In his address to the European Parliament in 2014 Pope Francis said the following, “Keeping democracies alive is a challenge in the present historic moment.  The true strength of our democracies – understood as expressions of the political will of the people – must not be allowed to collapse under the pressure of multinational interests which are not universal, which weaken them and turn them into uniform systems of economic power at the service of unseen empires.  This is one of the challenges which history sets before you today.” And in view of the challenges to democracy, Pope Francis observed how the contemporary democratic style of government is affecting individuals, “Today there is a tendency to claim ever broader individual rights; underlying this is a conception of the human person as detached from all social and anthropological contexts, as if the person were a ‘monad’ (μονάς), increasingly unconcerned with other surrounding ‘monads’.”(Pope Francis, Address to the European Parliament, November 25, 2014. I would like to point out that Pope Francis criticizes democracies that focus too much on individual rights and uniformity for the sake of an economic system. I would propose a similar critique of American democracy .

Pope Francis uses the term “monad” to describe an unhealthy individualism. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was the first philosopher to elaborate on the human person as a “monad”. What is a monad? According to Leibniz, monads are the ultimate reality of the universe. Monads are “substantial forms of being” which are eternal, individual, subject to their own laws, un-interacting, and each reflecting the entire universe in a pre-established harmony. (Leibniz G., The Monadology translated by George MacDonald Ross, 1999.)

Pope Francis is applying this philosophy to the human person as a critique of Euro-politics. This theory of persons is radically different from the Catholic Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The Holy Trinity is a beautiful example of mutual giving and receiving for a cooperative flourishing.

How does this individualism that Pope Francis is critiquing show up in American democracy? Leibniz’ monad theory came after the American experiment, but there was another European philosopher who influenced Thomas Jefferson with a different kind of individualist philosophy of the human person.

Thomas Hobbes developed a theory about the human person in his book called Leviathan. He writes about the condition of mankind in what he calls the “state of nature” (i.e. before civilization). “In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; . . . no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” (Chapter XIII: Of the Natural Condition of Mankind As Concerning Their Felicity, and Misery. Leviathan)

Hobbes’ basic theory of the human person is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”, which is why he thought people should make a social contract in order to establish a civil society. In other words, Hobbes believed that mankind was essentially selfish and individualistic to the point of lying, stealing, and killing his or her neighbor, and in order to curb this tendency in man our government should reflect that understanding in the way it functions. All of this was the guiding principle for Thomas Jefferson’s thought in the Declaration of Independence.

Bishop Robert Barron explains, “The chief influence on Jefferson’s political philosophy was, of course, John Locke, but behind Locke stood the pivotal figure of Thomas Hobbes, the first great philosopher to dissent from the classical position that human beings are by nature social animals.” (Robert Barron. Exploring Catholic Theology: Essays on God, Liturgy, and Evangelization, p. 12. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI. 2015.)

As Catholic Christians, we believe that the foundation of all reality is the Holy Trinity as the Creator and Ruler of the universe. And we also believe, according the book of Genesis, that man and woman were created in the image and likeness of the Holy Trinity. These revealed truths stand in stark contrast to the philosophical theories developed by Hobbes and promoted by Jefferson. I would argue that American democracy is founded upon a faulty understanding of the human person, a non-Trinitarian understanding that we are basically selfish and scared of other people.

This political philosophy of the human person was accepted wholesale for the American experiment because the U.S.A. was founded as a Deist/Protestant country. A Deist, like Jefferson, would not consider the Holy Trinity as a real model for a civil society because a Deist does not necessarily know or care whether God is a Trinity or not. And a good Protestant in the school of Martin Luther or John Calvin would certainly hear echoes of the “total depravity” heresy in Hobbes’ description of man in the state of nature.

As Catholic Christians we believe that our fallen human nature is deeply wounded but not totally corrupted (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 405-406). We must reject the Protestant heresy that human nature is totally depraved, while at the same time recognizing the fact that we are weak and prone to sin. Any system of government must take that into account.

Once we see the philosophical principles upon which our nation’s government was founded, I think it is safe to say that American democracy is not completely in line with Catholic anthropology. But does that mean we are striving for some kind of theocracy? No, that would be undesirable for the work of human flourishing, and consequently religious freedom would be compromised. A task for all Catholic lay men is to develop an authentically Catholic view of democracy which can be inserted into the practice of American government. What if the model for our democratic government were the Holy Trinity itself instead of a flawed understanding of selfish and scared mankind?

  • Pat_h

    Current American democracy is very clearly not in alignment with Jefferson’s economic views, which were instrumental in regards to his political views.

    Jefferson was an agrarian, and in that context he was basically in line with the later Catholic Social teaching that was developed into the economic theory of Distributism. Both Agrarianism and Distributism are based on the concept that the best economy is one that vests ownership of the means of production (often thought of as farm land in both theories, but not necessarily limited to that by any means) in the hand of families. Distributism believed this to be the most just economic model. Agrarians of Jefferson’s ilk believed that this model is the only one that supported a democratic society.

    Indeed, hearkening back to the title of your essay, Jefferson actually believed that American democracy was, long term, doomed. The reason he believed that is that he felt that urban populations were naturally mobs and dependent on their livelihoods on others. That being the case, they’d vote for their employers or for a government that satisfied their needs, ultimately rendering democracy unworkable. Ironically, Jefferson admired the French Revolution, which basically proved his point. In the United States, however, he supported the purchase of Louisiana as he thought that gave the United States 1,000 years of expansionist agrarian breathing room.

    All this is important to your point as we very clearly are not agrarian anymore, and contrary to our common assertion we aren’t “capitalist” either. We’re Corporate Capitalist which vest economic control in the hands of state sponsored entities, corporations, who uniformly seek to become as large as possible, and which because of their structures grow beyond the natural economic ability of what would otherwise be partnerships. The current Presidential election, which demonstrates a massive amount of political discontent and which is tending towards real extremist in both parties, shows us that common voters are unhappy. However, as Distributism has no hold in either party, we can expect no real reform that will address our current ills.