The number one trusted online resource for Catholic values
A+ A A-

The influence of Christianity on Modern Democracy, Equality, and Freedom


Father de Torre shows how democracy, in its fully developed modern sense, is a result of the final political flowering of Gospel values.


The American Declaration of Independence, together with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, can be considered as the prototype of the foundation documents of all modern democracies. It was based on the assumption that man has a God-given rational nature guiding his free will as self-ruling. So, it placed reason before will.

The French Revolution, on the other hand, in spite of its avowed cult of reason by "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity", in fact disavowed reason and made the will of the people (majority rule) the source of civil power. Thus, will was placed before reason.

Which of the two Revolutions is the genuine democratic one? The elucidation of this issue, so vital for our time, is the purpose of this paper. The analysis undertaken, with a previous clarification of terms, is both philosophical and historical, as only the latter can provide the basis for a philosophical reflection.

The various meanings of the term democracy

As is well known, Democracy is taken from a Greek word which means "government of the people, by the people and for the people." Demos means people, and cratos means government. This is the meaning of the word (the nominal definition), but the concept to which the word corresponds (the real definition), has been the subject of an evolution or development through history. And it is of the utmost importance to be acquainted with this evolution, so as to grasp the reality to which the concept corresponds.

The term "democracy" has been claimed by both the capitalist world and the socialist world. Think for instance of the former East Germany calling itself German Democratic Republic, and Viet Nam likewise. When Lenin first set up the Russian marxist party in exile, in preparation for the revolution against the czarist regime, he called it Russian Social Democratic Workers Party. Later he changed its name to Russian Communist Party, and after the split of 1903 with Plekhanov, to Bolshevik Party.

Lenin maintained that genuine democracy would only come about through the marxist revolution, which leads to the State socialism of the "dictatorship of the proletariat, and finally to the classless communist society. He accused "bourgeois democracies" of being fake democracies, in which parliament seats were systematically "bought" by the highest bidder, thus perpetuating the status qua of the propertied class a statement which, incidentally, is an unwarranted generalization.

Be that as it may, the point is that even the communists have employed the terms "democracy" and "republic" with an obviously different meaning as compared to their Western usage. In order to clarify the meaning of the concepts, it is then necessary to take a look at their historical development ever since the coining of the terms in ancient Greece and Rome. Terms like democracy, republic, aristocracy, and monarchy have to be thus analyzed.

While "democracy" is a Greek word, "republic" is a Latin word which means "the public thing": res publica. The concept behind it, however is taken from the Greek polis, which means a group of men living and working together, and politeia, which means the ordering of this group into a "public thing" or commonwealth or commonweal by means of laws guiding towards the common good. Hence the English "polity" and "city" (from the Latin equivalent civitas).

Thus, through the work of logos (reason) on physis (nature), society would evolve from jungle to civilization, from herds to communities, from chaos (disorder) to cosmos (order), as man ceases to behave like an animal, guided only by his sensitive feelings and emotions, and learns to guide himself instead by his reason and free will, as well as his suprarational, not irrational, emotions.

Men organize themselves into civilized societies or "republics" in order to work together in pursuit of the good of all the people, viz. in pursuit of happiness. But since they have to be coordinated in the pursuit of this goal, power or authority (arche or auctoritas) is given to some of them called rulers (archai or reges) so that they can exercise government (cratos or regimen).

One of the Dialogues of Plato is entitled precisely Politeia or The Republic. He wrote it early in his career and it is interesting to compare it with his later Dialogue entitled Nomoi or The Laws, to see the evolution of his thought, and then compare Plato's thought with that of his disciple Aristotle, both of whom, by the way, were almost exact contemporaries of Lao Tze and Confucius respectively. Between these two pairs a parallel relationship occurred. Greek and Chinese civilizations did become the most advanced both technologically and as regards political thought and institutions. But we shall see the profound impact of Christianity in the later transformation of European civilization.

