What is a common virtue

Democracy needs virtues

Common word of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany and the German Bishops' Conference on the future of our democratic community, Common Texts No. 19, November 2006


Our democratic community is facing tasks that cannot be mastered with routine politics. The notion that all individual interests fit harmoniously with the common good is shaken if they are left to the invisible hand of the market or the visible hand of the state. For years there has been intense discussion about what to do. But the perception of the challenges and the lively debate about how to meet them have not really set our country in motion. The changes necessary today cannot be achieved with small steps and occasional appeals to patriotism. However: Surveys and election results show that a majority of voters apparently do not want anything other than comparatively small steps.

But at the same time it is widely recognized that the future cannot be won in this way. The responsibility for this is of course always assigned to others, preferably “politics”. There is a lack of insight that, according to its nature, everyone is responsible for the efficiency and efficiency of a democratic community. And there is also a lack of insight that democracy not only needs reliable structures and procedures for political decision-making, but also depends on the active participation of citizens in the formation of political will. Democratic institutions can only fulfill their function in the long term if the political actors reveal basic attitudes that go beyond the strategic rules of acquiring and maintaining power and influence. At the same time, democratic institutions are only viable if all citizens know that they share responsibility for these institutions. Democracy needs political virtues.

The term virtue may come as a surprise here. For a long time it had virtually disappeared from simple and sophisticated everyday language. Today's ethics has rediscovered the importance of virtue in great classical philosophy, but also in contemporary conceptions of various origins. This new attention to virtue ethics puts the moral actors back in the foreground in addition to ethical principles, norms and duties. The basic ethical attitudes also and especially in the area of ​​political action play an important role. This is also an asset for our topic.

The churches do not comment on these questions and challenges in order to make politics themselves or to offer solutions for individual political tasks. Above all, they see their mission and competence in advocating a value orientation in politics, the focus of which is on the dignity of every person, respect for human rights and the focus on the common good. The prerequisites for a policy based on these standards include appropriate attitudes and behavior on the part of all actors involved in political life, i.e. political virtues. With this common word, the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany and the German Bishops' Conference want to describe the political virtues that are necessary today. Above all, they want to encourage the development of these virtues.

Our sincere thanks go to the chairmen and the members of the joint commission set up in 2004 to prepare this text. We hope that the answer presented here to the question of the future viability of our democratic community will find attention and generate a response.

Bonn / Hanover, November 20, 2006

Karl Cardinal Lehmann
Chairman of the German Bishops' Conference

Bishop Dr. Wolfgang Huber
Chairman of the Council
of the Evangelical Church in Germany

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