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The holiness of democracy


Did somebody say democracy? Other than to utter the automatic response that the Catholic church isn’t one?

Begging to differ, evidence is mounting that lots of Catholics today are uttering the word, even in good company. They are thinking, speaking, writing and publishing ideas about the democratization of the church. They are exploring the idea that democracy conforms much more closely to Jesus’ own discipleship of equals; that it serves the modern mind, which has become accustomed for decades in the West to participating in society. They are saying that it would have prevented the worst excesses of today’s sex abuse behaviors by clergy and cover-up by unaccountable bishops.

Can anyone imagine, asks one Catholic newspaper, a diocesan decision-making board that included women and had responsibility for money, ever approving secret payments to priest offenders to defend themselves in court, as happened recently in an Ontario diocese, or to authorizing payouts to victims in exchange for their silence?

Scholars and theologians, teenagers and prayer group members, feminists and lawyers, the fellow in the corner store, all are talking about deep reforms in structure and governance in the Catholic church.

Winston Churchill famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.” It’s past time the leaders of the church acknowledge and welcome this reality and begin moving to implement, even if it takes decades, a democratic form of governance in this church of ours.

If it can be dreamed, it can be done. The people of God want a commitment, a timeline, the introduction of forms of real inclusion and influence. Acute critics of the present form of church governance, like Harvard’s Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, put it bluntly. To the Vatican delegation at the United Nations in 1995, she wrote, “If your delegation represents the Vatican state, an antiquated and decorative monarchy in Italy, you are entitled to your quaint worldview on motherhood and women’s complementarity. But you do not dare to speak for Catholic women worldwide, and your legitimacy must be challenged. We have neither elected nor commissioned you to represent us.”

James Carroll’s new book, Toward a New Catholic Church, celebrates the “holiness of democracy.” “All who exist participate in the existence of God,” he writes, quoting Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia who said in 1990, “Democratic traditions slumber in the subconscious of all nations.”

Democracy is a value of the highest order. Christians believe that the Holy Spirit resides in the church through all of us, not just through the hierarchy. Thus, not to use this lived wisdom in more inclusive ways is damaging to the church and an affront to the justice it claims to embody. The institution has been and continues to be rife with examples of imperious pastors operating on whim and arbitrarily overriding consensual decisions.

And just when we thought things were improving, we find the John Paul II brigade of new ordinands coming over the horizon with their anti-democratic notions of church. Let us be clear about this: Authority belongs with the people through which the Spirit breathes.

The Catholic church has had a genius for emulating the form of government in which it has found itself: in the monarchical, the feudal, and now the democratic ages. It is running behind the current age and must move forward with vigor and good faith.

As James Carroll suggests, “Bishops now should be chosen by the people they serve. The clerical caste, a vestige of the medieval court, should be eliminated. Vatican III should establish equal rights for women in every sphere. The church must institute a system of checks and balances, due process, legislative norms designed for equality for all.” The freedom and dignity of the friends of God are best served by such a form of our living together.

Ted Schmidt and Rosemary Ganley are editors of Catholic New Times, a biweekly national Catholic newspaper in Canada.

National Catholic Reporter, November 08, 2002