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To reform church, embrace democracy

The following address, “Enhancing Democracy: the Key to Religious Reform,” was presented by author James Carroll Nov. 2 at the annual Call to Action conference in Milwaukee. The speech was adapted from his recently published book, Toward A New Catholic Church: The Promise of Reform.


In the last 13 months, we Americans have discovered with something approaching astonishment the wild diversity of religious and spiritual impulses that has come to mark not only the planet, but our own nation. “Today,” as the great Catholic theologian Karl Rahner put it, “everyone is the next-door neighbor and spiritual neighbor of everyone else in the world.” And the organizers of this conference have wisely recognized that in choosing our theme, for as Rahner argues, even from within Catholicism, this new circumstance means the assumptions of every religion must now be the subject of reexamination.

Here is a fuller version of Rahner’s statement; “The West is no longer shut up in itself,” he wrote. “It can no longer regard itself simply as the center of the history of this world and as the center of culture, with a religion that … could appear as the obvious and indeed sole way of honoring God. … Today everybody is the next-door neighbor and spiritual neighbor of everyone else in the world … which puts the absolute claim of our own Christian faith into question.”

Ideological and religious elbow rubbing is a global phenomenon, but it occurs in United States as nowhere else. A nation that welcomes an unending stream of immigrants, with their plethora of faiths and traditions, America implicitly sponsors this reexamination, as religiously diverse peoples encounter each other in the mundane “neighborhoods” of work, school and living. The testing of assumptions that inevitably follows is one of the reasons America is suspect in the eyes of rigidly traditional societies.

To ask the question, as this gathering does, “Who is my neighbor?” is implicitly to seek ways of honoring that neighbor by honoring her or his self-understanding and separate integrity, which means honoring her or his beliefs. But the gifts of diversity, as the conference title suggests, bring challenges, too. That is especially true for those of us of the Roman Catholic tradition in which diversity has so often been defined as heresy, pluralism as a denial of the oneness, holiness and even catholicity of the church.

The Call to Action theme was chosen, I suspect, with a feel for the fact that diversity and pluralism -- the presence of neighbors who do not believe as we do -- represent a profound challenge to contemporary Catholicism -- not just to the hierarchy, but to all of us who find a home in this community. Here is the problem, laid bare this year in ways it may never have been before: It is impossible to reconcile a rejection of pluralism with an authentic commitment to democracy, and a Catholic devotion to the eradication of pluralism remains dangerous. Internal church policies have relevance here because the use of anathemas, bannings and excommunications to enforce a rigidly controlled intellectual discipline in the church reveals an institution that has yet to come to terms with basic ideas like freedom of conscience and the dialectical nature of rational inquiry.

What is it that we Americans, for all our criticism of our country, most love about it? Obviously, the precious idea of consitutional democracy, which, since 1989, has taken a firm hold on the worldwide human imagination. But the very idea of constitutional democracy begins with the insight that government exists to protect the interior freedom of citizens to be different from one another, and to cling, if they choose, to opposite notions of the truth. The political implementation of this insight requires a separation of church and state, since the state’s purpose is to shield the citizen’s conscience from impositions by any religious entity. And, of course, it tells us everything that this political insight was spawned, in the 16th and 17th centuries, by religious conflicts.

As the forces of “secular enlightenment” targeted religion itself as the source of conflict, the Catholic church understandably came vigorously to the defense of religion. Alas, the absolutism of the ensuing argument corrupted truth on both sides. The church, for example, repudiated the violence of the Inquisition, but it continued to hold to the ideas that had produced it. In the 19th century, a panic-stricken Vatican launched a sequence of condemnations -- socialism, communism, rationalism, pantheism, subjectivism, modernism, even “Americanism” -- all adding up to a resolute denunciation of everything we mean by democracy.

From the standpoint of the hill overlooking the Tiber, all of this was simply an effort to defend the key idea that the worlds of science, culture, politics and secular learning were apparently conspiring to attack -- the idea that there is one objective and absolute truth, and that its custodian is the Catholic church.