Plato's philosophy, like Lao Tze's, is more idealistic, poetical, and mystical, while Aristotle's, like Confucianism, is more realistic, scientific and practical. The parallel also occurs in their political philosophy, which is overridingly ethical, that is, their philosophy of how society should be organized for men to attain happiness: how they should tend to (in-tention) their end or goal. In this line of thought, Aristotle taught his Politics (social ethics) after his Nicomachean Ethics (general ethics), as a logical sequence.

Happiness and virtue

In the Ethics Aristotle discusses how man should live so that he can attain happiness (eudainonia). He says that we have to know what the nature of man is, what man is for, or what his end is, and so, what his "intention" should be; in short, how he should live in order to attain his destiny. But in order to know the way, we have to know the end or perfection of man.

This perfection, Aristotle affirms, must be the perfection of man's highest faculties, which are intelligence and will. The perfection of the intelligence is attained through the five "intellectual virtues," viz. the habit of using the "first principles" of both speculative and practical thought, the absolute fidelity to strict truth (science); the thrust towards wisdom or total knowledge; prudence or the practical application of principles; and technique or practical execution of designs. [1]

And the perfection of the will or power of acting is attained through the four moral or cardinal virtues, viz. prudence (both intellectual and moral), justice, fortitude and temperance. [2]

Thus, man attains his happiness or perfection through virtue. This term "virtue," both in Greek and in Latin, means "power" or "strength." So, man attains power when he develops his intellect and will, and then he can dominate "nature," both in himself and in the world around him (logos over physis): Thus, Christianity would add later, he can domesticate animals, cultivate plants, and harness all the energies of the universe for his own use and service, and thereby imitate God as co-creator, "who provides all things in abundance for our enjoyment." [3]

At the end of his long discussion, Aristotle asks whether the development of man can be regulated by society. and he answers in the affirmative, since man is social by nature: a "political animal" (zoon politiko'n) , viz. neither a brute nor a god. Whereupon he brings the Nichomachean Ethics to a close and announces his next treatise: the Politics or eight books concerning the Polis or city how the city should be organized in order to procure and foster happiness or well-being for the citizens. We should bear in mind, though, that in Aristotle's time (4th century B.C.) the Greeks were about to become the Empire of Alexander of Macedo, but up to then, they had been living in small cities with autonomous governments.

Organization of society

Aristotle begins his Politics with a criticism of his master Plato. The word "democracy" was already in wide use by then. Plato, in The Republic, says that there are roughly three types of government: tyrannies, oligarchies and democracies. Aristotle for his part, being a more scientific and systematic thinker, classifies the systems of government.

According to him, first we have a kingdom or monarchy. Then, we have aristocracy, and finally, polity. These are the three "good" systems of government, simply because they work (Aristotle is pragmatic in this). Whenever they do not work, it is because they are degenerating, viz. monarchy into tyranny, aristocracy into oligarchy, and polity into democracy. Democracy is the term Aristotle uses for what we nowadays would call mob-rule.

He explains that monarchy is "government by one;" aristocracy is "government by the best ones;" [4] and polity is the other two together with the participation of all the other citizens, that is to say, of all the other freemen of the city, because the slaves are not considered citizens. [5]

When monarchy suppresses the other two, it degenerates into tyranny; when aristocracy isolates itself from the people and becomes a clique, it degenerates into oligarchy or rule by the powerful; and when the people oust the monarchy and aristocracy it degenerates into anarchy and chaos, which is what Aristotle calls democracy.

Aquinas' position

We can observe, however, that the modern idea of democracy, originating in St. Thomas Aquinas, as we shall see, seventeen centuries after Aristotle and seven more before our time, is equivalent to Aristotle's idea of polity (sans the exclusion of slaves), viz. a government in which all participate by being represented by the best, and presided over by one.

