The Church Is A Democracy

No real reform of the Catholic Church is possible - in areas of clergy sexual abuse or elsewhere - unless two false theological "truisms" are corrected. These falsehoods, perceived not only as "factual" but as "binding norms," are: "the Church is not a democracy" and the implied converse of that, "the Church is a monarchy, governed by papal and Episcopal monarchs."

Nothing is intelligible outside of its own history, said Teilhard de Chardin, and that holds true for this monarchical arthritis that paralyzes the contemporary Roman Catholic Church.

Democracy is not an alien, secular concept; in fact it has better biblical roots than do the claims of popes and diocesan bishops to privileged rights to teach and rule. Western democratic theory is in deep debt to the moral revolution of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. When the ancient Hebrews took the symbol of "the image of God," long used to shore up the monarchs, and declared it applied not just to pharaohs and kings but to all the people, the seeds of democracy, and even of our Bill of Rights, were sown.

When Jesus addressed governance, he said "You know that in the world the recognized rulers lord it over their subjects, and their great ones make their subjects feel the weight of authority. This is not to be the way with you. Whoever among you wants to be great must be servant; and whoever wants to be first must be the willing slave of all." (Mark 10:42-43) C.H.Dodd thinks that this thought on social organization was for Jesus "fundamental." It was the way government should function in any moral society.

Then whence the monarchical penchant of the Catholic Church? It starts with the papacy, which is the model then passed down to the similarly monarchical bishops in individual dioceses. (Interestingly, Pope Paul VI accurately perceived that the papacy so structured was the main obstacle to the ecumenical movement in our time. It is also, I would add, the main obstacle to church reform.)

There was no "pope" in the early church. The papacy as we now have it was not part of the original ecclesial communities. As church historian Walter Ullmann says, as late as the year 313 AD, "there was as yet no suggestion that the Roman church possessed any legal or constitutional preeminence." Pope Leo decided to change that. The papacy as we today know it is not Petrine (going back to Peter), but Leonine instead.

That Leo was Leo I, bishop in Rome from 440 to 461 AD, a Roman jurist who cast the Roman episcopate in terms borrowed directly from the Roman imperial court.. The one who was called summus pontifex (supreme pontiff), who held the fulness of monarchical power ("plenitudo potestatis") and "primacy" ("principatus") was the Roman Emperor himself. Leo I grabbed all this language and applied it to himself. As Ullmann says, "this papal plenitude of power was a thoroughly juridical notion, and could be understood only against the background of Roman Law.

This "lording-over" notion directly contradicted the Jesus text cited above on the proper nature of governance. As Ullmann notes, Leo I's claim was political. He was reacting against the power claims of the church in Constantinople. He and others in the church in Rome made no effort to base their new claims on the text in Mathew's gospel, "You are Peter, etc." That came later.

The moment stands out as a classic failure of 5th century theologians and church leaders to exercise its magisterial role of critic - especially as critic of those who would make unjust power claims within the Christian communities. There was a failure to recognize, as Leonard Swidler writes, that "the model of how to live an authentically human life that Jesus of the Gospels presents...is an egalitarian model," not a monarchical one.

The all-male claim to church governing power staked out in Catholic Canon Law has no sound biblical roots. As Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza writes, "While for apologetic reasons, the post-Pauline and post-Petrine writers seek to limit women's leadership roles in the Christian community to only those roles which are culturally and socially acceptable [at that time], the evangelists Mark and John highlight the alternative character of the Christian community, and therefore accord women apostolic and ministerial leadership."

Most Catholic theologians today are scandalously timid in re-imagining the new forms the church should be taking today. For at least a century after Jesus, the idea of a monarchical bishop in charge of a diocese was not the norm. There is room for courageous theological creativity in discussing church governance and leadership.

Our bishops have been demonstrating convincingly that they do not possess any special charism of leadership. Our hierarchy are theologically starved by their own choosing. Cardinal Avery Dulles in his presidential address to the Catholic Theological Society of America, aptly noted that the hierarchy "seem to evade in a calculated way the findings of modern [theological] scholarship." They speak "without broad consultation with the theological community. Instead, a few carefully selected theologians are asked to defend a pre-established position."

The early church knew its freedom in the Spirit and did not shy from helpful adaptation. The list of ministries in 1 Corinthians 12 changed. They knew there was no blueprint handed down from heaven. In the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 20, the term episcopos (which came to mean "bishop") and the term presbyter (which came to mean "priest") were used interchangeably.

In 1 Peter 2, the entire church is described as "priestly." Indeed the term "priest" is lubricious and still open to change and adaptation. As professor Sandra Schneiders writes, "Suffice it to say that there is wide consensus among reputable New Testament scholars that there were no Christian "priests" in New Testament times and therefore certainly none ordained or appointed by Jesus.

The priesthood does not emerge in the early church until the end of the 1st century at the earliest; even at that relatively late date, the evidence is scanty and unclear. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger put it so wisely some years ago, "The church is not the "petrification" of what once was, but its living presence in every age. The church's dimension is therefore the present and the future no less than the past." (The term "petrification" is so suggestive in this context..)

The Catholic Church today is wracked by world-wide scandals regarding sexual abuse by priests and bishops. Arbitrarily enforced celibacy is key to this, but not the main problem of the church. False hierarchical claims limply supported by a cowed laity and a timid theological magisterium - a term used by Thomas Aquinas - is the Catholic problem. Monarchy is a political anachronism. The papacy needs downgrading to ceremonial status (following the model, to take one of the more benign royal examples, of the Danish monarchy).

The Catholic laity are what the Italians call la chiesa pagante - the part of the church that pays the bills. That is power! They have to get over their sheep complex and assume their role as shepherds. Paul had some relevant advice regarding the spiritual democracy that the church should be: "In each of us the Spirit is manifested in a particular way for some useful purpose" (1 Corinthians 12:7). With those credentials in hand he would tell an infantilized church (patriarchy does that!): "Do not be childish, my friends...be grown up in your thinking" (1 Corinthians 14:20).

If the Roman Catholic Church is to revive, the recovery will be led not by the Leonine hierarchy, but by a mature laity and by competent theologians who brace their knowledge with courage, the virtue cited by Thomas Aquinas as being the "pre-condition" of all virtue.

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