The church’s rigidity during that period of conflict was central to what Pope John Paul II apologized for in his momentous declaration of March 2000. That apology was the beginning of a process, not the completion of one, because, while John Paul II confessed the sin of “the use of violence that some have resorted to in the service of truth,” the apology did not confront the implications of that still maintained idea of truth. Universalist claims for Jesus as the embodiment of the one objective and absolute truth, launched from the battlement-like pulpits of basilicas, have landed explosively in the streets for centuries.

Nothing demonstrates the links joining philosophical assumptions, esoteric theology, and political conflict better than the claims we Catholics have made for Jesus -- claims that have often led to terrible violence against, yes, our neighbors. The violence of the heresy hunts of the fourth and fifth centuries is tied to that story, and so, at its other end, is the violence of Europe’s imperialist colonizers who, even into the 20th century, felt free to decimate native populations -- “poor devils” -- because they were heathens. Hanging from the line joining those two posts, in addition to the Inquisition, are the religious wars waged in the name of Jesus, not only against heathens and Jews, but against other Christians who believed, but wrongly.

‘What is truth?’

Underlying all this is a question that the Catholic reform movement must confront, a question the answer to which shapes attitudes toward democracy, a question the answer to which has profound relevance to the church’s past and future relations with Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, animists and atheists -- the church’s relationship not only to “neighbors” but to its own members: people like us. It is a question the answer to which shapes the meaning of the church’s self-understanding as, in Rahner’s phrase, the “absolute religion.” It is the question that was put most famously by Pontius Pilate, in the Pilate-exonerating Gospel of John. This was an instant before Pilate told the Jews that Jesus was innocent, preparing the ground for Judaism’s permanent blood guilt. “Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice,” Jesus had just told Pilate. To which the Roman replied, “What is truth?”

Latin philosophy had long answered that question by appealing to an objective and external order. As you know, the various traditions claiming Plato and Aristotle as patrons had given shape to Christian theologies. The dualism of Christian Platonism posited a divide between nature and grace, with grace the realm of truth approachable only through faith. The more rationalistic tradition of Thomas Aquinas affirmed the compatibility of nature and grace, the knowability of God through reason. But in asserting the absolute character of truth, Thomas took note of the problem that occurs when a contingent, nature-bound creature attempts to perceive it. Truth, he said, is perceived in the mode of the perceiver. Human perception can take in the absolute truth, but not absolutely. Thus Thomas makes a modest claim for human knowing, with room for ambiguity -- which means room for diverse claims made in the name of truth. Alas, this aspect of Thomas Aquinas’s subtlety would be lost in the rigidities of the Catholic response to the Reformation.

Indulge me for a moment here with a little history of philosophy. The question can seem esoteric, but it is crucial to what we are doing here, and we must take each other seriously at this level of intellectual inquiry if we want to carry the argument in the church. You recall that René Descartes’s Discourse on Method (1637) asserted that truth can be arrived at only on the basis of what is immediately self-evident, which eliminates knowledge gained through the unreliable senses. Therefore it is impossible to really know the truth -- an impossibility that condemns the human mind to skepticism.

In the mantle of Thomas Aquinas

It is this skepticism that the Catholic scholastics of the 18th and 19th centuries went to war against, and though they wrapped themselves in the mantle of Thomas Aquinas, calling themselves Thomists, they narrowly defined truth as the unambiguous conformity of the mind to the objective truth, without any sense that ambiguity might be a property of that mind. Enlightenment science had adopted a mechanical view of the universe that eliminated God (Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra announced the death of God in 1883). Ironically, to defend God the Thomists assumed an equally mechanical view of the universe, with a gear-like correspondence between nature and grace, subject and object, mind and truth. Imprecision, ambiguity, paradox, doubt and mystery had as little place in the mind of a Catholic scholastic as in the mind of a catalogue-obsessed 19th-century naturalist.

This Catholic view of truth meshed perfectly with, indeed required, the 19th-century view of Catholic authority, whose role was to guard against ambiguity -- which it could do, after 1870, infallibly. Once the church, in its hierarchy and in particular in the pope, had defined the objective truth, the duty of the Catholic was univocally to conform his or her mind to that truth.