Aquinas also says that tyranny is the worst possible form of government, to the extent that the tyrant keeps all the power to himself, and instead of using it for the common good and general justice, and for the liberty and welfare of all, he uses it for his own enjoyment and benefit, and keeps the people enslaved and oppressed. That is why the "government by one" or monarchy should be tempered by the "government by the best" or aristocracy. And for the latter not to degenerate into "government by the most powerful" or oligarchy, it should be tempered by the "government of the people" or democracy, wherein all the people in one way or another participate in the election of their best representatives.

Thus, sovereignty or political authority within civil society lies ultimately in the people, who holds it from God [6] and for whose benefit all civil authority and government is instituted. This is the democratic vision of civilization, which, after Aquinas, was further developed by the Catholic theologians of the 16th and 17th centuries, notably Francisco de Vitoria, O.P., [7] and worked out historically, though not without flaws and blemishes, through the English, American and French liberal political Revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Liberalism vs. absolutism

Just as this liberalism had arisen in opposition to tyrannical royal absolutism, [8] with a vehement passion for liberty, which led to many forms of excessive individualism and lack of concern for the common good, despite its achievements, so a new absolutism arose in the 19th century, putting now all the power in the people (without any reference to God).

This neo-absolutism culminated in the marxist "dictatorship of the proletariat." It was a "socialism" in search of absolute equality, in opposition to the excessive individualism of liberalism. It eventually split itself into a "democratic socialism" converging towards a liberalism tinged with secularism and materialism, and the radical and absolute socialism of marxist communism as the most thorough type of totalitarianism.

And so, tyranny together with material poverty still remain the dreaded scourges of mankind, a mankind eagerly in pursuit of liberty and happiness. Nevertheless, as the Biblical tradition reveals, and the historical experience of mankind testifies to with overwhelming evidence, man remains capable of both good and evil. [9] And as Reinhold Neibuhr once remarked, the fact that man is capable of justice makes democracy possible; but the fact that he is capable of injustice makes democracy necessary. [10]

Towards modern democracy

But going back to Aristotle, what he means by the term "democracy" is, as we have seen, quite different from what we now mean in the Western world First, because for him it would be rather mob-rule or anarchy. But furthermore, even if he would accept a "polity" in the sense of our modern democracy, his concept of citizen (polos or inhabitant of the polis) is that of the free-man, viz. the owner of property. And he classifies this type into three categories: rulers, warriors and priests, all of them male (same as for Plato, with philosophers instead of priests). The rest of the population are lumped together into the category of slaves, manufacturers, laborers, builders, engineers, traders, servants...and women, in short, all those engaged in producing goods and services. Obviously, this category was not enfranchised as citizens.

When Christianity appeared on the scene, it proclaimed the radical equality of all persons: as St. Paul put it, "there is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor freeman; there is neither male or female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus." [11] A quiet but most powerful and unprecedented revolution was thus set in motion on the deepest level of human consciousness and life the moral and religious level, wherein man perceives his fundamental relationship to transcendent divinity and to his fellow-men, spelled out in the biblical "love God with your whole heart and your neighbor as yourself." It is with this level of human experience that Christianity is directly concerned, not with the temporal levels of socio-economic, political political and cultural development, since Jesus, though living on those levels like any other man, most emphatically denied any direct involvement in them by himself and his Church as such: "My kingdom is not of this world." [12]

Jesus would leave those levels to the personal and communal responsibility of the citizens (of the laity, not the sacred ministers), once they are fully converted to God and to their neighbor in that innermost core of their being, on that deepest level of human experience the moral and religious level of conscience.

The process of liberation

In the course of history, then, as the process of socioeconomic development and the spread of education would progress in peace and order, political or civil development would reach higher degrees of equality and democracy. This is the gradual and gruelling process of human liberation, constantly hampered by that lack of fundamental freedom from moral evil or sin, which is the real slavery of man and brings about continuous strife, hatred, vindictiveness, cruelty, injustice and oppression, with the consequent socio-economic and political dislocations and cultural setbacks and eclipses. [13] Only a moral and God-centered resurgence of man can give fresh thrusts to his progress in temporal realities. It is in this sense that evangelization, though primarily concerned with eternal life, brings about, as a by-product, the total development of man as it is possible here on earth. This has been the constant teaching of the Catholic Church, especially since Vatican II.

