"The Church Isn't A Democracy"-Meaning?

(From America, September 22, 1990, 157-59)

We have all heard the expression used at some time or other. Probably during recent

discussions of the new Vatican document concerning theological dissent, or perhaps on the occasion of a new appointment to the episcopacy. Sometimes it's uttered with a what-can-you-do sigh: "But I guess the church isn't a democracy...." Sometimes it's a peremptory finish to an argument: "Well, the church just isn't a democracy'."

The expression needs to be looked at. The possible assumptions behind it could be harmful to our health as achurch.

People use the expression in different contexts, of course, and in response to either an explicit or an implicit question. It is illuminating to examine some of them.

Episcopal Appointments

Since the expression is most frequently heard when a bishop's action has disturbed one or other group of Catholics, we might think first about our church's method of securing the bishops who will lead us. In this context "the church is not a democracy" is used to exclude a direct election by the people of a local church, or perhaps even to exclude any involvement by them in any stage of the process. In either instance it contains potential mischief.

Over the course of its history the church has employed a bewildering array of methods to "discover" (the most innocuous word one could use for such diversity) its bishops. Bishops have been elected by the clergy of the area; by cathedral chapters; imposed by emperors, or appointed by some bantam secular pretender whose closest brush with Christianity was an occasional whiff of incense and whose reason for his selection was to gain control of some Thuringian marsh. When Judas was gone and the disciples wanted to find a replacement for him in "the Twelve" --- the whole community pared the choice down to two worthy candidates and then drew lots for the position.

People who use the expression in the context of our methods for leadership selection in the church frequently forget that even the pope is elected by a one-man-one-vote procedure within the college of cardinals. And lest we forget, if you asked anyone in the fifth century the names of the cardinals they would not have been able to answer you --- not because they were ecclesiastical illiterates, but because the church had not invented cardinals just yet.

The Church's Freedom

The point is, of course, that history reveals that the church has changed its method for securing its leaders many times; indeed, that it can probably use any method for securing its leadership if it so chooses. On what basis does it select one or the other method? As far as one can judge from the historical record, the criterion seems to be the suitability of the method to the ethos of the times. That, translated, boils down to what was conducive to the peace of the community --- and that is, after all, one of the signs of the confirming presence of the Holy Spirit.

So "the church is not a democracy" can be used to pretend that we must settle for present methods of securing leadership because they are somehow divinely and immutably fixed. We must recognize that such a position is just that: a pretension, unfounded in the church's experience. The question is not: What has God ordained? But rather: What can human wisdom tell us about the best methods for this age of the growth of the Christian community in this particular area of culture? If the Holy Spirit can work through the casting of lots, should not we make the mystifiers demonstrate why it cannot be done through the wise consultation of the particular community to be led?

Church Governance and Administration

The expression is also used, of course, in conversations when there is no question of leadership selection but rather of church governance or administration in general. Could the church take a more democratic posture toward the ordering of its life --- and still be the church?

At a negative minimum, history would seem to indicate once again that the church enjoys a great freedom in the matter. Depending on the political ethos of the respective era, the church has modeled its governance on a variety of civil political systems. It has imitated not-so-holy Roman emperors, Byzantine suzerains, feudal lords, mystical charismatics, and medieval monarchs of various stripes. It has admitted the counsel of Rasputins and practised the Realpolitik of Richelieus. Some of its leaders have even attempted the impossible feat of non-political governance, as if the Holy Spirit somehow might effect human order without human intermediaries and allocations of power.

The church, simply because it is a human community, must employ some political structures. Human communities are composed of political animals. We need constantly to remind ourselves that the Christological heresy of monophysitism ("Jesus had only one, divine nature") is mirrored by its equally erroneous ecclesiological version ("the church is only divine"). The church throughout its history, because it has a human body, has employed a variety of political structures and then discarded them when they no longer served the purposes of the community. What people mean who use "the church isn't a democracy" in this context is probably: "I'm content with the way things are ordered now, and I don't want you to be disturbing my security by allowing your discontent to propose new approaches --- in which I might be asked to exercise more responsibility and bother."

An Ultimate Authority

On the other hand, when people say the church is not a democracy they may be saying something much more fundamental. They might just mean that there has to be someone in charge. There has to be authority in any ordered community. The buck (or the lira, ruble or zloty) has to stop somewhere. They will acknowledge that there is a political system at work in the church (which is an advance over the mystifiers), but they are afraid that "democracy" is going to be equivalent to, or a subterfuge for, anarchy.

