A church I'd vote for

A survey of church history reveals a Catholic community that’s not only one, holy, and apostolic, but participative, too.

ON OCT. 28, 1414 POPE JOHN XXIII CAME RIDING ON A WHITE HORSE beneath a golden canopy into Constance, a town of several thousand on what is now the border between Germany and Switzerland. This was not the John XXIII everyone knows from Vatican II but the first John XXIII. His name was Balthazar Cosa, and he was attired in gold-encrusted Mass vestments. A long retinue of his cardinals and chancery officials came behind.

This pope had come to oversee an ecumenical council that aimed to end a 36-year schism during which two competing lines of popes had claimed the See of Peter. Just five years before, an attempt to solve the problem failed miserably, resulting in not only two but three competing papal lines, one basedin Rome, one in Avignon, France, and one in Pisa, Italy. This three-pope fiasco, perhaps the most scandalous situation to hit the church up to that time, threatened to tear Christendom apart permanently. Few had confidence that John XXIII (the Pisa pope) was the man to solve the problem; it was said that he was “great in temporal things and a zero in spiritual matters.”

Meanwhile Christians of the 15th century had become angry and were determined that the schism be healed there and then in humble Constance. And so they poured into town in extraordinary numbers—by carriages and wagons and donkey carts, by horseback, and on foot. By the time the council got underway, according to reliable reports, the town held five patriarchs, 30 cardinals, 533 bishops, 119 abbots, 335 theologians, 200 university and town officials, 18,000 priests, and a great cloud of laity beyond numbering. It was necessary to bring 36,000 beds into Constance to accommodate the visitors—two to a bed.

Many stayed to look over the shoulders of the prelates and clergy so that no one could mistake their wishes. In the end all three popes were ousted (John slipping away disguised as a groom when he saw the handwriting on the wall). A new pope, Martin V, was duly elected and the schism was finally over.

The Council of Constance, recognized as one of the 21 ecumenical councils by the Roman Catholic Church, went far in its determination to make its resolutions stick; it declared that ecumenical councils have jurisdiction over every member of the church, including the pope—a decision that remains problematic for some papal boosters even to this day.

Volumes have been written about the Council of Constance, what led up to it, and what happened after. Always noted by scholars is the amazing turnout of people, but few ask why.

What drove these Christians, many of them illiterate, to leave their families and fields for this meeting at Constance? Perhaps the answer is too obvious. This was their church, and it was in peril. They wanted to be involved, to participate in some way, to have a voice, however minimal, in what their church should decide.

The Constance experience exemplifies the determination of Catholics to “own” their church. It is a perennial democratic drive, which manifested itself from the beginning of Christianity, continued through the centuries despite roadblocks, and is alive and well in our own time.

Two sweeping points can be made regarding Constance: First, active participation at every level is so basic to the faith that it could almost be considered one of the five marks of the Catholic Church: one, holy, catholic, apostolic—and participative. This is not to deny the Catholic hierarchy, only to say that the church by its very nature leans toward a unique, participative model of hierarchy.

Second and more important, contrary to a pervasive sense of gloom about the prospects for more openness, the church is in fact on the verge of a new age of democratization not seen in the past. The elements are in place for such an historic development.

A democratic church?
When suggestions of lay involvement in church decisions are mentioned, the most common retort is “The church is not a democracy.” And indeed it isn’t, at least not in the sense that decisions are the result of a popular vote. The church is hierarchical—that is, certain members are designated as the leaders, teachers, organizers of the community.

But hierarchies can function in two different ways. The first might be called a controlling or command hierarchy, with virtually all decisions coming from the top and minimal or no input from below. Such hierarchies are typical of military organizations—especially in time of war—or with tightly run industrial plants producing goods on assembly lines.

The second might be called an empowering or participative hierarchy, with influence moving down from leaders to members and up from members to leaders. Such hierarchies can be found in the relationship between a master craftsman and his apprentice or between a gifted teacher and her students. The aim here is not domination but inclusion, participation, and education. It is no exaggeration when a veteran teacher says, “I learn more from my students than they learn from me.”

