Democracy and non-negotiable principles

Julie Filby

Below is Part II of the Doctrinal Note on the Participation of Catholics in Political Life issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2002. Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila asked the Denver Catholic Register to publish the entire note over several installments as a reminder of the role of Catholics in the upcoming elections. Read the full document here.

II. Central points in the current cultural and political debate

2. Civil society today is undergoing a complex cultural process as the end of an era brings with it a time of uncertainty in the face of something new. The great strides made in our time give evidence of humanity’s progress in attaining conditions of life which are more in keeping with human dignity. The growth in the sense of responsibility toward countries still on the path of development is without doubt an important sign, illustrative of a greater sensitivity to the common good. At the same time, however, one cannot close one’s eyes to the real dangers which certain tendencies in society are promoting through legislation, nor can one ignore the effects this will have on future generations.

A kind of cultural relativism exists today, evident in the conceptualization and defense of an ethical pluralism, which sanctions the decadence and disintegration of reason and the principles of the natural moral law. Furthermore, it is not unusual to hear the opinion expressed in the public sphere that such ethical pluralism is the very condition for democracy.[12] As a result, citizens claim complete autonomy with regard to their moral choices, and lawmakers maintain that they are respecting this freedom of choice by enacting laws which ignore the principles of natural ethics and yield to ephemeral cultural and moral trends,[13] as if every possible outlook on life were of equal value. At the same time, the value of tolerance is disingenuously invoked when a large number of citizens, Catholics among them, are asked not to base their contribution to society and political life–through the legitimate means available to everyone in a democracy–on their particular understanding of the human person and the common good. The history of the twentieth century demonstrates that those citizens were right who recognized the falsehood of relativism, and with it, the notion that there is no moral law rooted in the nature of the human person, which must govern our understanding of man, the common good and the state.

3. Such relativism, of course, has nothing to do with the legitimate freedom of Catholic citizens to choose among the various political opinions that are compatible with faith and the natural moral law, and to select, according to their own criteria, what best corresponds to the needs of the common good. Political freedom is not–and cannot be–based upon the relativistic idea that all conceptions of the human person’s good have the same value and truth, but rather, on the fact that politics are concerned with very concrete realizations of the true human and social good in given historical, geographic, economic, technological and cultural contexts. From the specificity of the task at hand and the variety of circumstances, a plurality of morally acceptable policies and solutions arises. It is not the Church’s task to set forth specific political solutions–and even less to propose a single solution as the acceptable one–to temporal questions that God has left to the free and responsible judgment of each person. It is, however, the Church’s right and duty to provide a moral judgment on temporal matters when this is required by faith or the moral law. [14] If Christians must “recognize the legitimacy of differing points of view about the organization of worldly affairs,”[15] they are also called to reject, as injurious to democratic life, a conception of pluralism that reflects moral relativism. Democracy must be based on the true and solid foundation of non-negotiable ethical principles, which are the underpinning of life in society.

On the level of concrete political action, there can generally be a plurality of political parties in which Catholics may exercise–especially through legislative assemblies–their right and duty to contribute to the public life of their country.[16] This arises because of the contingent nature of certain choices regarding the ordering of society, the variety of strategies available for accomplishing or guaranteeing the same fundamental value, the possibility of different interpretations of the basic principles of political theory, and the technical complexity of many political problems. It should not be confused, however, with an ambiguous pluralism in the choice of moral principles or essential values. The legitimate plurality of temporal options is at the origin of the commitment of Catholics to politics and relates directly to Christian moral and social teaching. It is in the light of this teaching that lay Catholics must assess their participation in political life so as to be sure that it is marked by a coherent responsibility for temporal reality.