Christianity did bring about an incalculable change in the Greco-Roman civilization in which it emerged. It is enough to compare Plato's and Aristotle's truly aristocratic and elitist views with the Christian concept of human life as sacred and of the radical equality of all persons. Thus, Plato, in The Republic, thought that the best government would have to be totalitarian, with an absolute power in the king, who should be an enlightened ruler aided by enlightened counsellors and supported by an elite military class. Both property and women and all other slaves would be held in common, under the ruling class' supervision. There would be a selective mating for human reproduction, without stable families, and with public nurses taking care of the upbringing of children. [14]

Later, in The Laws, he moderated these views, but not enough to satisfy his disciple Aristotle, who strongly criticized his view on private property and marriage. Aristotle, however, fell, as we have seen, into a similar elitism. He reserved education (paideia) to the ruling class; maintained the "naturalness" of slavery, as well as that of war; and advocated abortion as a "cleaner" way than infanticide to control population growth (see his Politics, VII). He thus exhibited a conception of human life well below that dignity of the human person proper to Christianity, as well as the latter's unswerving reverence for monogamous and indissoluble marriage.

The impact of Christianity

These Christian values and ideas would have to shape and enliven human institutions in a gradual way. They could do so as the process of moral education, primarily through the family, and then through the schools and the social means of communication at the service of family values, would unleash all the creative energies of man in the world of temporal realities: socio-economic growth, social upliftment, and cultural development. But man has to contend with his own selfishness, mental laziness and proneness to injustice the risk of his liberty and the call to his responsibility.

In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in his Summa thelogiae [15] that "this is the best form of polity, being partly kingdom, if there is one at the head of all, partly aristocracy, insofar as a number of persons are set in authority, partly democracy, that is, government by the people, insofar as the rulers can be chosen by the people, and the people have the right to choose their rulers." [16]

This is, then, as expounded by Francisco de Vitoria in the 16th century, the Catholic teaching on the best form of society, ratified subsequently, by the continuous insistence of the Popes on human rights and the radical equality of all human beings, during colonial times and the ensuing slave-trade, up to our times, particularly in the teaching of Leo XIII, Pius XII and the Second Vatican Council on the political community. [17] The abundant and insistent teaching of John Paul II on this subject is well known.

What the liberal Revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries contributed was the distinction and due separation of the three powers of civil authority: legislative, judicial, and executive (first Locke, and then Montesquieu). This, of course, has been heartily endorsed by Catholic teaching [18] as in full accord with the purpose of human laws and human authority (and human proneness to injustice: hence the need for checks and balances), as well as with the sovereignty of the people.

However, for a proper understanding of this whole question, it is worth noting that this liberalism, articulated mainly by Locke, Montesquie and Rousseau, and further elaborated by Mill, had its origins in the English Puritan Revolution of 1640 culminating in the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688, which in its turn inspired the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789. Locke, Montesquieu and Rousseau, influenced by Calvinism, were reacting against the absolutism ("divine right of kings") of the Tudors and Stuarts in England, and the Valois and Bourbons in France. This absolutism, inimical to individual liberty and freedom of enterprise, was carrying on the ancient imperial tradition of Persia, Hellas and Rome, Byzantium and the revived Roman-Germanic empire, then vested in the Habsburgs.

Catholicism and Protestantism

The Lutheran Reformation came up as a powerful force to bolster this absolutism, since Luther had rejected the spiritual authority of the clergy. For him, all the believers are "priests," so that the only authority left in civil society is that of the secular rulers. These should, moreover, wield absolute power, so as to force people to be good, since original sin, according to Luther, had totally corrupted human nature, and completely deprived him of his freedom. Of course, the Catholic Church rejected this view at the Council of Trent, maintaining that original sin has indeed corrupted man, but only to the extent that he is in absolute need of divine grace to be saved, due to the impairment of all his powers: he is thus not totally corrupted and retains his freedom both to sin and to accept the saving grace of God.

