Democratic Prophecy

by | Jan 31, 2017 | Faith & Politics

Recent events have reminded me of Jacques Maritain’s book Man and the State. Therein he makes four points about an obscure topic that is now splashed all over the headlines: democratic prophecy.

  1. Prophecy is necessary to democracy.

Democracy like every government has a legal structure. In fact, what we typically call “democracies” are not democracies at all. Rather, they are governments with the form of a republic and the democratic principle of popular sovereignty.

But for all the forms, structures and norms, a society always has to rediscover the principles that found their institutions, and often in spite of those institutions. For a democracy, that task has to be carried out by the people. And so democracy depends upon “the dynamic leaven or energy which fosters political movement, and which cannot be inscribed in any constitution or embodied in any institution, since it is both personal and contingent in nature, and rooted in free initiative.”1

In other words: prophecy cannot be replaced by law, history, technology, bureaucracy or better policy. And so, if democratic societies are to flourish, they must make room for it.


  1. Prophets arise in moments of crisis.

Prophets are necessary when the structure breaks down. They thus arise in the midst of difficult times:

“They are needed especially in the periods of crisis, birth, or basic renewal of a democratic society… The primary work of the inspired servant of the people is to awaken the people, to awaken them to something better than everyone’s daily business, to the sense of a supra-individual task to be performed.” 2

It goes without saying that we live in challenging times. But what will our response to those times be? For it is in our response to such challenges that we determine whether now should be a time of death or rebirth for our society. Prophecy has to be nourished on the hope that rebirth is still possible.


  1. Prophets are self-appointed.

By definition, prophets are outside political and social structures:

“And those servants or prophets of the people are not – not necessarily – elected representatives of the people. Their mission starts in their own hearts and consciousness. In this sense they are self-appointed prophets.” 3

Prophets must respond to a call to speak the truth, and they must be willing to own that call before others. If they are self-appointed, however, they only have their power in receiving the support of their people. And in this sense they are not self-appointed, but called forth by the people. Prophecy thus demands a double responsibility: of prophets to have the courage to speak, and of the people to discern that prophetic status and support them.

Prophecy, then, offers persons the chance to revitalize their character as citizens fully invested in their community. Will ordinary citizens take up that call? And will they sustain their energy for justice?


  1. Prophets mean false prophets.

For all the necessity of prophecy, it comes with a risk:

“That is a quite vital and necessary social phenomenon. And it is a quite dangerous phenomenon. For where there is inspiration and prophecy, there are false prophets and true prophets; thieves aiming to dominate men and servants aiming to set them free; inspirations from dark instincts and inspiration from genuine love… It is easy to mistake impure inspiration for unsullied inspiration; nay more, it is easy to slip from genuine inspiration to a corrupt one.” 4

Indeed, in politics we routinely treat our enemies like false prophets. But who are the real prophets? In our own times we see a seemingly prophetic wave of reaction against a leader whose own rise was hailed as a prophetic reversal of a president who was himself accorded unprecedented prophetic status in 2008.

This complex history is no proof that there are no prophets. It only increases the urgency of discerning the true from the false – and of asking what “truth” really means. And here we are come to the complex relation between democracy and truth: is the truth what the majority of people say it is? Or is the truth something that must be recognized and defended even against its denial by the majority?


Maritain’s thoughts provide no immediate solutions for our problems. Yet at a time when our society desperately needs an account of truth and truth-saying, the prophetic tradition stands as a reminder that democracy has moral resources drawing on wisdom far older than present circumstances.


Image courtesy FlickrCC user Randy OHC.

  1. Jacques Maritain, Man and the State (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 139.
  2. Maritain, Man and the State, 141.
  3. Maritain, Man and the State, 141.
  4. Maritain, Man and the State, 141.

Bill McCormick, SJ   /   All posts by Bill