But history has a way of challenging such ideas. The implications of Darwin’s theory of evolution outran its first adherents and soon frustrated the most compulsive cataloguer. Human knowing is as dynamic as the development of species is. The “absolute truth” can in no way evolve or change (God as the Unmoved Mover), but what if everything else does? Then, in 1918, Albert Einstein published Relativity: The Special and General Theory, suggesting that neither the ground on which one stands while thinking nor the time in which one pursues a thought to its conclusion is free of ambiguity, paradox, contradiction, movement -- relativity.

Suddenly thinkers had a new language, based in physical observation, with which to describe the fact that every perception occurs from a particular point of view and that not even the point of view is constant. Every person is a perceiving center, and every perception is different. Every person is a perceiving center, and every perception is different. There is no absolute conformity of the knowing subject to the known object. Therefore truth can be known only obliquely and, yes, subjectively.

Catholic theology spent much of the 20th century recovering from the defensive rigidities of Counter-Reformation scholasticism, but the recovery is not complete. The Catholic reform movement must retrieve for the church the deep-seated human intuition that mystery is at the core of existence, that truth is elusive, that, as Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, God is greater than religion. If mystery is at the core of religion, then ambiguity, paradox and even doubt are not enemies of faith, but aspects of it.

But how? Are we condemned to a mindless pluralism that is ready to equate the shallow with the profound, the stupid with the wise, the cruel with the kind? Does subjectivity condemn the person to the tyranny of the self? Does subjectivity condemn the community to, in the great contemporary Catholic theologian David Tracy’s phrase, “the void of sheer fascination at our pluralistic possibilities”? Fearing the answer to those questions had to be yes, the church set itself against democracy, and still openly regards pluralism with suspicion. But Tracy and others suggest that the antidote to the equivocation of modern skepticism is not the univocal mindset so firmly defended by Catholic authority today, but the “analogical imagination.” Instead of a dualistic universe, with nature and grace impossibly alienated, or conformed into the mold of one or the other, the analogical imagination posits a world in which every affirmation contains its own principle of self-criticism, if you will. Affirmation, therefore, does not close off further thought, as the Vatican would have it, but inevitably opens to the next thought. What does this mean? That even in our own thinking there is diversity and difference. Diversity and difference, therefore, are to be respected, not condemned. That is the gift and challenge of diversity.

Ferociously against democracy

Tracy explains the vivid connection between such a frame of mind and the respect we must have for a neighbor, even for a formerly hated other: “We understand one another, if at all, only through analogies. Each recognizes that any attempt to reduce the authentic otherness of another’s focus to one’s own with our common habits of domination only seems to destroy us all, only increases the leveling power of the all-too-common denominators making no one at home. Conflict is our actuality. Conversation is our hope.”

Conversation is our hope. In that simple statement lies the kernel of democracy, which is based not on diktat but on the interchange of mutuality. The clearest example of conversation as the sine qua non of democracy is the electoral process, in which candidates literally engage in conversation with the citizenry, opening themselves so that voters can judge them, but also changing their minds in response to interaction with the public. The proliferation of town meetings and debates in recent American political campaigns exemplifies this social equality and supports it.

There is a special tragedy in the fact that, for contingent historical reasons, the Catholic church set itself so ferociously against the coming of democracy -- tragic because Christianity began its life as a small gathering of Jews who were devoted to conversation. This was, of course, characteristically Jewish, since Judaism was a religion of the Book. Indeed, that was what made Judaism unique.

That the Book was at the center of this group’s identity meant that the group was never more itself than when reading and responding to texts, and while the rabbinical schools may have presided over such a process, all Jews participated in it, especially after the liturgical cult of sacrifice was lost when the Temple was destroyed. Gatherings around the Book became everything. Conversation became everything. The assumption among the followers of Jesus was that they were all endowed with the wisdom, insight, maturity, and holiness necessary to contribute to the pursuit of the truth of who Jesus had been to them.