What is intriguing in this instance is the evident schizophrenia at work. As acculturated Americans, such people would be quite comfortable with affirming that our civil government is democratic --- in the sense that there are structures for making its leaders at least minimally accountable to the people --- and that there still is someone in charge, someone with authority. Authority is quite real (think of your friendly I.R.S. agent) and generally accepted; it is just that it only comes into play been after it has earned through an electoral or legislative process. The buck stops for different accountabilities at various offices along the way before it lands --- or, until recently, used to --- at the Oval Office. Yet when these same people think of the church, they shift psyches, and any suggestion of democracy is interpreted as abandonment of all authority. The fact that the prevailing Catholic subculture has predisposed them not to imagine other possible avenues for their church need not mean that they must be forever ruled out. These possibilities involve some risks, to be sure, but is there anyone so naive as to suggest that the present approach involves none?

Changed Cultural Assumptions

The political model with which the Catholic Church has in recent centuries ordered its life was developed in eras when two major cultural assumptions were operative: Few people were educated, and the means of transmitting beliefs and questions were still quite primitive. In such a world one might make a case for strong monarchical rule --- not for the vested interest of the monarch but for the good of the people. But the assumptions of our times are quite different. And although our American civil practice is far from perfect, we are now over 200 years into the experiment, and it has gained more than a few imitators around the globe. Is it not possible to look for more democracy, in the sense of greater pastoral (or episcopal, or even papal) accountability to the people of God, without going so far as to espouse either mob rule, one-person-one-vote, or some congressional procedure for impeaching non-responsive pontiffs, bishops or pastors --- or even Directors of Religious Education?

Doctrinal Development

Perhaps, then, our church might entertain the possibility of espousing more democratic approaches to the selection of its leaders and the governance of the ecclesial community, and still be true to its heritage as Christ's body. Those are, after all, spheres of action. They don't (at least in the minds of some) have anything to do with the truth, with what we believe and how we come to believe it.

It is when issues of doctrine or "teaching" arise that "the church is not a democracy" begins to sound like a tocsin: To the barricades!

In this context the slogan is transformed into a weightier dictum: "We don't vote on the truth, the church is not a democracy."

What is going on here? Even to offer the possibility that the faithful might participate in the process by which God's Spirit helps the church discover new expressions of its belief in response to newly discovered questions is immediately met with the hobgoblin of "one-person-one-vote" in matters of church teaching. I know of no person, whether professional theologian or "simple believer," who ever proposed such a thing. It is a figure of straw, a scarecrow for imaginary birds.

Of course we do not vote on doctrinal matters. But that fact need not lead to the conclusion that an isolated magisterial document (whether episcopal or papal) can absolve itself of the responsibility of attending to God's Spirit speaking through the collective response (and questioning) of the faithful. As difficult as it may be to ascertain the precise weight of the sensus fidelium ("the sense of the faithful"), there is a long tradition that makes it a significant "font" for discovering the belief of the church. Its presence in our heritage commits the church to some form of democracy even in the search for its deepest faith commitments; to be true to itself it must ever strive to discover and implement processes offering the hope for making that ideal a reality. As imperfect as "listening sessions" may be, they move closer to the ideal than bishops sequestered with even the most competent theologians.

Doctrine and Commitment

I suspect that the real hesitancy about speaking of "democracy" in the same breath with "doctrinal development" is our gnostic fear of commitment, of human passion. Much of the debate about magisterial pronouncements and the levels of adherence they may or may not claim is based on some sort of rationally detached, mentalist understanding of doctrinal development. Whether the subject is a decree of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith or a manifesto of the German theological community or a censure of a particular theologian, there is little acknowledgment on any side that perhaps --- just perhaps --- anything but unbiased reason is at work, reaching different conclusions only through (the other party's) error in applying principles incorrectly. This is a chimera.

The search for shared commitment to beliefs for which the church could live or die is, and has always been, a messy process. It involves the mind and the spirit, the senses and intuition and passion. It is inevitably enmeshed with bias and projection, with loves and hates. It is often a drama of heroes and villains, and of little people not afraid to speak to either. It has been tarred with venality and arrogance and polished to a luster with holy audacity. Homoousios [a Greek term meaning "of the same substance," to indicate that Christ is of the same divine substance as the Father --- language adopted by the Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon to state the orthodox faith] was not generated in a theological hothouse. It is in and through the agency of this messy interplay of human, and therefore political, holy and sinful commitments that the Spirit leads the earthly body of the risen Lord to the truth that frees. To reduce the work of the Spirit to that of a mental censor is to caricature the God who delights in passionate creatures --- and respects them as free agents.

If it remains true that there are certain senses in which "the church is not a democracy" can be true, it is also true that the church is ever called to become more democratic. The Spirit inspiring the core of a pilgrim people's faith will be heard. We who share responsibility for fidelity to that Spirit must actively strive to create the human strategies and processes whereby that voice can be heeded.