US Catholic Faith in Real Life

All in favor?

By Bryan Cones | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
There’s more democracy in the church than you might think.

If there’s anything that will turn you off democracy, it has to be a U.S. presidential election. From obnoxious robo-calls to venomous attack ads to an inbox full of e-mails begging for just $25 more—it’s enough to make one long for a benevolent dictatorship. Too bad benevolent dictators are so hard to come by.

In fact our American style of democracy is often invoked against moves toward a more democratic church. Political parties in parishes? Elections to choose bishops? Imagine the attack ads, the pandering! No, thank you. “The church is not a democracy,” the old saw goes, and we all nod our heads.

The church, especially as organized now, is no democracy, at least not in the modern, representative sense. But in many ways the church has been democratic from its foundation. Heck, Christians have to be counted among ancient democracy’s preservers and pioneers.

Consider the Acts of the Apostles: When seeking a replacement for Judas, Peter didn’t just pick his favorite spare disciple. Instead, he “stood up among the believers” and asked them who should take Judas’ place (Acts 1:15). Those 120 or so Christians chose two of their number and cast lots to determine that Matthias would join the Twelve. Five chapters later the apostles charge the community with choosing seven deacons, who, when presented, are confirmed by the apostles without question.

In Acts 15, you find the “council of Jerusalem,” when the “apostles and elders” gathered to decide how Gentiles became Christian. This set the precedent for church councils that have guided God’s people through the centuries. Those very councils resolved doctrinal issues such as the nature of the Trinity and the humanity and divinity of Christ by actually voting on them, if you can believe it. Many of those councils included at least one layperson (the emperor) and sometimes more.

This democratic impulse keeps popping up throughout church history. Ancient bishops were chosen in a variety of democratic ways, generally with the consent of the whole people. Ancient monasteries were direct democracies, with leaders chosen by vote of the members, a practice that continues today in most religious communities. Even the pope is still chosen through a democratic process, though the franchise is restricted to a very small group of men.

And there’s the rub: It’s not that democracy is somehow alien to Catholicism, it’s just that suffrage has been narrowed so profoundly that it hardly merits mention. Today bishops vote in synods and conferences; religious vote in their chapter gatherings; parish priests may vote on diocesan councils; and, according to canon law, at least three laypeople must have a vote on a diocesan finance council. The vast majority of the baptized, however, have practically no forum. As a rule, we remain content with nonbinding “consultation,” with the bishops or the pope choosing whom to consult.

There are, however, remedies to this situation that don’t require anything as radical as an Ecclesial House of Representatives. This month the world’s bishops are meeting in a synod to discuss “the Word of God in the life and mission of the church”; there’s no reason why a similar group of qualified priests, theologians, and laypeople could not assemble with them to produce a separate or even joint document.

Such a gathering might also spend its time on more pressing topics, such as how to provide the sacraments to the baptized with a dwindling number of clergy. That would require, of course, investing the nonmitered heads with some authority of their own.

But any change in behavior will have to accompany a change in mindset: The church may not yet (or ever) be “a democracy,” but it is no more a monarchy or an oligarchy, despite appearances to the contrary. We will have to get over the fear that the truth of the gospel or the survival of the church will somehow be in danger if we begin hearing more voices at diocesan synods or councils of bishops or even in the hallowed halls of the Roman curia.

The Second Vatican Council spoke confidently of the “entire people’s supernatural sense of the faith,” acknowledging that the Spirit speaks with authority in all the baptized. Given some effort and imagination, who knows how we might learn to let the Spirit speak in “the entire people” about the church and our common mission?