Plinio Correa de Oliveira
The cult of numbers
in the modern world
TFP Viewpoint, London, Vol. 22, No. 2, 2015 (*)
As globalisation sweeps away differences between individuals and nations, reducing everything to an egalitarian sameness, it is worthwhile to review our thinking about the value of the individual and his place in society.
In his allocution to the leaders of the Universal Movement for a World Federation, His Holiness Pope Pius XII pointed out that there is widespread mentality today that we might call ‘optimistic democratism’. This works is as follows:
First, all political and juridical posts are defined by the constitution. This ensures that incumbents are appointed by the will of the people and are answerable to the people. Everyone is equally involved in this process of appointing, and public opinion is all-powerful over individual politicians.
Secondly, secret ballot and universal suffrage ensures that each citizen is equally empowered to make up his own mind without any pressure and to vote wisely and patriotically. The democratic process, being free and equal, guarantees that the common good will not be subverted by cliques and interest groups.
Thirdly, universal suffrage means the people, or masses, truly rule themselves. This is true sovereignty which is assured by the ideal of human liberty. It is the highest expression of freedom. On the other hand, the mathematical counting of votes ensures the triumph of the ideal of human equality. There is no privilege. Everyone equally influences the country’s destiny. They are equal in duties and rights as well as love and solicitude for the country’s welfare.
Fourthly, a system that harmonises and disciplines social life so well should work equally well on the international level if each country sends representatives, proportional to its population, to a supra-national parliament set up to govern the world.
If the above points are properly adhered to, then class differences within nations will vanish; tensions and conflicts within the ‘international community’ will not have conditions to grow. The bedrock democratic principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity will flourish; freedom, well-being and happiness will reign on earth.
It is probable that many readers might agree with much of the principles stated above. Maybe not point by point, but it is the general line of their thought. Others will smile sceptically. And yet others will immediately disagree. And what does the Church have to say?
The four great modern dogmas
Amongst the principles, public institutions and aspirations just described, there are four dominant notes. They can be defined as:
A. All power comes from the people; therefore the people alone are sovereign.
B. The people alone are concerned for the public good, whether on the national or the international level.
C. The popular will is therefore infallibly just and correct, and representative government is nothing else than the implementation of this perfect popular will.
D. The international order requires the creation of a super world government for the same reasons that prove that a State is necessary to maintain order amongst individuals.
These four points are as if four dogmas upon which contemporary society is built. They originated in the political thought of the French Revolution. Even certain political ideologies apparently opposed to the French Revolution, such as Nazism and Communism, are influenced by this thought. Whether it be the grey dictator or the red dictator, both based their power, at least in theory, on monstrous-plebiscites that authorised, in the name of the sovereign and omnipotent people, all the acts of the Head of State.
What does the Catholic Church actually say about this?
To answer this we must see what the Church’s position is regarding each of these dogmas of contemporary society. In other words, how does the Church define herself in face of the world today.
Government by the people
The Church’s position regarding popular sovereignty was dealt exhaustively in papal documents from Pius VI to Pius XII.
The Church teaches that power does not come from the people, but from God. God created human nature in such a way that society needs government. He could have done otherwise. He could have created us without the need of government. By a free and wise act of His omnipotent will, He created us as we are. As a result of this adorable Will, governments exist to which men owe obedience. The authority of a government does not come from the people, but from God.
This brings us to some practical consequences of great importance. Principal amongst these is that according to the Catholic concept of things, governments are supposed to command and subjects are supposed to obey. Were the people sovereign, governments would have no function other than to carry out the will of the people. A second important consequence is that it is perfectly normal for the power of governance to be wielded by a monarch, or even an aristocracy. On the contrary, the believers in popular sovereignty hold that democracy, in which the popular vote selects those called to govern, is the only valid form of government.
So if the Church is against the doctrine of popular sovereignty (i.e., power comes from the people), does she also condemns the idea of a democratic republic, the form of government according to which the supreme ruler of the nation is chosen by popular vote?
