Laws alone will not save a country from tyranny, or from the abridgement of human rights. John Adams, in his characteristically blunt manner, put it this way: “Human passions unbridled by morality and religion…would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net.” Catholic teaching concurs.
“An authentic democracy is not merely the result of a formal observation of a set of rules but is the fruit of a convinced acceptance of the values that inspire democratic procedures: the dignity of every human person, the respect of human rights, commitment to the common good as the purpose, and guiding criterion for political life.” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, par. 407) The Church is making a very shrewd observation here. The show of democracy is not necessarily the same thing as actual respect for human freedom and dignity. Nazi Germany had courts and other trappings of a legal system, for example, even as it gradually abridged the civil rights of Jews and other “unpopular” minorities.
But recognizing that a democracy is under assault is not always easy. The legitimate duty of government to provide order and security can be used as a cloak to disguise arbitrary and unnecessary abridgements of human freedoms, which lead inevitably to the demise of democratic society.
Democracy can be messy at times, so it is fitting to recall an observation of Thomas Jefferson: “The boisterous sea of liberty is never without a wave.” Lovers of democracy, therefore, need to be good surfers who can negotiate the waves to find a consensus among differing opinions so that at the very least human rights are defended and the God-given dignity of every person is protected.”