Space for Civil Society

Today is United Nations’ International Day of Democracy 2015.  The United Nations defines Democracy as “a universal value based on the freely expressed will of people to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural systems and their full participation in all aspects of their lives.”  Emeritus Pope Benedict, in a 2006 Address to the Italian Christian Workers Associations (A.C.L.I.) suggested we show fidelity to Democracy:

The… “fidelity” I would like to recommend to you is… fidelity to democracy, which alone can guarantee equality and rights to everyone.

Indeed, there is a sort of reciprocal dependence between democracy and justice that impels everyone to work responsibly to safeguard each person’s rights, especially those of the weak and marginalized.”

The theme of this year’s International Day of Democracy, “Space for Civil Society” reminds us that we need a free and robust civil society in order to ensure the continuing stability and existence of our democratic institutions.  Austen Ivereigh, a Catholic writer and campaigner in Britain described civil society thus:

Civil society is the bedrock of democracy, the glue that holds society together. It is neither public (state) nor private (economic) but made up of what are often called ‘voluntary organisations’ –churches, schools, charities, fraternal organisations, residents’ associations, ethnic groups, trade union branches and so on…Because civil society is where values, ideals and traditions are lived out and learned, religion and education are central to it. That is why faith congregations and schools are the bedrock of civil society

When we rise to the challenge of our democratic ideal and answer the call to participate, we need to bring our values and Catholic social teaching principles, such as the dignity of the person, to bear. Emeritus Pope Benedict, in his Address during a welcoming ceremony to the White House in April 2008, described the challenge this way:

Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility… The preservation of freedom calls for the cultivation of virtue, self-discipline, sacrifice for the common good and a sense of responsibility towards the less fortunate. It also demands the courage to engage in civic life and to bring one’s deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate. In a word, freedom is ever new. It is a challenge held out to each generation, and it must constantly be won over for the cause of good (cf. Spe Salvi, 24). Few have understood this as clearly as the late Pope John Paul II. In reflecting on the spiritual victory of freedom over totalitarianism in his native Poland and in eastern Europe, he reminded us that history shows, time and again, that “in a world without truth, freedom loses its foundation”, and a democracy without values can lose its very soul (cf. Centesimus Annus, 46)… Democracy can only flourish… when political leaders and those whom they represent are guided by truth and bring the wisdom born of firm moral principle to decisions affecting the life and future of the nation.

Moreover, bringing our values with us as we participate in civil society can help to ensure our democracy is authentic, stable and accountable:

[T]he search for truth is at the same time the condition for the possibility of a real and not only apparent democracy:  “As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism” (Centesimus Annus, n. 46).

From here comes the invitation to work, to increase consensus around a framework of shared references, for otherwise the appeal to democracy risks becoming a mere procedural formality that perpetuates differences and exacerbates problems.

Benedict XVI, Address to the Italian Christian Workers’ Associations (ACLI), 27 January 2006.

We all need to work together in pursuit of our common goals toward a brighter future and a key way to achieve this is by enlarging and strengthening civil society.  As parishioners, we are keenly placed to make a contribution.  Pope Francis wrote in his recent Encyclical Letter, Laudato Si:’

[L]ocal individuals and groups can make a real difference. They are able to instil[l] a greater sense of responsibility, a strong sense of community, a readiness to protect others, [and] a spirit of creativity… [179]

There are many ways one can become involved and work towards making a difference.  An easy first step is to approach the social justice group in your parish, your local priest or the Justice and Peace Office.   One way in particular that people can help to enlarge the civil society through their parish is with the Sydney Alliance, which is a coalition of religious organisations, community groups and trade unions that advance the common good and promote justice, fairness and sustainability.  The Sydney Archdiocese is a founding member of the Sydney Alliance and training is available to parishioners who are interested in developing leadership within their parish, building relationships and addressing issues of concern they have identified within their communities.  This is important, as the poor and vulnerable need people to stand up and act with them.  As Austen Ivereigh writes in an article in The Guardian in 2010:

[T]he capacity for generating participation and engagement – what we call “social capital”…. is always important to everyone, but it is disproportionately important to the poor, because they lack other forms of capital – financial and human (education). That is why churches and mosques play an especially important role among the less well-off, not just in meeting material needs and wants but, more significantly, in generating civic and political participation which in turn builds human and financial capital.

Democracy is important; civil society is important.  We encourage you to get involved and participate in the good work the Church is doing.  Our communities will be the better for it.