Our human nature is such that we are born ignorant and need teachers. It is according to the natural order of things that teachers exist. Thus it is according to God’s will. Their authority comes not from the pupils but from God Himself. God leaves it to us to choose the method of selecting teachers, whether by public examination or as a result of promotion within the teaching profession. It falls to mankind to choose the best method according to the circumstances of time and place.
One can apply this same principle to governments. It is God’s will that they exist, but the specific method of choosing them may vary according to time and place. It may be for life and hereditary in one situation; in another it may be for a period and by election. It is not intrinsically against Catholic doctrine to have a republic where the government is chosen by popular election.
This teaching has two important reservations to avoid harmful confusion. First, even in the case of a Republic, the top government official is not the slave of popular will, but is a true ruler. Secondly, democracy is not the form of government preferred or recommended by the Church—a fact that might come as surprise, since many think it is!
It is generally held that the Gospel preaches political equality, since all inequality is supposedly contrary to the spirit of humility and meekness inherent in the teachings of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Monarchy and aristocracy, which are based on inequality, would therefore be against the spirit of the Gospel. Nothing could be more false.
True humility gives rise to a desire that each and every one be in the place where he naturally fits. Whether he be rich or poor, educated or ignorant, noble or plebeian, true humility leads a Christian to desire that each and every one be treated justly according to what he is, and that each and every one has that participation in public life according to his merit and rank. It is legitimate that a people desire to organise itself democratically. However, it is not legitimate to consider as unjust, backward, and wrong other forms of government. It is not legitimate to try to impose on others one’s own form of government in the name of progress and civilisation. It is not legitimate to be led by a theoretical love of democracy to instigate a revolution like the French Revolution, thus trampling on hereditary rights, abruptly altering the historic evolution of a civilisation, and destroying lives and institutions in order to reduce all to a new order of things.
The Church says that a republic is a legitimate form of government, but not the only legitimate form of government. When Leo XIII defined this point towards the end of the nineteenth century he caused a sensation. Some accused the great pontiff of making an opportunistic pact with the triumphant principles of the French Revolution. The truth is that Catholic thought was fully formed on this matter well before the French Revolution, as even a precursory study of medieval political organisation—fully approved by the Medieval Church—will show. In some Swiss, German, and Italian municipalities government was elected by the people without anyone seeing in this an infraction of Catholic teaching. The sensation caused by the teaching of Leo XIII was really the result of a poor understanding of what he actually said. Lest there remain any doubt about papal teaching in this regard, Pope Pius XII took up the theme again and further clarified it.
The infallibility of the electorate
Let’s look more closely at the dogma of the ‘Infallibility of the People’. What does the Church think about it? Because of original sin mankind will forever be prone to err. Only the magisterium of the Church has the privilege of infallibility. This privilege comes from the divine assistance promised by Jesus Christ. Since Christ did not promise that the people would be infallible, it is clear that universal suffrage is fallible. A Catholic who is coherent cannot but smile at the naïveté of thinking that universal suffrage ensures the correctness of all the solutions for problems relating to the common good by conferring popular wisdom to the management of public affairs.
Of the three forms of government—monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy—none is of itself essentially wrong. The greater or lesser margin of “fallibility” of each one varies according to the circumstances of time, place, temperament, traditions, and culture of each country.
We now examine the conditions necessary for the government by the people—democracy—to lead to worthwhile solutions to the nations’ problems.
People and masses
Many of these conditions have been mentioned already, the most important of them being that the people is really a people and not a mass. Democracy is, after all, government of the people, not the masses.
Pope Pius XII made this distinction between the people and the masses in his Christmas allocution of 1944. The Pontiff said:
“The people, and a shapeless multitude (or, as it is called, “the masses”) are two distinct concepts.
1.The people lives and moves by its own life energy; the masses are inert of themselves and can only be moved from outside.
2.The people lives by the fullness of life in the men that compose it, each of whom—at his proper place and in his own way—is a person conscious of his own responsibility and of his own views. The masses, on the contrary wait for the impulse from outside, an easy plaything in the hands of anyone who exploits their instincts and impressions; ready to follow in turn, today this way, tomorrow another.