The Lutheran position revived the so-called divine right of kings, according to which sovereignty resides exclusively in the king, called precisely "sovereign," who receives it directly from God. This theory was strongly upheld by the Stuart monarch James I of England (1603-1625), and elaborated by Hobbes in England, and Spinoza on the Continent, where practically all the other royal Houses had adopted it with the advocacy of the "enlightened despot" (a revived Platonic idea). But it was resolutely opposed by Catholic theologians like Francisco Suarez and St. Robert Bellarmine, who maintained, following Francisco de Vitoria, an exact contemporary of Luther (1483-1546), that sovereignty resides not directly in the king, but in the people, who has received it from God, and who vests it on the king. King James publicly burned the books of these Catholic theologians in London, and took repressive measures against Catholics. But he had to contend also with the rising Calvinists in his Anglican kingdom, who were clamoring for liberty, and claiming that sovereignty was in the people, but specifically in the honest hardworking and thereby hard-earned property people, who were the "predestined" members of the Church. That is why they vigorously defended economic freedom of enterprise, markets and competition.

The Anglican-Calvinist conflict led first to the Mayflower voyage across the Atlantic in search of a "land of liberty," and later to the Puritan and Glorious Revolutions, while Locke was developing his liberal philosophy against Hobbes, with his sovereignty of the people, accountability of rulers to parliament, separation of powers, and fundamental rights of citizens to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.

But under the influence of the "deism" or "natural" philosophy (against "supernatural" religion) of the Enlightenment, the sovereignty of the people in the French Revolution came to be regarded as ultimate and absolute (beginnings of socialism), which is what the Catholic Church opposed, maintaining always, since Gregory XVI to our time, that this sovereignty comes from God, [19] to whose moral law all are subject, and to whom all are accountable, a stand also taken by the American Declaration of Independence, which, unlike the French Revolution, affirms the supremacy of God and human reason (self-evident truths).

Democracy and pluralism

Thus, democracy, understood as the life of the political community, in which are admitted both (a) a fundamental equality of human rights, and (b) a diversity of functions in the pursuit of the common good, is the final political flowering of the trans-political Gospel values, as Jacques Maritain endeavored to show, even though, also according to the Gospel, there are many systems of implementing this democracy, depending on the local culture, and the Church is not bound to any particular concrete form. As John XXIII put it in Pacem in Terris:

It is impossible to determine, once and for all, what is the most suitable form of government, or how civil authorities can most effectively fulfill their respective functions, i.e., the legislative judicial and executive functions of the State. In determining the structure and operation of government which a State is to have, great weight has to be given to the historical background and circumstances of given political communities, circumstances which will vary at different times and in different places.

We consider, however, that it is in keeping with the innate demands of human nature that the State should take a form which embodies the threefold division of powers corresponding to the three principal functions of public authority. In that type of State, not only the official functions of government but also the mutual relations between citizens and public officials are set down according to law, which in itself affords protection to the citizens both in the enjoyment of their rights and in the fulfillment of their duties. [20]

Democracy and equality

The concept of democracy was indeed born in Greece, but did not come to maturity in that culture, mainly because of their poor concept of equality. The impact of Christianity was necessary in order to achieve a full awareness of the fundamental equality of all men, which was generally absent outside the Biblical tradition.

Not that this concept cannot be arrived at by natural philosophy, but in practice, in the actual development of the various cultures outside the Biblical tradition, it has proved extremely difficult to attain. Those cultures have been systematically bedevilled by the scourge of slavery. Christianity marked the beginning of the end, not the actual end, of slavery-not the actual end, for, as we have seen, Christianity is not as such a political force; but the beginning of its end, and the eventual advent of effective civil equality. For it brought the ethical concepts required for this achievement. It thus brought the eventual recognition of the fundamental rights of all human persons, which provides the moral and juridical basis for the construction of truly democratic society in freedom and equality, justice and love, peace and progress, unity and plurality.

