Ireland has become the first nation to use the popular vote to strip the unborn of the right to life. It is a sign of just how far the cult of proceduralism has gone that this fact tends to impress us favourably. Anyone who doubted that we live in an age of democratic idolatry need only observe how readily we accept the death of the innocent when it is sanctioned by the appropriate electoral procedure.

Of course, we tend to honour democracy more in theory than in practice. Very often, we overrule or ignore democratic verdicts in the name of a higher, purer set of democratic “values”. No court of appeal is superior to the ballot box, however abstractly conceived.

One admirably consistent democrat is Brendan O’Neill, who cheered the Irish referendum as a great victory for his beloved system: “It fills me with Irish pride that the Irish have voted in staggering numbers for the right of women to end unwanted pregnancies.” He rebuked those lukewarm believers who “support democracy, not in principle, but only if it gives them what they want”. Such Laodiceans “should try believing in democracy for real, full-time”.

This is a bit like saying that one should believe in hammers for real, full-time, whether they are used to build one’s house or tear it down. For ultimately democracy – like any political system – is simply a tool, whose moral value cannot be judged independently of the uses to which it is put. To assign it ultimate value, as though it were an end in its own right, is the very definition of idolatry, an act as absurd as bowing before dumb stone or wood.

No one knew this better than Pope John Paul II, who in 1995 issued Evangelium Vitae, a stirring warning against the cult of proceduralism. “Democracy cannot be idolised to the point of making it a substitute for morality or a panacea for immorality,” John Paul wrote. “Fundamentally, democracy is a system and as such is a means and not an end. Its moral value is not automatic, but depends on conformity to the moral law.”

Reading the document after Ireland’s vote, one has an uncanny sense of prophecy fulfilled. John Paul warned Catholics against complacency when “the original and inalienable right to life is questioned or denied on the basis of a parliamentary vote or the will of one part of the people – even if it is the majority.” In such cases, “the appearance of the strictest respect for legality is maintained” but the fundamental moral law is trampled under foot. Whenever this happens, “democracy, contradicting its own principles, effectively moves towards a form of totalitarianism.” John Paul, who knew totalitarianism first-hand, did not use such language lightly.

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