The religious language for this assumption had it that all believers were endowed with the Holy Spirit, which was seen to reside in the church not through an ordained hierarchy but through all. That is why the apostolic writings are nothing if not manifestations of pluralism. Indeed, there are four gospels, not one. Each has its slant, and each slant, in this community, has its place. “That there is real diversity in the New Testament should be clear to any reader of the text,” David Tracy comments, and he goes on to note that the first Christians could admit the validity of positions not their own -- from the charismatics to the apocalyptics to the zealots to the prophets.

A diversity of images

There is even a diversity of images that disclose the meaning of Jesus’ life, with some giving emphasis to the ministry, some to the death, some to the symbolic assault on the Temple, some to the expected return. There are those who emphasize bringing the gospel to the gentiles and those who insist on the gospel’s place within the hope of Israel. And because the texts gather all of this, honor it, and declare it all sacred, nothing could be further from the mind of the early church than making its subjects conform to a narrowly defined “objective truth.” The Spirit was seen to be living in all, and the truth, for all, remained shrouded in mystery.

It would be anachronistic, of course, to read this as evidence of an early church polity that was what we would call democracy. That does not mean, however, that democracy, by taking each member of the community as of ultimate worth, equal to every other, is not a fulfillment of the biblical vision that attributes just such valuing of each person to God. Isaac Hecker, the American who founded the Paulist Fathers, the religious order to which I was privileged to belong, argued that America and Catholicism were inherently compatible because of this. Roger Haight gave a magnificent expression of this insight in the first session here this morning. To Hecker, the equal rights of citizenship was a secular expression of the religious “indwelling of the Spirit” in each person.

When this idea was brought to Europe at the end of the 19th century, Leo XIII condemned it as the heresy “Americanism.” In particular, the pope denounced the idea “that certain liberties ought to be introduced into the church so that, limiting the exercise and vigilance of its powers, each one of the faithful may act more freely in pursuance of his own natural bent and capacity.” The anathemas were nearly pronounced over Hecker himself. My own life as a 20th-century Catholic, in dissent from a 19th-century Catholicism, began with my falling under Hecker’s spell. The Catholic church should rescind the condemnation of “Americanism,” acknowledging that the “pursuit of happiness” assumes the “pursuance” of one’s natural bent and capacity, and that nothing better defines the purpose for which our Creator made us.

So the answer to Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” matters. If truth is the exclusive province of authority, then the duty of the people is to conform to it. That answer to the question fits with the politics of a command society, whether a monarchy, a dictatorship or the present Catholic church. But if truth is, by definition, available to human beings only in partial ways; if we know more by analogies than syllogisms; if, that is, we “see in a mirror dimly,” then the responsibility of the people is to bring one’s own experience and one’s own thought to the place where the community has its conversations, to offer and accept criticism, to honor the positions of others, and to respect oneself, not in isolation but in this creative mutuality. The mutuality, in this community, has a name -- the Holy Spirit.

The implication here is that truth is not the highest value for us, because, in St. Paul’s phrase, “our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect.” Which is why the final revelation of Jesus is not about knowing but about loving. This, too, places him firmly in the tradition of Israel, which has always given primacy to right action. “Beloved,” the author of the First Epistle of John wrote, “let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love.”

This statement of a biblical faith in the ultimate meaning of existence as love is a classic affirmation of what one might call the pluralistic principle: Respect for the radically other begins with God’s respect for the world, which is radically other from God. In other words, God is the first pluralist. “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent God’s only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us and sent God’s Son to be the expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and God’s love is perfected in us.”

Religious pluralism begins with this acknowledgment of the universal impossibility of direct knowledge of God. The immediate consequence of this universal ignorance is that we should regard each other respectfully and lovingly. But our clear statement of Christian openness to the other is its own revelation. The epistle just cited is attributed to John, the author of the fourth gospel. The epistle was written, apparently, about the same time as the gospel, around the turn of the first century. It was addressed to Christian communities that were ridden with the disputes that had come after the destruction of the Temple and with the first serious conflict between what was becoming known as the church and the synagogue. This plea, whatever else it referred to, concerned the tragedy then beginning to unfold -- it is John whose gospel demonizes “the Jews” above all.