The Church recognizes that while democracy is the best expression of the direct participation of citizens in political choices, it succeeds only to the extent that it is based on a correct understanding of the human person.[17] Catholic involvement in political life cannot compromise on this principle, for otherwise the witness of the Christian faith in the world, as well as the unity and interior coherence of the faithful, would be non-existent. The democratic structures on which the modern state is based would be quite fragile were its foundation not the centrality of the human person. It is respect for the person that makes democratic participation possible. As the Second Vatican Council teaches, the protection of “the rights of the person is, indeed, a necessary condition for citizens, individually and collectively, to play an active part in public life and administration.”[18]

4. The complex array of today’s problems branches out from here, including some never faced by past generations. Scientific progress has resulted in advances that are unsettling for the consciences of men and women and call for solutions that respect ethical principles in a coherent and fundamental way. At the same time, legislative proposals are put forward which, heedless of the consequences for the existence and future of human beings with regard to the formation of culture and social behavior, attack the very inviolability of human life. Catholics, in this difficult situation, have the right and the duty to recall society to a deeper understanding of human life and to the responsibility of everyone in this regard. John Paul II, continuing the constant teaching of the Church, has reiterated many times that those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a “grave and clear obligation to oppose” any law that attacks human life. For them, as for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them.[19] As John Paul II has taught in his encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae, regarding the situation in which it is not possible to overturn or completely repeal a law allowing abortion which is already in force or coming up for a vote, “an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality.”[20]

In this context, it must be noted also that a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals. The Christian faith is an integral unity, and thus it is incoherent to isolate some particular element to the detriment of the whole of Catholic doctrine. A political commitment to a single isolated aspect of the Church’s social doctrine does not exhaust one’s responsibility towards the common good. Nor can a Catholic think of delegating his Christian responsibility to others; rather, the Gospel of Jesus Christ gives him this task, so that the truth about man and the world might be proclaimed and put into action.

When political activity comes up against moral principles that do not admit of exception, compromise or derogation, the Catholic commitment becomes more evident and laden with responsibility. In the face of fundamental and inalienable ethical demands, Christians must recognize that what is at stake is the essence of the moral law, which concerns the integral good of the human person. This is the case with laws concerning abortion and euthanasia (not to be confused with the decision to forgo extraordinary treatments, which is morally legitimate). Such laws must defend the basic right to life from conception to natural death. In the same way, it is necessary to recall the duty to respect and protect the rights of the human embryo. Analogously, the family needs to be safeguarded and promoted, based on monogamous marriage between a man and a woman, and protected in its unity and stability in the face of modern laws on divorce: in no way can other forms of cohabitation be placed on the same level as marriage, nor can they receive legal recognition as such. The same is true for the freedom of parents regarding the education of their children; it is an inalienable right recognized also by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. In the same way, one must consider society’s protection of minors and freedom from modern forms of slavery (drug abuse and prostitution, for example). In addition, there is the right to religious freedom and the development of an economy that is at the service of the human person and of the common good, with respect for social justice, the principles of human solidarity and subsidiarity, according to which “the rights of all individuals, families, and organizations and their practical implementation must be acknowledged.”[21] Finally, the question of peace must be mentioned. Certain pacifistic and ideological visions tend at times to secularize the value of peace, while, in other cases, there is the problem of summary ethical judgments which forget the complexity of the issues involved. Peace is always “the work of justice and the effect of charity.”[22] It demands the absolute and radical rejection of violence and terrorism and requires a constant and vigilant commitment on the part of all political leaders.

These footnotes have been abbreviated: [12] Cf. John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, 46 (1991); Veritatis Splendor, 101 (1993); Discourse to the Italian Parliament, 5 (Nov. 15, 2002) [13] Cf. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 22 (1995) [14] Cf. Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, 76 [15] Ibid, 75 [16] Ibid, 43 and 75 [17] Ibid, 25 [18] Ibid, 73 [19] Cf. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 73 [20] Ibid. [21] Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, 75 [22] Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2304.

Next: “Principles of Catholic doctrine on the autonomy of the temporal order and on pluralism.”

COMING UP: Lessons on proper elder care after my mother’s death

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We buried my Mom last month. 

In the summer of last year, I first drove her to her new memory care facility. My heart was breaking. She was so scared and vulnerable but was trying so hard to be brave. My brother said it was like taking your kid to pre-school for the first time. And never going back to pick her up. 

