4.3.9 Review of CST on participation and democracy

Back to 4.3.8

Unit 4 Contents


We are at the end of our study of what the main documents of CST have to say about democracy.  To remind you, we have focused on this because the question we are addressing in this unit is: how should government be constituted?  As outlined at various points earlier in the module, this is one of three main, normative questions that can be asked about political life.  (See especially 1.4.2.)

One answer to it is: government should be constituted as a democracy or, to use the earlier term, a republic – a system in which citizens participate and rule.  While ‘democracy’ now names one of the three main forms of government, there are, as with each form, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ versions of it.  These are distinguished by whether political power is used for the good of all of society, or only for some groups or individuals, typically the rulers and their own supporters.  As we saw (4.2.3), these contrasting versions of democracy can be labelled ‘civic’ and ‘consumerist’.

What, then, does CST say about democracy?  As a way of consolidating your learning in this unit, do the following exercise.



(i)   As just stated, this unit’s question is: how should government be constituted?  How does CST answer this question?

(ii)   On democracy specifically, what are the main points that we find in CST about this form of government?




At the very start of this unit (4.1.1), the following was quoted:

The characteristic implication of subsidiarity is participation, which is expressed… in… activities by means of which the citizen… contributes to the cultural, economic, political and social life of the civil community to which he belongs.  (Compendium, #189, italics original)

Since then we have seen that in CST it is participation which gives the main reason for supporting democracy.  But this may raise the question in your mind: why participation?  What is so special about participation? Can’t a few people who know what they’re doing just get on with governing the country, and the rest of us focus on our own activities – work, family life, friends, etc?

That quotation briefly gives the answer – and with this we connect Unit 3, with its focus on subsidiarity, and Unit 4.  The common good is formed as many different kinds of social body form and flourish in society – social bodies that in turn give the diverse contexts in which persons live and grow towards fulfilment. The principle of subsidiarity expresses the point that the state must recognise such bodies and safeguard them, rather than absorb them into itself or suppress them in other ways.

For such bodies to exist, people must be active.  They need to participate with others to make and sustain them.  As noted on 4.1.1, the passage quoted above is by no means only about political participation.  It refers to “cultural, economic, political and social life”.

But in Gaudium et Spes, the Church did place a special emphasis on political participation. As quoted in the ‘response’ to the ‘exercise’ above, “all citizens” should have the “practical possibility of freely and actively taking part in the establishment of the juridical foundations of the political community and in the direction of public affairs” (#75).  Gaudium et Spes had already addressed human dignity, and its implicit line of argument is that all persons not only have equal human dignity but have a capacity and a duty to contribute to such direction of society.  As the quotation from the Compendium continues, “Participation is a duty to be fulfilled consciously by all, with responsibility and a view to the common good” (#189, italics original).

Now read the section of the Compendium which includes this.


Reading (2pp)

Compendium, ##189-191 (Chap. 4, sec. V)


Our study of democracy in this unit is enabling us to see the way in which the principles of CST cohere with each other: subsidiarity, the common good, human dignity and, as recent screens have shown, the inherent connection of freedom and truth.  Participation can make a reality of the vision, and therefore of justice.  That reading refers to solidarity too: this “persevering commitment to the common good” (as John Paul II described it) is necessary if people really are going to act for the good of the whole society, rather than indulge in “‘mak[ing] deals’ with institutions…, as though these institutions were at the service of their selfish needs” (#191).

To conclude this part of the unit, there is a final reading. This is the Compendium’s discussion directly of democracy.  In summing up what CST says, it quotes some of the passages that we have read.  It also comments on a few further issues, notably the problem of political corruption (#411), and media and communication, which are “among the principal instruments of democratic participation” (#414-416, quoting #414).


Reading (5pp)

Compendium, ##406-416 (Chap. 8, sec. IV)




At the start of part 3 of this unit (4.3.1), I noted that there is surprisingly little in CST documents that is directly about democracy.  Despite the significance of the statements of the 1960s for CST’s stance on democracy, they contain only one use of either ‘democracy’ or ‘democratic’.

Given which, consider this question: are there any major aspects of the topic of democracy on which the documents we have looked at say nothing?  To pose this another way, if you had been asked before starting this unit what issues you would expect to come up, what would you have mentioned that has not in fact been addressed?

The primary aim of Unit 4 so far has been to expound what CST documents say about democracy.  While we have examined critically the argument for the inherent connection of freedom and truth, we have not otherwise assessed critically the CST texts we have looked at.  We now turn to this – and the question in the second paragraph of this ‘reflection’ gives us a cue.




End of 4.3.9


Module B outline

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