3.From the exuberant life of a true people, an abundant rich life is diffused in the state and all its organs, instilling into them, with a vigour that is always renewing itself, the consciousness of their own responsibility, the true instinct for the common good.”
So the first element which differentiates a people from a mass is that the people calls itself a human community in which all men have principles, convictions, their own movement, a clear notion of their rights and duties; while the mass consists of men without ideals, without principles or moral formation, without their own initiative, and who have as their only common factor their imagination which sways them this way or that according to the latest demagoguery.
Pope Pius XII next mentions another distinction between the people and the mass:
“In a people worthy of the name, the citizen feels within himself the consciousness of his personality, of his duties and rights, of his own freedom joined to respect for the freedom and dignity of others. In a people worthy of the name all inequalities based not on whim but on the nature of things, inequalities of culture, possessions, social standing — without, of course, prejudice to justice and mutual charity — do not constitute any obstacle to the existence and the prevalence of a true spirit of union and fraternity. On the contrary, far from impairing civil equality in any way, they give it its true meaning; namely, that before the state everyone has the right to live honourably his own personal life in the place and under the conditions in which the designs and dispositions of Providence have placed him.”
People and working class
This last point deserves emphasis. The people is not just the working class, nor is it even the majority. The people is the entire population. Just inequality does not eliminate the upper classes, dissolving them into the working classes. It respects the existence of all social classes, ensuring each “the right to live honourably his own personal life”.
Moreover, this is not to say that the working class must be given the right to live as nobles; nor that the manual worker should be given the right to live as a bourgeoisie; nor the illiterate to live as the literate. Each group has the right to an honourable life — quite different, we may add, to the detestable conditions of a good part of today’s working class, albeit without removing them from “life in the place and under the conditions in which the designs and dispositions of Providence have placed him”.
In the language of the Church, people is not the majority, nor the simpler classes, but rather the entire population characterised by a strong individual and collective personality. It has its own life which animates the State, instead of the State suffocating that life. A true people has real differentiation of social levels, each gifted with the property and culture proper to it, but in which none have less than what is needed for the natural dignity of man.
A society characterised by these traits is the opposite of the levelled and amorphous society dreamed of by the revolutionaries of the French Revolution, and by their true descendants, today’s socialists.
Such a people, which is organic, hierarchical and alive, is indeed able to speak with certainty about a variety of problems both regional and national; whereas a mass is by definition almost incapable of anything but error.
Masses and suffrage
Let’s move on to the third dogma, universal suffrage based on a count of equal votes. Does this adequately express the will of the people?
The answer is not difficult. To start with, if everyone was able to give an equally informed opinion about everything, and if each vote really had the same value, this system would be an ideal one for the masses but not appropriate for a true people.
In the system where a numerical majority of citizens has the right to form the Legislature, to direct at will the Executive, etc., it would be very difficult to represent an authentic people. In other words, it is very difficult for a genuine people to influence public policy through universal suffrage.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Pius XII continues by saying:
“Everywhere today the life of the nations is disordered by a blind cult of numeric value. The citizen is the elector. But as such he is in reality none other than a unit whose grouping makes up either the majority or the minority, a grouping which can be undone by the shift of one voice. He has no value to the political party except as a vote. His role in the family and in his profession is not taken into account”.
A society dominated by the blind cult of numbers is a mass not a people. Pius XII saw in the system of voting in which the voter is no longer an elector in the organic structure of the people, but rather a mere number, an impersonal and anonymous unit lost in the mass, as a typical symptom of this dominion of the value of numbers.
Is there any solution? Pope Pius XII says that what is needed is a total rethink of the accepted methods of government, a questioning of received notions of governance. It is impossible to resolve the problem of the political organisation of the world without leaving the beaten path, without drawing from the experience of History, a sound philosophy of History, and even a certain creative imagination inspired by the divine.
(*) Translated from Catolicismo Nº 8 - Agosto de 1951, without revision of the Autor.
TFP Viewpoint is published by the Tradition, Family, Property Association, London
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