The present Pope has summarized this in the concept of solidarity. "For the disciple of Christ, solidarity is a moral duty stemming from the spiritual union of all human beings who share a common origin, a common dignity, and a common destiny." (Address on Social Justice at Hart Plaza, Detroit, 19 September 1987: L'Observatore Romano, English ed., 5 October 1987, p.7)

The concept of equality can indeed be attained by natural philosophy, but it is not as "self-evident" as the American Declaration of Independence affirms: it is rather the Bible that makes it self-evident, and it is the Bible that deeply influenced the framers of that Declaration, as well as the subsequent Constitution and Bill of Rights.

The Judeo-Christian tradition clarifies that otherwise nebulous idea of equality. We know that "all men are created equal," because they share (a) the same origin, (b) the same nature, and (c) the same destiny.

Man, in his body, comes from matter, but in his spirit, he can only come from a being superior to all matter the Bible clarifies this by stating that man was formed from "the dust of the ground," and then God "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life." [21]

We recognize the distinctiveness of our human nature in our rationality, that is, our intelligence and free will. But it is not evident that all men are born or conceived like that: even Aristotle thought that some people are naturally born slaves the Bible clarifies this by stating that all human beings come from one original pair, created in the image and likeness of God, [22] and Christ identifies himself with every human being, even the least one. [23]

We know that, because of the orientation to infinity of both our intelligence and will (there is no limit to what we can know and love), only God can satisfy the innermost yearning of the human heart, but in practice, man can easily get entangled in the passing things of the world, which thereby become his idols the Bible clarifies this by strongly condemning idolatry, and commanding man to love God with his whole heart. [24]

Thus, the Bible clarifies that threefold unity of origin, nature and destiny, which constitutes the fundamental equality of all human beings, and therefore the substance of the universal brotherhood of mankind under one Father in heaven.

Existential inequalities

At the same time, however, the diversity of functions and existential inequalities of society are also part of a true democracy. Even Voltaire scorned Rousseau for his egalitarian reveries. It would be, to say the least, rather shortsighted to conceive equality in a mechanical way, as mass-produced items of the same prototype. This is how some naive forms of socialism have misunderstood it: it is indeed the perennial weakness of any type of socialism the anthill or beehive model of collectivism. [25]

The kind of equality that we are discussing, political or civil equality, has to be understood rather as synonymous with equivalence, that is to say, that all human beings have the same worth or value, because they have the same basic rights rooted in a unity of origin, nature and destiny. we are not identical with one another (like "identical" twins) but equal or of the same worth, all human beings without any discrimination, from the moment of conception to the last gasp of earthly life.

And how is this equality concretized? By making all of us the same? Not at all, because every individual is unique and unrepeatable, but by respecting the identity of each, since freedom is essential to our nature Hence the fact and the desirability and the evidence of existential differences, division of labor, and diversity of functions in a democratic society. A healthy competition, on the other hand, is not inimical to the common good, as long as it keeps the rules of justice and fair play, as Adam Smith endeavored to explain.

And this diversity, rather than being incompatible with, is complementary to the unity of origin, nature and destiny, which constitutes the basic equality of all in the body politic. The harmony of society results from the blending of that unity and diversity. And whatever disrupts this harmony, such as the marxist class-struggle, or the individualism of the autonomous self, undermines and destroys society.

Person and community: Human rights

To be a real community, society must respect the freedom of each person, so that he or she can attain his or her perfection and happiness by developing all his or her capacities for the good, and thus contribute to the common wealth. And for this we have our rights.

