Democracy is good, respect for human dignity is better

WCR EDITORIAL

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February 14, 2011

The world should rejoice if the protests in Egypt lead to the establishment of democracy. The hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in Tahrir Square say this is what they want. They want free and fair elections, the rule of law, enforceable human rights and independent courts. Despite its weaknesses, democracy is much closer to the will of the people than is the arbitrary will of a dictator.

Yet, we ought to cheer democracy with open eyes. The expressed will of the people in Egypt on concrete issues raises another issue.

A study conducted in seven Muslim nations last year by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center found that 82 per cent of Egyptian Muslims support stoning people who commit adultery and 84 per cent favour the death penalty for those who leave the Muslim religion. Only Pakistan among the seven nations had comparable levels of support for such severe punishments.

Those Egyptian Muslims who support such severe penalties are women and men, young and old, educated and uneducated. They speak essentially with one voice.

Eighty-five per cent of Egyptian Muslims see the influence of Islam on government as positive; only two per cent don't. This stands in sharp contrast with Turkey, a secularized Islamic nation, where only 38 per cent applaud the influence of Islam on government.

Another survey, this one conducted last year by the Brookings Institution, found that 57 per cent of people in the Arab world believe it would be good for regional security if Iran had nuclear weapons. The support of Egyptians for a nuclear Iran was reportedly an unspecified amount higher than the pan-Arab average.

Some entrenched in a relativistic morality would say that if Egyptians want to stone adulterers and kill religious converts, that is their right.

For our part, we will maintain the Catholic position that opposes capital punishment for any crime, that upholds the right to religious freedom and that deplores the spread of nuclear weapons. Democracy, in short, ought to respect the precepts of natural law, the dignity of the human person.

Pope John Paul II, in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, saw totalitarianism as rooted in "the denial of the transcendent dignity of the human person" who is "the visible image of the invisible God." He went on to say, "a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism."

Democracy is not the highest goal. Humanity's highest achievement is to treat the human person as the visible image of the invisible God. It is an achievement not won once and for all, but one which must be defended and nurtured every day.

We support the Egyptians in their struggle for democracy. Even more, we support them in using democracy to uphold the dignity of the human person.