But we had to do it. She was far too confused for our 97-year-old Dad to take care of her. She didn’t recognize him. She would lock herself in her room, afraid of the “strange man” in their apartment. She wasn’t eating well, and with COVID restrictions we couldn’t get into her independent living facility to monitor her diet or her health. Worst of all, she would wander. Unable to recognize “home” and unable to convince anybody to come get her, she would set off by herself. Dad would realize she was missing and frantically try to find her. Fortunately for us, she always attempted her escapes when the night security guard was at his desk. But we were terrified that some evening she would get out while he was away, and she would roam out into the winter night. 

We knew that, without round the clock support, we couldn’t keep her safe in any of our homes either. So, we concluded that she needed to be placed in a secure memory care facility. I think it was one of the hardest decisions my family has ever faced. We researched. We consulted experts. We hired a placement agency. We came close to placing her in one home, then chickened out because we felt like the owner was pressuring us.  

Finally, we landed on what looked like the best facility for our needs. They specialized in memory care, and we were assured that the staff had been trained to care for people with dementia. They took notes about her diet, health, likes and dislikes. Most important, it was a secured facility. They knew that Mom wandered, and their secured doors and round the clock caregiver oversight seemed like the best way to keep her safe. It was the most expensive facility we had seen. But we figured her safety and well-being were worth it. 

On Jan. 12, Mom was found in that facility’s back yard. Frozen to death.  

She had let herself out through an unsecured exterior door, unnoticed and unimpeded, on a cold winter evening. No one realized she was missing until the next morning.  A health department investigator told me that she had been out there at least 12 hours. Which means caregivers over three shifts failed to recognize her absence. I’m told she was wearing thin pants, a short-sleeved shirt and socks. The overnight low was 20 degrees. 

We are devastated. Beyond devastated. Frankly, I don’t know that it has completely sunk in yet. I think the brain only lets in a little horror at a time. I re-read what I just wrote, and think “Wow, that would be a really horrible thing to happen to a loved one.” 

I debated what my first column after Mom’s death would look like. I have felt compelled, in social media, to celebrate the person my Mom was and the way she lived. To keep the memory alive of the truly amazing person she was. But I think I did it mostly to distract my mind from the horror of how she died. 

But I am feeling more compelled, in this moment, to tell the story of how she died. Because I think it needs to be told. Because others are struggling with the agonizing decision to place a parent in memory care. Because when we were doing our research, we would have wanted to know that these kind of things happen. 

I am not naming the facility here. It will be public knowledge when the Colorado Department of Health and Environment report is completed. From what I am told, they are horrified at what happened and are working very hard to make sure it never happens again.

My point here is much bigger. I am discovering the enormous problems we face in senior care, particularly in the era of COVID. I was told by someone in the industry that, since the facilities are locked down and families can’t get in to check on their loved ones, standards are slipping in many places. With no oversight, caregivers and managers are getting lazy. I was in regular communication with Mom’s house manager, and I raised flags every time I suspected a problem. But you can only ascertain so much in phone conversations with a dementia patient. 

Now, since her death, we have discovered that her nightly 2 a.m. bed check — a state mandated protocol — had only been done once in the ten days before her death. She could have disappeared on any of those nights, and no one would have realized it. 

I have wracked my brain, to figure out what we could have done differently. The facility had no previous infractions. Their reputation was stellar. Their people seemed very caring. Their web site would make you want to move in yourself. 

Knowing what I know now, I would have asked some very specific questions. How are the doors secured? Are they alarmed? Is the back yard accessible at night? Are bed checks actually done every night? Who checks the logs to confirm? 

I would check for infractions at the CDPHE web site. Then I would find out who owns the facility, and do some online stalking. Is this a person with a history of caring for the elderly, or just someone who has jumped into the very trendy, very profitable business of elder care? I am very concerned that, for many, this “business model” is built on maximizing profits by minimizing compensation for front line workers — the people actually caring for our loved ones. 

Dad is living with me now. We are not inclined to trust any facilities with his care. Watching him grieve has been heartbreaking. If you talk to him, do me a favor and don’t mention how she died. It’s hard enough to say good-bye to his wife of nearly 60 years, without having to grapple with this, too. 

I am, frankly, still in disbelief. I don’t know exactly where I am going from here. But I do know one thing. I want my Mom’s death to spur a closer look at the way we care for our vulnerable elderly. 

Because I don’t want what happened to my Mom to happen to another vulnerable elderly person again. Ever.