What are these human rights? A right is something one can claim not out of caprice or arbitrariness, but something due in justice, something strictly due (the word duty comes therefrom). It can not therefore respond to a passing and subjective need, but only to a need inherent to our nature. Our nature is rational, and hence our need for the truth, our duty to seek the truth, and our right to the truth. Our rational and free will aims for the good, and hence our need for the good, our duty to do what is good (and hence avoid evil), and our right to the good. A "right to do evil" would be a contradiction in terms.

These rights are thus rooted in our rational human nature, oriented to the ultimate values of reality: unity in diversity, truth, goodness or perfection of being, and beauty or harmonious blending of all values. All of these converge and coalesce in the infinite Being, "Creator of heaven and earth." That is why morality is inseparable from religion, and groundless without it. [26] In this we are clearly distinguished from irrational animals: since they are confined to their sensitive feelings and emotions, they have no capacity to attain to God, who being a spirit, [27] is beyond all sensitive perceptions. Animals are thus at the service of man, as the Bible has also clarified: cf. Gen 1:28-30; 2:19-20.

The Church and human rights

The Church naturally has always been prominent in the defense and promotion of human rights. She always fought, with her own weapons of moral persuasion, of reason and love, and juridical measures, against the evils of slavery, discrimination and exploitation of men, particularly since the geographical discoveries of the 15th century and subsequent age of colonialism. But perhaps the most outstanding Church document in this regard is the Encyclical Pacem in Terris, issued by John XXIII in 1963, a few months before his death. It has become a classic on the subject of human rights. Its doctrine was further elaborated by the 1965 pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes of the Second Vatican Council.

This is how Pacem in Terris introduces the subject:

"Any human society, if it is to be well ordered and productive, must lay down as a foundation this principle, namely, that every human being is a person, that is, his nature is endowed with intelligence and free will." (Quotations are from Daughters of St. Paul edition.)

So, that is what a person is, as distinct from an animal. And because of that, man has rights. So, the Pope goes on:

"By virtue of this, he has rights and duties of his own, flowing directly and simultaneously from his very nature, which are therefore universal, inviolable and inalienable."

They are "universal," that is, not claimed by some men only, like the "freeman" of Greco-Roman society, or the "noble" of medieval society, or the property-owner of early liberal societies, or the State bureaucrats of communist countries, but by all men.

The general failure in the past, to admit the universality of human rights, was due among other things, as we noted, to the absence of Christianity. But it can also be traced to the lack of education. To the extent that people are better educated, they become more conscious of their dignity as intelligent and free persons, and they become more creative, active and adventurous.

This is why, incidentally, the Church acted always throughout the centuries as the leading educational agency. It was the Church that kept Cathedral and Monastic schools open during the "dark ages" of Barbarian invasions, and founded the first universities, after having completed the evangelization of all Barbarian nations. To say that the Church maintained the world "in the dark" during the Middle Ages, waiting for the "enlightenment" of the "age of reason," is a discredited, unscientific and outmoded twist of facts, as Stanley L. Jaki has scientifically proved. [28]

Indeed, when through a comprehensive education, to each according to his ability, both in extension and in depth, the intellectual virtues of science, wisdom, technology and art, and the moral virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance are practiced more consciously, men become more aware of their personal dignity, and recognize this dignity in all other human beings. This is the thrust towards real equality and democracy.

The right to life

And what is the most basic human right? The right to life, of course. The moment a human being comes into existence, he or she has the right to life, as necessary basis for all the other human rights. To take his or her life for any reason directly, is therefore a most grievous violation or human rights, an enormous evil, an outrageous crime against humanity, a radically anti-social and anti-human act. This is one of the principles assumed in the democratic form of government and social organization, in its mature perfection. As the Pope told America in his departure speech at Detroit Airport on 19 September 1987, "If you want equal justice for all, and true freedom and lasting peace, then, America, defend life."(L'Observatore Romano, English ed., 5 October 1987, p.10.)

