The choice of Donald Trump for the 45th US president sparked debate in the European media about whether his election is a harbinger of developments that await European countries in the coming year, given that presidential or parliamentary elections are about to take place in many European countries. In these countries, political actors are coming to the fore whose main programs are populism and return to national protectionism. Again and again the European media are asking: Will the right-wing populist National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, become president of France? If so, how can it be ‘faced’? Will Norbert Hofer become the Austrian head of state? How successful will Geert Wilders be in the Dutch parliamentary elections? How many of the ‘traditional’ electorate of the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) and Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) will be lured by the Eurosceptic populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD/Alternative für Deutschland)? What do these potential developments mean for the European Union? Many authors and commentators are currently competing to offer their assessment of the ongoing, beginning or intensifying ‘crisis of democracy’. They analyse and systematize the symptoms of the crisis and point out – with more or less dexterity, argumentative brilliance, and linguistic skill – the factors which led to it, whether these be external factors (such as the dynamics of globalization) or internal factors (such as the concentration of power within the executive branch of state, or the weakening of public discourse through the self-referential discourses within social media). Analyses are multiplying like mushrooms after the rain; newspapers and magazines focus on books and essays that identified these shifts prior to the election of Donald Trump for US president.
Democracy is underpinned not only by well-known principles such as division of power in the state, trust in and respect for the law (legal system), and respect for human rights as a fundamental normative orientation. It is also based upon certain assumptions such as an active civil society and (politically) active citizens. Hereinafter, I would like to focus on this last aspect.
Johann Baptist Metz in his writings insists that theology must always be directed to this world and that Christian faith necessarily combines a mystical dimension and a political dimension. These dimensions are inextricably linked one with the other – their relationship is dialectical, one cannot exist without the other. Personal encounter with God goes hand in hand with ‘de-privatization’ of faith and implies personal efforts to help shape the world towards greater humanity. In other words, following Jesus Christ must necessarily have a mystical-political character. Theological ethics today faces a challenge to bring to mind this ‘political-mystical double structure’ of Christian faith clearly, comprehensively and urgently. It faces a challenge to be ethics that activates (motivates) people to take responsibility for public affairs and empowers them to take responsibility for designing political and social institutions that uphold the rights of poor and excluded people.
This challenge has another aspect of social ethical relevance. According to one of the leading representatives of philosophical pragmatism, John Dewey, democracy as a way of life is indispensable for democracy as such. Democracy is not only a form of government – it must be anchored in everyday life. This is connected to an important ethical issue, which we find also in the social teaching of the Church. The Catholic Bishops of the United States described in the pastoral letter Economic Justice for All (1986) very convincingly what they understand under the key normative principle of social justice with following words: „Social justice implies that persons have an obligation to be active and productive participants in the life of society and that society has a duty to enable them to participate in this way” (71). This form of justice that they call “contributive” implies that for active civic participation of citizens the proper framework conditions are to be created – it implies such structures that enable all citizens to participate in decisions concerning public affairs as well as such social institutions that enable effective participation in society. This includes just distribution of social goods to all citizens. In the present situation, contributive justice seems to be an important principle to politics. Very diverse authors from different disciplines and different countries have pointed out that the current success of populist movements lies – among other things – in the political apathy of citizens who feel that politics (and politicians) do not care for them. Some of them do not believe that politics could ever make a difference. A key challenge for contemporary society, in politics and in the church, is to overcome this apathy. However, this presupposes such social institutions that enable active citizenship by all citizens.
Already the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World of Vatican II (cf. GS 75) stresses the importance of participation of all citizens in public affairs as well as the importance of instruments and institutions that enable it. This call has received actuality and urgency. It challenges theological ethics to play an important role in the current discussions on these issues.