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Issue Date:  May 27, 2005

Promoting democracy in the church

By withholding donations, Catholics can press for change


The infatuation with the pageantry surrounding the election of Pope Benedict XVI obscured the most troubling features of the mechanism by which the church selects its leaders. There was something incongruous about world leaders, who claim to be committed to spreading democracy, paying homage to Europe’s last absolute monarch. The desperate need to foster democratic values within the church was underlined a few weeks ago when Fr. Thomas J. Reese was forced out of his position as editor of America magazine by the very man elected as pope, apparently because of the magazine’s willingness to provide a forum for debates over controversial church positions.

In his 1991 encyclical celebrating the collapse of communism, John Paul II praised the connection between democratic values and human dignity. But despite the myriad benefits it acknowledges in participatory democratic processes, the church has done little to foster popular participation in its own decision-making. Nowhere was this more transparent than in the selection of Benedict XVI, a closed proceeding of insiders that would have made any politburo proud.

In the church today, from the humblest parishes to the gilded halls of the Vatican, ordinary Catholics are involved in policy decisions, if at all, at the sufferance of the clergy and hierarchy. The problem is exacerbated by the exclusion of women and married people from leadership roles in the church. Whatever the arguments on behalf of a celibate and male clergy, nothing prevents such modest reforms as the selection of women and married Catholics for nonclerical leadership positions within the church. Canon law has in the past allowed lay Catholics to serve as cardinals. Why, then, have no women or married Catholics been appointed to serve as cardinals or to participate in the conclaves that select the pope? While people of all political stripes around the world reject the exclusion of women from the political process in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the church’s exclusion of women from its own political processes largely escapes public criticism.

I suspect that many Catholics, even progressives, are uncomfortable with the idea of popular participation. There is a concern that an openly democratic process would lend itself to the sort of degradation of discourse that has plagued secular politics. In addition, many Catholics think that church decision-making should be above politics. Issues as transcendent as those addressed by the church, the argument goes, should be beyond crass appeals to majority sentiment. Finally, many Catholics insist on some means of separating the informed and committed from casual participants with little at stake. Limiting decision-making to the clergy sidesteps many of these pitfalls, but largely by giving up any aspiration toward meaningful involvement by ordinary Catholics.

Strangely, these arguments against greater lay participation in church governance are all equally compelling when arrayed against democratic participation in the secular sphere. Yet, when considering them in that context, we come to terms with democracy’s shortcomings while remaining committed to the fairness of democratic institutions. Perhaps this is because, despite all of its many problems, democracy has virtues that simply cannot be replicated by authoritarian structures. So we must continue to ask why Catholics do not insist more forcefully on democratic reform within the church, especially at this moment when its utter lack of democracy, from the election of Benedict XVI to the departure of Fr. Reese, is on such public display.

How might democratic change come about? There is a mechanism that Catholics are learning how to use quite effectively, to the growing discomfort of the hierarchy. Strategic and coordinated manipulation of monetary donations can be a powerful tool for popular participation in church governance. A recent example illustrates my point.

In Puyallup, Wash., Holy Disciples Parish was recently having problems with its new pastor. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the complaints from parishioners fell on deaf ears in the archbishop’s office. Upset by the lack of a response, a group of parishioners resolved to withhold their weekly donations until the church took their complaints more seriously. They began depositing their weekly donations into an escrow account. The sudden disappearance of funds got the attention of the archbishop, and the pastor was quickly replaced.

Withholding donations to influence church policy is an obviously flawed mechanism for reform, particularly outside of the First World. It has the tendency to favor the points of view of Catholics who are in a position to give money. But this may already be the case. The wealthy have no need to organize. Their individual donations are often large enough that their concerns capture the attention of the hierarchy. Coordination on the part of working- and middle-class Catholics, despite its shortcomings, would therefore represent a dramatic expansion of the “franchise.” The rise of the Internet, with its potential for facilitating collective action, and the growth of lay reform groups, like Voice of the Faithful, represent a watershed moment in which a democratic opening, however limited, seems possible. It is precisely the threat posed by such collective lay action that has led many bishops to react with extreme hostility to Voice of the Faithful and similar lay organizations.

Political theorists often speak of individuals influencing the conduct of organizations through strategies of “exit” and “voice.” Exit means expressing dissent by leaving. Voice refers to the multitude of ways members influence the behavior of their groups from within. For too long, dissenting Catholics have been limited to “voting with their feet.” The strategic coordination of weekly donations is a promising tool by which lay people can immediately expand their voice within the church.

Eduardo M. Peñalver is an associate professor of law at Fordham Law School, where he teaches Catholic social thought and the law. His writing on religion has appeared in the Yale Law Journal, America magazine and the Chicago Tribune.

National Catholic Reporter, May 27, 2005

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