As Centesimus Annus puts it (no. 46):

"Authentic democracy is possible only in a state ruled by law, and on the basis of a correct conception of the human person," a conception rooted in the infinite dignity of the latter, attested by human reason enlightened by the Biblical tradition and forcefully maintained by the Catholic Church throughout the ages. [29]


  1. Cf. my Work, Culture, Liberation, Vera-Reyns, Manila, 1985, pp. 12-13. Back to text.
  2. Cf. my Christian Philosophy, Vera-Reyes, Manila, 1980, 39, f. Back to text.
  3. 1 Tim 6:17; cf. Mt. 6:25-34. Back to text.
  4. Cf. Summa theologiae, I-Il, q. 95, a4. and q. 105, a. I. Back to text.
  5. As the Second Vatican council puts it: "It is in full accord with human nature that juridical-political structures should, with ever better success and without any discrimination, afford all their citizens the chance to participate freely and actively in establishing the constitutional bases of a political community, governing the State, determining the scope and purpose of various institutions, and choosing leaders." (Gaudium et Spes, no. 75, Abbot Edition) See my Social Morals, SEASFI, Manila, 1987, under "Democracy." Back to text.
  6. Cf. Rom 13:1. Back to text.
  7. Cf. my Politics and the Church, Vera-Reyes, Manila, 1987, ch. 16, note 29. Back to text.
  8. The absolutist king of England, James I, publicly burned the books of Catholic theologians early in the 17th century, and the Calvinist Puritans, after the Mayflower voyage, launched the Revolution against the Stuart monarchy in the 1640's. Back to text.
  9. Cf. Gaudium et Spes, no. 37. Back to text.
  10. Quoted by George Weigel in a review of Reinhold Neibuhr: A Biography by R. W. Fox, in Catholicism in Crisis, March 1986, p.40. Back to text.
  11. Gal 3:28. Back to text.
  12. Jn 18:36. Back to text.
  13. Cf. Work, Culture, Liberation, ch. 8. Back to text.
  14. Marx did not invent these communist ideas. They are one more case of the tendency of the socialist mentality to annihilate human transcendent individuality: cf. Igor Shaferevich,The Socialist Phenomenon, Harper & Row, New York, 1980. Back to text.
  15. I-II, Q. 105, a. 1. Back to text.
  16. Benzinger Edition. Back to text.
  17. See note 5. Back to text.
  18. Cf. especially Pacem in Terris and Gaudium et Spes. See also Centesimus Annus, no. 44. Back to text.
  19. Cf. Rom 13:1. Back to text.
  20. Daughters of St. Paul Edition. Back to text.
  21. Gen 2:7. Back to text.
  22. Cf. Gen 1:27-28. Back to text.
  23. Cf. Mt. 25:40, 45. Back to text.
  24. Cf. Ex. 20:2, Deut 5:6, 6:5; Mt 22:36-38. Back to text.
  25. Cf. Shafarevich, op cit. Back to text.
  26. To aim for the infinite, that is, to "love God with one's whole heart," is the ground of all subsequent morality. As Dostoevsky put it in his famous sentence, "if there is no God, everything is permitted." Back to text.
  27. Cf. Jn 4:24. Back to text.
  28. See especially his The Road of Science and the Ways to God, University of Chicago Press, 1978, chapter 3. Back to text.
  29. See my The Church and Temporal Realities, 2nd Edition, UA&P, Manila,1997, and Freedom, Truth and Love, The Encyclical Centesimus Annus, SEASFI, Manila, 1992. Back to text.


de Torre, Rev. Joseph M. "A Philosophical and Historical Analysis of Modern Democracy, Equality, and Freedom Under the Influence of Christianity." A paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Steubenville, Ohio, 1997.

The Author

Fr. Joseph M. de Torre is Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at the University of Asia and the Pacific, Manila, Philippines. A social and political philosopher he is the author of more than twenty books and hundreds of articles and essays. Fr. De Torre is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 1997 Rev. Joseph M. de Torre