Etisi Deus no daretur (as if God didn't exist). It was this recommendation of Hugo Grocio (1583-1645) to the kings and queens of Europe in the 17th century that Paolo Flores d'Arcais brings back to us in his last essay, Democracy! The message of this vibrant and impassioned statement in favor of democracy couldn't be more pertinent right now as it coincides with the high-profile media attention around the Catholic Church with its election of a new pope.
Captivated by the incredible plasticity of the images, rituals and setting of it all, spectators were happily sucked into the very special and very refined reality show the Catholic Church puts on to choose its highest representative. The opulence, the anecdotes, the ancient terminology and the sound of whispered Latin all came together to create an environment of collective hypnosis. It is a great paradox that the amount of information that we've received has been inversely proportional to our knowledge of the questions that matter most. It's as if the lines of communication into the famously impenetrable, airtight Vatican, have had an autoimmune reaction and inadvertently defended themselves against themselves, producing streams of irrelevant information.
The Catholic Church may be criticized for its insular doctrines and the blind eye it turns toward questions of sexuality, which its own parishioners don't seem to ask themselves too often, but it should be recognized that when it comes to communicating with the masses, the Vatican is far from the Middle Ages. Video-politics and hyper-leadership constitute the magic formula for success in the media today and are what keep the Church's followers in the political sphere connected to it. Through this, the Catholic Church, which is without doubt in deep crisis, has managed to project for a few days an illusion of omnipotence and omnipresence. Curiously, Ratzinger's two favorite topics, faith and reason, haven't seen much light these past few days.
As we know, hundreds of millions of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists live and celebrate their faith naturally without using an institutional structure as weighty, nontransparent and controversial as the Catholic Church. They also don't seem to have any need for a Pope invested with the powers of an absolute monarch in the 21st century. Communication around the Church and the new pope has been full of missing contexts and anomalies. What's most missing from the conversation, however, has been God, faith and the religious experience — the true mystery of human existence.
So we can't see the forest for the hypnotic power of the Vatican's trees. A democratic forest in which God plays no role in public affairs as democracy, Flores d'Arcais reminds us, is intrinsic and radically secular. It doesn't mean it promotes atheism and ignores the fact that religion is a largely valuable source of values for people. On the contrary, ever since Thomas Jefferson, we have known that democracy and religious beliefs are not only compatible but in fact need each other to prosper and survive. That's why we democrats agree unanimously to publicly condemn any regime that prohibits the exercise of any religious beliefs or imposes a religion on any of its citizens. A true democracy that respects human rights and allows its citizens to reach their moral potential must guarantee freedom of conscience, respect the beliefs of each individual as well as their right to protect and practice their faith. It is precisely for this reason that the United States, whose democracy rests on a foundational myth of religious origin and where God is everywhere, was founded on the premise that church and state are to be separated by a wall. With the Pope chosen and the media frenzy over, the public space should be returned to its citizens and the secular wall raised once again. With all respect, but with all firmness.