Theologian Terence Nichols, in That All May Be One: Hierarchy and Participation in the Church (Michael Glazier Books), says, “Just as in a command hierarchy power is centralized, in a participatory hierarchy power tends to be decentralized.... Typically there are checks and balances on excessive concentration of power, though power is not evenly distributed as it is in the case of egalitarianism.”

Since the Holy Spirit is promised to the whole body of Jesus’ followers and not just to leaders, the church appears to be the ideal participatory hierarchy. This participative spirit can be seen in the earliest Christian documents, most clearly in chapter 15 of the Acts of the Apostles.

The question before the infant church (about A.D. 45) was whether Gentile converts should have to conform to the requirements of the Mosaic law. Feelings were strong on both sides, so a meeting of the apostles, elders, and faithful was called in Jerusalem.

After much debate, summary speeches were made by Peter, representing the Twelve; by Paul and Barnabas, representing the missionary outreach; and by James, representing the institutional church at Jerusalem. A decision was reached, with “the whole church consenting,” that the old law not be required of converts.

What may be called the early hierarchy was present in force at this event, but it was through discussion and debate, and only with the consent of the whole body, that the question was settled. Theologians such as Luke Timothy Johnson say the process reported in such detail in Acts represents a standard and norm for future church decision-making.

This participative spirit can also be seen in Paul’s relationship with the scattered churches he founded; his letters are addressed to the “church” at Corinth or the “churches” in Galatia, not to overseers or presbyters. Documents in the period immediately after the apostles, such as the Didache (around A.D. 100), indicate leaders were elected by the community, could be deposed by the community, and consulted the whole community regularly. Evidence of this process comes from the second and third centuries, from Rome to Spain to Africa.

The statement of Cyprian, a third-century bishop of Carthage, became a universal adage, quoted as a kind of working principle: “I have made it a rule...to make no decision merely on the strength of my own personal opinion without consulting you [priests and deacons] and without the approbation of the people.”

From these early experiences theologians have concluded that church leaders must carefully discern what the church believes before drawing conclusions, thus showing respect for the sense of the faithful and for the whole body’s reception (or non-reception) of hierarchical teaching.

The swinging pendulum
How is it then that so many Catholics identify the church as essentially a command hierarchy with the pope as the one in singular command? The answer can be found in the history of the church, which has been a 2,000-year contest between the command and participative models.

As Christianity spread, it became clear that the command model was more efficient than the messy, participatory arrangement, which is open to all voices and makes its decisions slowly and with a degree of tentativeness. Throughout the centuries Christianity was challenged by divergent interpretations of doctrine, the appearance of new and often strange spiritual movements, struggles between the church and civil rulers, and chronic abuses on the part of church leaders themselves.

A tendency developed to settle crises by ultimatum and anathema. Power came to be centralized in the pope and bishops. A kind of wall of separation arose between clerics and laypersons.

Church history is full of accounts of so-called “strong” popes who wielded their authority like absolute monarchs—men like Leo I, who in the fifth century established the primacy of the bishop of Rome over all other bishops, or Gregory VII, who in the 11th century seized control of the church from local lords and vigorously stamped out simony and other clergy abuses.

Nevertheless, the ideal of a participative, democratic model of church still bubbled up from below through the ages, expressing itself at the local level often through regional church councils (to which lay leaders were invited), through a long tradition (since suppressed) of the election of bishops, and through countless protests against bishops and popes whose actions were considered tyrannical or irrational. The turnout at the Council of Constance is but one example of the desire for participation simmering beneath the surface.

Few efforts at democratization were more earnest or held more promise than the one undertaken by the American Catholic Church during the 18th and 19th centuries. Inspired by enthusiasm for democratic ideals in the New World, Bishop John Carroll, who had been elected by his American priests, worked for a level of collegiality and cooperation not seen since earlier times. He supported the use of English in the liturgy, the nomination of pastors by their parishioners, limits on a bishop’s right to end controversies, and a lay trustee system with real authority.

The model grew well into the 1800s under the leadership of Bishop John England. The experiment did not endure, however, after Pope Leo XIII condemned this experiment in democracy, labeling it “Americanism.”

