When Saint John Paul II visited the United States in 1995, he declared: “Democracy needs virtue…Democracy stands or falls with the truths and values it embodies.” But how can one assure that virtue will be at the heart of a democratic government? Certainly, there will be no virtue in the government where there is no virtue in the people. This was a favorite theme of John Adams: “Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Yet, even a virtuous population cannot guarantee a virtuous country. How a government is structured matters. Prior to the opening of the constitutional convention in Philadelphia, Madison made an exhaustive survey of the various forms of government that had been tried since ancient times. The results were not encouraging. Factions could circumvent the virtuous. Democracies could embolden a tyrannical majority to run roughshod over the rights of weaker parties. What could be done?
Madison’s answer is found in the U.S. Constitution, which he helped to draft and defend in the now famous Federalist Papers. In Federalist #10, he extolled the advantages of republican government, noting how public views could be refined “by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary and partial considerations.”
The constitution ratified by the colonies sought to overcome “temporary and partial considerations.” That effort included creating three branches of government to check and balance one another. It also entailed creating a U.S. Senate to try to tame the passions of the popular electorate. The new framework of government was an ingenious work of statecraft, but by itself it could not, as the founders knew, guarantee of the health of the American republic.
In our time, the preservation of democracy depends upon citizens who understand their constitutional rights and are willing to stand up for those rights whenever they perceive them being violated. It is this kind of participation in civic affairs that our Catholic faith calls us to.