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The democracy of the dead is one of G.K. Chesterton’s mpst famous sayings. In the podcast above I share a few ideas about the role of tradition and why the democracy of the dead is such an important idea.


Well hi there – Jonathan Doyle with you and a real pleasure to have you listening – don’t know where you are – you could be anywhere in the world, but the privilege of your time is something I really appreciate.

So I wanted to share this quick podcast with you, or you may be reading the transcript, but either way, what I wanted to share here I think is really important.

In the last decade I’ve had the privilege of working all round the world, in Catholic education, working with Bishops, diocese, working with hundreds of thousands of Catholic young people, and I was reading something today that I really wanted to share; it was very powerful.  I was at Adoration, I was reading before the Blessed Sacrament and I read something pretty amazing from somebody that you’ll probably be familiar with, and that is Thomas Merton.

Now, if you’re not familiar, Thomas Merton wrote in fact a New York Times bestseller.   Now, that’s not so remarkable – I mean it’s remarkable in one sense, ‘cos we don’t all get to do that – but it was quite remarkable in the fact that he was a Trappist monk – he was a…you know had a full vow of silence, was living quite an austere life, and he wrote a very famous sort of spiritual biography called The Seven Storey Mountain and sort of through the ‘60s and into the ‘70s he became really quite an influential writer, and a little controversial perhaps towards the end of his career, but really said some quite profound things.

And reading him today I had the sense that, you know, you’re really reading somebody who is quite an extraordinary author.  So there I was today reading along and he said something that really resonated with me.  And I think it really goes to the heart of a big sort of battleground in Catholic education, and it’s the whole battleground of tradition, versus I guess modernity.  And when we hear the word ‘tradition’ in Catholic education we…depending on where you fall on the spectrum, it can have many connotations for you.  You know, tradition can be a really positive thing for you, or it may not be.  But I really think it’s a word that has been innovated, you know which means it’s been ripped of a lot of its power and the connotations can often seem quite negative.  Whereas in my own life and spiritual journey tradition has been an incredibly powerful, beneficial, quite wonderful aspect of my journey in the Catholic faith.

Uninterrupted Vitality

So I want to read to you what Merton had to say, and then I’m going to read you another quote about tradition which is even more powerful.  It’s simply says this…Merton said:

democracy of the dead

Thomas Merton

So I hope you can scan down to the transcript, or you may be reading it, and just, you know have a…just maybe print those words out:

‘Tradition is not passive submission to the obsessions of former generations, but a living ascent to a current of uninterrupted vitality.  What was once real in other times and places becomes real in us today.”

You know one of the things that I love most about my Catholic faith is this sense of continuity and connectedness to the millions upon millions of amazing Catholic men and women that have gone before me and the beauty of The Liturgy.  I mean I was in London a week ago for 10 days and I stayed at this incredible Parish and I spent a lot of time travelling around to the Cathedrals, and just the beauty of this architecture and the beauty of the Liturgy and singing the Divine Office, and so much of this was profoundly really moving on that aesthetic, transcendental level.

So you know, it’s a culture that doesn’t quite know what to do with tradition. I mean modernity and post-modernity tend to flatten out our cultures and they level everything to a kind of lowest common denominator.  And one of the things I speak about in a lot of my podcasts is you know the…the awful nature of much of our sort of public cultural artistic expression.  I mean look at our mainstream reality TV, a lot of our art…I mean our art is all about being reactionary or offensive.  I mean it seems that somehow we have this idea that if you’re going to be an artist your job is to be edgy and to push boundaries and to challenge.  I mean where do we get that idea from?   I mean it’s just iconoclasm, it’s just, you know ripping things apart.  I mean Michelangelo didn’t sort of sit around going how can I confront people?’  You know how can I, you know, make people uneasy?  I mean the great art of history was almost always tied into the Divine; a sense of beauty and how can I reflect the beauty of the Divine into the world?

So tradition for me has been a really positive thing and I think at this moment in history it’s really worth looking deep into our tradition, seeing what’s best of it and really living it and enjoying it again.  Now hear me right, I’m not sort of saying it’s a massive charge back into some retrograde past that never existed, and I really recommend George Weigel’s book, you know Evangelical Catholicism; it’s a really powerful book because he says that both liberal and conservative, or traditional Catholicism, are both gonna disappear and the new Catholicism coming through is very Evangelical but it’s also tied into the best of the tradition: the beauty of the Liturgy, the beauty of truth, beauty and goodness, you know the Wisdom of the Saints, the teachings, the magisterium – the best of that taking us forward in a new evangelisation.  So what I wanted to do was give you another quote here from Chesterton.  And er, if you’re Catholic and you haven’t read much Chesterton then you’re gonna have to really put that down on your bucket-list because Chesterton had that extraordinary gift of making obscure theological points incredibly accessible.  So I want to share something with you Chesterton wrote beautifully on what he called ‘the democracy of the dead’.  And it’s such a powerful idea: the democracy of the dead, and something I’ve shared in many seminars.  You know, isn’t it a powerful term? – you know ‘democracy of the dead’, it’s like, you know we seem to think that you know, those that have died really have no say in our lives anymore that the great sweep of history, the great thinkers … I mean we give them lip-service; we say oh yeah, they do…we care about what they think, but in general, how much you know do we realise that there is a great voice in the Church, speaking to us down through the centuries.

So here’s the words from Chesterton – they’re really powerful – I want you to listen to them.  He says:

‘Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes – our ancestors.  It is the democracy of the dead’.  And he goes on…’Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.  All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth.  Tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of their death.  Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion even if he is our groom.  Tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion even if he is our father.’ 

democracy of the dead

G.K. Chesterton


Now I hope you can read that in the transcript.  I’m going to set that out so it’s clear and you can find it easily.  But it’s so powerful.  It’s like, you know, we talk about democracy all the time, you know and we sort of say…we exclude people from our democracy if they’re dead – and look, of course, on one level – they can’t vote – but they can still communicate and their opinions and their lives and their deaths and all that they experienced – now I’m talking here in the Catholic tradition – still speak to us down through the ages.

So what I want you to do in this podcast is just be reflective.  Have an openness to the beauty of tradition.  I mean I am what I am.  You know I love the beauty of the Liturgy, the beauty of hearing Palestrina or hearing the Mass sung beautifully, or being in a beautiful church.  So this ‘democracy of the dead’ – you know you’re swept up in something so much bigger than yourself.  So much bigger than yourself.  And I think one of the reasons we’ve struggled with evangelisation – especially with young people –  is that we’ve tried to be modern all the time; we keep trying.  And I invented this saying: ‘we try to out-entertain the most entertained culture in history’.  We think if we can just be more amusing and more interesting then young people are gonna want to go to church.

Well perhaps it’s time to dig deep into the tradition, into the beauty of contemplation, stillness, silence.  Look at those deep roots of monasticism, that absolutely transformed the world.  I mean Benedictine Monasticism transformed world history, out of silence, out of ritual, out of routine, out of observing you know the deep things of God.  So, the tradition has so much to teach us.

So I’d love to know what you think.  Post a comment under the text here, or you know hit me up on Twitter or email me, and let me know what you think of this particular podcast on the democracy of the dead and the power of tradition.  I think if we’re gonna really evangelise, if we’re gonna grow either in the broader church in Catholic education, in our own spiritual lives, then we need to draw deep into these roots, ‘cos it’s a barren time in our cultural landscape but we’ve got very deep roots to draw from.

If you’d like me to come and speak with your staff or at a parish or at a diocese, then get in touch with me through the website here.

I’m Jonathan Doyle, it’s been really cool to share this message with you and I’ll speak with you again very soon.