Creator,” or using more specifically Christian language, the founders did not envision government as something to be shaped and used according to merely human whim: human government and human behavior, social and individual, were to conform to the moral architecture of the created universe.