THIS PICTURE is an illustration of people voting in one of the plebiscites which confirmed Napoleon Bonaparte in power as First Consul of France and eventually Emperor at the beginning of the 19th century. Although the word plebiscite originated in the ancient Roman Republic as a way of consulting the whole citizen body about political decisions, a nationwide vote on a particular issue has often been used by dictators (Hitler would be another example) to bolster their power, and such votes have seldom been free. They have more legitimately been used to decide whether a territory should be in one country or another (e.g. the Saarland, Northern Ireland [?], the Danzig corridor) or independence (Scotland). In some countries where such votes are used a lot, such as Australia, there is a technical distinction between a plebiscite and a referendum, but in most places the two things are really the same.
The flaws and limitations of this method of furthering democracy struck me again after the recent vote in Ireland to repeal the 8th amendment to the republic’s constitution. The vote and its result were similar to the EU Referendum in this country two years ago this month. Two features of both referendums bear this out.
The first shared characteristic was that both votes were not about territory or borders but about moral issues. As some of us tried to argue in 2016, Catholic Social teaching, a branch of the Church’s tradition of moral theology and its claim to teach us about moral issues, has a lot to say about relationships between states, the need for shared sovereignty in the interests of cooperation and reconciliation, the need for solidarity among nations as opposed to competitiveness and antagonism, and so on. This is why the founding fathers of common European institutions were motivated by Catholic teaching. It was, and is, a moral issue. Similarly in Ireland the referendum was about the right to life of the unborn child and whether the State should protect that right or rather (as here) provide medical services to end that child’s life (a rhetorical similarity: ‘control of our borders’ and a woman’s ‘control over her body’: the word ‘control’).
The second big similarity is that both votes showed how little notice people take of Christian teaching in the UK and Ireland. Earlier this year a book was published about the 1975 European referendum – there is a whole chapter about the part the churches played in the campaign, and in the mid 70s the churches had a much more influential role in public life in the UK. A similar book about the 2016 referendum would be hard pressed to construct such a chapter: little was said, and no notice was taken. Similarly in Ireland the bishops of the Church decided, for understandable reasons, to keep a low profile in the recent campaign, and the one thing everybody can agree about in Ireland is that they have lost an immense amount of authority. Of course scandals and decline in the practice of Christianity in both countries do not mean that the Church shouldn’t speak out or try to guide people; but perhaps we need to have realistic expectations about our influence.
The Church in its moral teaching unequivocally supports democratic and representative forms of government. This has, of course, only really become true in the last century or so and certainly wasn’t true in the days of Napoleon. That is why at elections we are rightly urged by the bishops to exercise our right to vote and the Church in lots of ways encourages Catholics to get involved in political life (e.g. the Faith in Politics programme for parliamentary interns run by our Bishops Conference, with which I am involved). But this support is not absolute or unconditional. The Catechism, reflecting consistent teaching from St John Paul II and Benedict XVI in particular, makes it clear that democracies – governments, parliaments and referendums – don’t have the moral right to make immoral decisions. Morality is not decided by any kind of popular vote.
What is particularly questionable is when politicians decide on a referendum to get them out of a difficult situation in their own parties (Harold Wilson in 1975 and David Cameron in 2016). Representative democracy means that basically we elect politicians to take decisions on our behalf. I realise we are probably lumbered with referendums and plebiscites, particularly in Ireland where, as in other places, they’re written into the constitution, and even here the only way the vote of two years ago could be reversed is by having another vote. But Catholics should certainly have reservations.