US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Where the vertical meets the horizontal

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We're a both/and church, says Ken Trainor.

By guest blogger Ken Trainor

Is the church a democracy or an autocracy?

Is the glass half full or half empty?

The answers aren’t so obvious. Whether the glass is half full or half empty, we’re often told, depends on your point of view. Are you an optimist or a pessimist?

But it’s a trick question. The glass is obviously half full and half empty. The real answer is: It’s both. But that doesn’t satisfy most people. They want it one way or the other. They’re not comfortable with the tension of two-sidedness.

“The church is not a democracy,” we’re often told by champions of “vertical,” top-down, hierarchical Catholicism. It’s their trump card, played whenever they hope to stifle further discussion with “horizontal” church-as-the-People-of-God Catholics.

It seldom works.

Verticalists tell us what the church is not, but they don’t say what the church is: An absolute monarchy? An autocracy? An oligarchy (if you include the curia)? None of these sound quite so appealing. Everyone knows absolute power corrupts absolutely, right? A quick tour of church history offers more than a few vivid examples.

Go back further in your history tour, and you’ll discover the early church was, indeed, a democracy--decentralized, collegial, horizontal. The vertical came later. Conservatives act as if the first 300 years of Christianity didn’t count. Talk about discontinuity!

The genius of American democracy is its system of checks and balances. Does the Catholic Church have a similar system? In effect, it does. Vatican II didn’t create those checks and balances. It merely reminded everyone they already existed. Vatican II didn’t invent collegiality and primacy of conscience. They’ve been around since the beginning.

Collegiality, if it’s ever properly institutionalized and implemented, prevents the Pope and the curia from reverting to the kind of isolation that inevitably weakens the church. True collegiality is a system of feedback and input that strengthens--not weakens--church authority. And an empowered laity, speaking from informed consciences, keeps the Pope and the curia from overstepping their authority.

That’s how it’s supposed to work anyway. That’s not how it works currently. The vertical church was so freaked out by the horizontal resurgence at Vatican II that they’ve spent the last 46 years reinforcing centralized authority. The forces of progress and reform in the Church were not half so distraught over Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae in 1968 as hierarchical authority was by the reaction to it. Disagreement? Dissent? Disobedience? That’s … democratic!

Above all, the vertical church fears that dissent will undermine the Pope’s authority. They blame Vatican II for unleashing forces they think could destroy the church.

Since the vast majority of Catholics ignore the ban on birth control, we know the horizontal church is alive, if not well. The vertical church keeps trying to smother it, but it will not be smothered. The John XXIII church and the John Paul II church coexist, though not peacefully.

The cross, our symbol, contains a vertical element and a horizontal element. When those two elements meet and connect, the church is in balance and healthy. When one or the other is too strong, there is conflict and the church suffers.

After Vatican II, the vertical church feared the horizontal church would become too strong. They overreacted, and as a result, we’re back to being excessively vertical. The pedophilia cover-up demonstrated all too clearly how an overly centralized authority actually weakens the church. Without the input of the “lowerarchy,” the hierarchy made bad decisions that, to say the least, did not come from the Holy Spirit.

The church works best when the vertical and the horizontal are integrated. That happened only once--during Vatican II. The results were awe-inspiring.

The blueprint is there. All we need to do is embrace it.

Is the church a democracy or an autocracy?

The answer is: It’s both. We need both. The vertical and the horizontal balance and keep one another in check.

It is our cross to bear.

By Ken Trainor, a practicing, progressive Catholic, who was 10 years old when Vatican II began. For the past 20 years, he has been a reporter, editor and weekly columnist for Wednesday Journal, a newspaper in Oak Park. You can find his column at He is currently writing a book on Vatican II.