Opposition and fear concerning democratic ideas became almost an obsession with church leaders in the 19th and early 20th centuries. When Félicité de Lamannais and several other French professors began extolling the values of democracy, freedom of conscience, and participation even within the church, Pope Gregory XVI responded with an encyclical that labeled such ideas “sheer madness.”

Then in 1871 the First Vatican Council seemed to place the pope on an omniscient pedestal, requiring little input from anyone outside his circle of advisers. Later Pope Pius X contrasted the loftiness of the teachers with the lowliness of the laity: “The church is essentially an unequal society...comprising two categories of persons, the pastors and the flock...With the pastoral body only rests the necessary right and authority for promoting the end of society and directing all its members towards that end. The one duty of the multitude is to allow itself to be led, like a docile flock, to follow the pastors.”

Yet even during that stolid period of almost 100 years, the democratizing urge continued to express itself—in the liturgical movement, which promoted active participation in the liturgy, and in the development of lay-based action programs like the Young Christian Workers and the Christian Family Movement.

Then, quite unexpectedly, came a warming season in the form of the Second Vatican Council, convened by the second John XXIII in 1962. Though not all of its decrees and constitutions were supportive of a new participative era, many were.

The document on liturgy called for full participation of the laity in the Mass and sacraments as a right. The document on the church radically reinterpreted the relation between pope and bishops, declaring that they together form one collegial body. Likewise, the council reinterpreted the relation between the hierarchy and laity, calling the whole church the People of God. It thus provided a level of official acceptance to ideals and ideas simmering since the beginning.

Hope for the future
Because of the council, the mechanism of a democratized church already exists: regular regional and world synods bringing pope and bishops together; national and regional bishops’ conferences; diocesan pastoral councils, parish councils, and associations of priests, deacons, liturgists, catechists, teachers, and every other specialty in the church. Such things existed only embryonically throughout church history but are now in place and are marvelously suited to collegial activity and shared decision-making and responsibility.

Obviously, most of these function in an advisory rather than decision-making capacity. And it is this that frustrates many, making the post-Vatican II church appear like a new, fully-equipped, high-performance automobile that has no access to gasoline and no idea how to get some.

What justifies the belief that this immobility will not continue indefinitely?

The laity, especially women: Gone is the submissive body that yielded easily in bygone eras because of failure to grasp the nature of the church. Some 30,000 laypeople work for the church today, many with degrees in theology and pastoral work equal or superior to those of the clergy; they are becoming more and more familiar with what works and what does not.

The bishops: They may seem, as Jesuit Father Thomas Reese has written, like a “flock of shepherds,” but there is a stirring in unexpected places. In Asia and parts of Europe, for example, bishops have made it known that they want and intend to participate in decisions.

Democracy itself: It is no longer a wild creature of the Enlightenment; it is almost self-evident that decisions made after wide consultation, a gathering of the best information, and even by vote of the participants are typically the better decisions. The first-century council in Jerusalem was such a democratic event, and that style is perfectly consistent with the conviction that the Holy Spirit is present in the whole church and moves in surprising ways when given the opportunity.

The Vatican: Pope John Paul II, though anything but an advocate of democratic tendencies in the church, is well aware of the signs of the times. He has spoken of the responsibility he feels of exercising the papacy in a way that is “open to the new situation.” His successors, similarly aware and troubled by growing church crises, will find themselves even more pressured.

The enduring witness of reform movements: Nothing speaks louder than the collective voices of those who demand to be heard and will not be silenced. Following in the tradition of veteran groups like the Women’s Ordination Conference and Call to Action, Voice of the Faithful has seized on the sex-abuse scandal, declaring that they intend to be involved in church governance and are not going away.

We do not know what seeming coincidences of time and place will trigger the new situation, nor when it will blossom. And no one can say that a fully participative church will operate smoothly, without struggle and conflict—only that it will come because it is the only way a church guided by the Holy Spirit can go.

For those eager for a more open, participative church, the Book of Habakkuk offers this note of cautious hope: “The vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint. If it delays, wait for it. It will surely come, it will not be late.” 

Robert McClory is a journalism professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois and author of  Faithful Dissenters: Stories of Men and Women Who Loved and Changed the Church (Orbis Books, 2000). This article appeared in the May 2005 (Volume 70, Number 5; pages 30-34) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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