Friday, 22 March 2013

The Church and democracy

Having come up with the unambiguous answer to the question - what should be the relation between the Church and the state - totally separate - Fr. Tischner shows himself to be a liberal in matters temporal. He continues the theme in the twentieth conversation with Jacek Żakowski, on the theme of democracy.

Fr. Tischner reserves the right for the Church to criticise democracy in order to improve it rather than to bring about its downfall, to strengthen freedom, not to weaken it.

It's worth remembering that Tischner czyta Katechizm was a series of TV conversations that became a best-selling book in the mid-1990s, when Poland's experience of democracy was but a few years old and not fully taken root after 50 years of totalitarianism. Fr. Tischner talks about human rights as though the subject was a 20th Century invention ("Now a new element introduced by the 20th Century has appeared - the conflict over human rights" as though Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke hadn't been deliberating over this notion two centuries earlier).

The traumatic experience of the French Revolution had a profound influence on the Church's attitude to democracy and republics. The 20th Century saw the Church moving away from merely protecting its own interests towards the struggle for human rights. "One tendency in this has been liberation theology. One can have many misgivings towards it, its links with Marxism, but it did carry with it something very valuable - the struggle for human dignity, not only for Catholics' rights. The other tendency was the Polish struggle with communism. Cardinal Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II, said that the Church was not looking for privileges for itself, but was struggling for human rights, something that was distinct in the Polish tradition... The Church in Poland moved deeply into the political sphere. Not politics as in a battle between different parties, but politics understood as a dispute between concepts of which political system is best for the state. This was unprecedented," said Fr. Tischner.

"The catechism clearly states that the Church can exist in every form of political system. But does this mean mean that the Church treats every political system the same way? I think that if one accepts the idea of human rights, one can no longer treat every system the same way," says Fr. Tischner. "Not even enlightened absolutism," asks Żakowski. "Not any more!" replies Fr. Tischner. "There are signals in the catechism that indicate that in the hierarchy of systems, democracy rises to the top."

 Żakowski asks whether the traditional alliance of the altar and the throne has been replaced by an alliance of  the altar and liberty. "The altar and human rights," replies Fr. Tischner. "The catechism rejects totalitarianism and collectivism. This is clearly written." Żakowski quotes from the catechism: "The Church has rejected totalitarian and atheistic ideologies, connected in current times with 'communism' or 'socialism'. Moreover, it has rejected in practice the 'capitalism' of individualism or the absolute primacy of market forces over human labour."

This suggests the Church is searching for a middle way, between communism and capitalism, between collectivism and individualism. Fr. Tischner notes the use in the catechism of the phrase first used by the liberation theologians of the 1960s, 'structural [or institutional or systemic] sin'. "Once, sin was always linked to the individual. Now - a bit metaphorically - it is said that within the state there can exist 'structural sin'. When you find yourself within it, there's little you can do. It grinds you, transforms you; as much as you want, you are taking part in sin. Totalitarian systems are brilliant at creating such structures that can turn people's best intentions against them. You speak only the truth; they will turn you into an informer. You respect the law; they will turn you into a censor. You are hard-working; they will make you build prisons. The catechism has condemned this," he says.

Fr. Tischner continues: "One can judge that of all the political systems, it is democracy that's nearest to the Church. The state has within it something of the earthly demon about it. That's why the catechism says that there should only be as much state as is necessary. The state should not usurp powers for itself, taking away citizens' powers to solve problems that they could solve without it. It's said the state's role should be limited to two things: protecting security and raising taxes. All other problems can be solved without the state's intervention." A rather simplistic view, but remember, Fr. Tischner had spent all but five years of his adult life living under one totalitarian regime or another.

 Żakowski asks "Of all the systems in the world, the Church has chosen democracy, has accepted democracy?" Fr. Tischner replies in one word - "Yes."

 Żakowski then raises the case of Paul Touvier, a French WW2 collaborator who worked for Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, who was sentenced to death for his part in murdering Jews and members of the French Resistance. Touvier was given sanctuary by sympathetic priests for nearly 40 years after the war. "Did the churchmen who sheltered him accept the verdict of a democratically appointed court?

Fr. Tischner's reply begins with the aftermath of the French Revolution, with its anti-clericalism and secularisation of the state. The French Church did not accept democracy, the republic, founded on the guillotine. The churchmen - "as representatives of Christian morality" - did not accept the state's verdict. They also cited the supremacy of conscience and mercy over the court's verdict. They considered God's justice to be higher than that of the state. "A democratic court does not have the right to issue a death sentence, because the court of God says 'be merciful'. And these churchmen, as representatives of that Divine court, were merciful," says Fr. Tischner, citing the French Church's special commission headed by Cardinal de Courtray that looked into the Touvier case.

This case is central to the chapter on democracy and occupies four pages. Żakowski asks Fr. Tischner what he would have done had Touvier come to him asking for sanctuary. "There is no easy answer," replies Fr. Tischner. "This is a fundamental conflict. It appears in the Gospels; Christ saying 'render unto Caesar  the things that are  Caesar's, and render unto God the things that are God's'... I don't know how I'd have solved the Touvier case, had he come to me. But I do know that there are two kinds of authority: state and religious. State authority should be fully moral, in keeping with ethics. That is the concern of the state. And religious authority should also be ethical, but should also bear in mind that mercy rises above justice. How to reconcile the two, this will be a question for the third millennium."

The Church has indeed moved a long way from the deeply unpleasant institution it was in say, Franco's Spain, where the dirt-poor and downtrodden peasants and workers were kept in place by a pampered clergy, or across Latin America where for much of the past century it sided with various caudillos.

The next chapter looks in greater detail at the issue of justice.

This time last year:
Prime lens or zoom?

This time two years ago:
Warsaw's failed bid as City of Culture, 2016

This time three years ago:
Stalinist downtown at dusk

This time four years ago:
The End of an Age of Excess?

This time five years ago:
Snowy Easter in England

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