Language of love and justice

And the tragedy is underscored by the fact that in this same letter John, as if understanding already what is at stake in the conflict, begs his readers to “not be like Cain who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous.” The tragedy, and the sin, and what must forever warn us off cheap talk of love, is that all too soon, and all too easily, the followers of Jesus were content to read these words and identify Cain with Jews.

That sin, embedded in the gospel itself, is proof of why the church needs democracy, for the assumption of democratic politics, in addition to the assumption that all citizens can contribute to the truth-seeking conversation, is that all citizens are constitutionally incapable of consistent truth-seeking and steadfast loving. God may be love, but the polis isn’t, and neither is the church. So we come full circle and recall that the language of love is often used by those in power, while the language of justice is used by those who suffer from the abuse of power. The language of love is not enough. Because the language of love does not protect us from our failures to love; only the language of justice does that.

Democracy assumes that a clear-headed assessment of the flaws of members extends to everyone. But even the leaders of democracies, especially in the United States, salt their speeches with Christian chauvinism or an excluding religiosity, assuming that a democratic polity could be called univocal -- no voices, that is, for religious minorities or those of no religion. And that, finally, is why a democracy assumes that everyone must be protected from the unchecked, uncriticized and unregulated power of every other, including the well-meaning leader. The universal experience of imperfection, finitude and self-centeredness is the pessimistic ground of democratic hope. The church’s own experience -- its grievous sin in relation to the Jews, for example, its long tradition of denigrating women, and, lately, the inability of clerical leaders to dismantle an autocratic structure that enabled priestly child abuse -- proves how desperately in need of democratic reform the Catholic church is.

Restore broken authority

The Catholic reform movement, represented at its best by Call To Action, must therefore turn the church away from autocracy and toward democracy, as the Catholic people have in fact already begun to do. The explosion of grassroots participation by laypeople in the project of changing the church is the first step on the new road. Call to Action, simply by already being here, has been a crucial model for Voice of the Faithful. That Voice of the Faithful is self-consciously “moderate” in comparison to Call to Action is good, for a main function of a more liberal movement for change is precisely to empower the moderate effort. Together we bring about change, and together we keep the faith.

The Catholic reform movement, however identified, must solidify this impulse and restore the broken authority of the church by locating authority in the place where it belongs, which is with the people through whom the Spirit breathes. In this way, the Roman Catholic church must affirm that democracy itself is the latest gift from a God who operates in history, and the only way for the church to affirm democracy is by embracing it. The old dispute between popes and kings over who appoints bishops was resolved in favor of the pope, but bishops now should be chosen by the people they serve.

The clerical caste, a vestige of the medieval court, should be eliminated. The Catholic reform movement must establish equal rights for women in every sphere. A system of checks and balances, true due process, legislative norms designed to assure equality for all instead of superiority for some, freedom of expression, and above all freedom of conscience must be established within the church -- not because the time of liberalism has arrived, but because the long and sorry story of church hatred of Jews, church triumphalism in relation to other religions, church rigidity in relation to dissent from within, and the fresh outrage of child rape all lay bare the structures of oppression that must be dismantled once and for all.

If Russia can do it; if East Germany can do it; if Poland can do it; if Czechoslovakia can do it; if South Africa can do it -- so can the Roman Catholic church. Democracy is the key to religious reform. You are the Lech Walesas of Catholicism; the Vaclav Havels, the Nelson Mandelas, the Corazon Aquinos. You are the prophets of democracy. You are the salt of the earth, the yeast of the bread, the hope of the church. Which is why I salute you, and why I thank you.

James Carroll concludes his best-selling 2001 book, Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, with a 50-page Call for Vatican III. Carroll, a former Paulist priest, is the author of nine novels. His memoir, An American Requiem: God, My Father and the War That Came Between Us.

National Catholic Reporter, November 15, 2002