It has been a fierce time for elections. First, the conclave; now, on Ascension Day no less, we in Britain have gone to the polls to elect a new House of Commons and provide Her Majesty with another government. Is there any fruitful point of comparison between these events? At first sight, the differences seem overwhelming. One has an electorate of 115; the other, tens of millions; one takes place in a months-long frenzy of publicity, analysis, discussion and propaganda; the other, after 10 days of purdah. But they have this much in common: they offer us a better life, hope of an end to our disaffections, wants, despair. Whoever enters Downing Street today, however, offers this with far less conviction than Pope Benedict XVI does.
Benedict asserts, robustly and unambiguously, that the solutions to the ills of the modern world are not political ones. They are found, instead, in the enduring truth of Christianity – the fact that, in our pain and suffering, God is with us, and by this very suffering sets us free. Moreover, he insists, only Christianity in its fullness is the answer. Adapting the demands of the faith to the compromised mores of society, something for which progressives everywhere clamour, would exactly vitiate the liberating power of the Gospel. God loves us where we are, to be sure; but he does not mean us to stay there – he wants to pull us out of “the salt waters of alienation”, from what the Psalmist calls “the pit of death”: the very place our moral choices have put us. The recent history of such Christian bodies as have accommodated contemporary social and sexual behaviours is scarcely an encouraging one.
Despite the best efforts of bien pensant commentators, you cannot read papal elections in political terms. Some journalists advertising themselves as Catholic have presented Pope Benedict’s election as a fit-up job engineered by a cabal of “Rightwing” cardinals who secured their man’s victory by bamboozling monoglot and illinformed cardinal electors from the Third World. Leaving aside the patronising and offensive implications of this, it is simply not plausible. The nuts and bolts of any given conclave (who voted for whom, when, and why) are unlikely ever to become public – the ballots are secret, the papers burnt, any elector subsequently indulging in loose talk is ipso facto unlikely to be a reliable source – but its inner truth is, surely, apparent to all believers. It is that the Holy Spirit has worked through this group of men, using whatever personal and “political” relations exist between them, to declare which of them is (to borrow a phrase) God’s candidate. Either we believe that God can do this, and trust that His reasons will become clear to us in time (anyone listening to Pope Benedict’s luminous and profound homilies might already have an inkling); or the whole business is no more than an elaborate imposition on our gullibility, and all that stuff about the Holy Spirit just so much flannel. These are the options. If we believe the Church is just another political institution, we are lost.
The same people who describe the conclave in political terms are generally those calling most stridently for the Church to adopt the methods of democratic government, and tolerate dissident views and practice. The modish word for this attitude is “pluralism” (the old-fashioned one is “heresy”). There is a familiar litany of gripes, of areas where the Church should allow “pluralism”, that includes women’s ordination, clerical celibacy and contraception.
A plurality of views on these issues, however, logically cannot exist within the dogmatic magisterium of the Church, or indeed the executive branch of a polity, any more than it can within the conscience of an individual. A multiplicity of truths is possible only in the postmodernist fantasy world, a realm of illusion whose founding charter is some very bogus French philosophy, all Gauloise smoke and mirrors. This is the world within which political discourse operates.
In reality, once you admit certain moral notions as possibly true, you have sold the pass. This is what Pope Benedict means by “the dictatorship of relativism”. Things cannot be both true and not true, both right and wrong, depending purely on one’s perspective. The relativist claims a plurality of true opinions can co-exist, but in practice admitting one of them (invariably the one he himself advocates) makes all others redundant. A society cannot simultaneously allow and forbid abortion; practical details of the Church’s life cannot be determined both by Rome and by ad hoc agglomerations of local bishops (or vocal pressure groups with axes to grind). Affirming this does not aim, primarily, at stifling dissent; rather, it acknowledges something utterly basic to logic, to truth, to the very structure of the world and ourselves in it.
What does this say about elections to political bodies, and (specifically) the British General Election? First, that they, and it, are unlikely to be about truth. Famously, Pope Benedict wrote that “truth is not determined by majority vote”. For a Christian body so to determine doctrine (as the Anglican Communion does, and as advocates of neo-Gallican synodical government would have Catholics do) is, he added, “nonsensical”. Yet it is precisely the bodies elected by our democratic process that determine, and have determined, the moral boundaries of our soci ety. A past Parliament legalised abortion; the next may well legalise euthanasia. These measures happen incrementally, by arguments from hard cases, by legislation often reactive or opportunist. No party ever won an election by promising these things; and the things they did promise, and still promise – freedom from want, misery, illness – where are they?
My second point arises from the first. Whatever the result of the General Election, it will not alleviate the real suffering endemic to our society, our radical alienation from each other and from ourselves. Only the truth can set us free; and truth, we have seen, is precisely what is not at issue. This does not mean all possible electoral outcomes are practically or morally equal; demonstrably they are not. Who one votes for is emphatically not an indifferent matter. There is legitimate disagreement between Christians about taxation, the role of the state, the enmeshing of our sovereign polity within a pan-European federation, how our children are educated and our old and infirm cared for. I do not presume to offer advice on political allegiance, particularly as under a representative system like ours what should be paramount are the beliefs and qualities of individual candidates (although these are, also demonstrably, open to subversion by the party system). I have my own views, of course, but now is not the time to ventilate them.
What I do insist on, though, is the dishonesty of any political manifesto inasmuch as it adopts the methods intrinsic to our advertising-driven culture, and makes the implied claim: vote for us and your life will be changed: by doing this one thing, you will be happy. This is always a lie. Happiness – joy – is not found here, but as Pope Benedict has told us (and John Paul II before him, and two millennia of Christian witness besides) in Jesus Christ, and the Cross.
Raymond Edwards is a freelance writer