What would a democratic church look like?

THE 20TH CENTURY, PUNCTUATED BY THE REFORMS OF VATICAN II, HAS OFFERED HOPE TO CATHOLICS WHO WOULD LIKE TO SEE THE CHURCH RENEW ITS DEMOCRATIC SPIRIT. But what would "a democratic Catholicism" look like? It would not, could not, look like our modern political process. And not just anyone could run for office. But why not?

The Catholic understanding of how Christian authority is exercised is based on the conviction that the church, having been established by Christ, is unlike any other human society. It is based on revealed truths, truths that cannot finally be induced from the experience of people who are not already living those truths—the Catholic catch-22, as it were.

These truths become the object of theological reflection and constitute the precious heritage that the magisterium—the Catholic bishops in communion with the pope—is bound to preserve. But these truths are vital and redemptive only to the extent that they are embodied in the experience of believing Catholics and their expression refined through systematic reflection on that experience. What then is the proper relationship between the teaching church and the believing church? Should each Catholic be considered a member of both?

Catholic principles of governance allow for, even require, consultation between the laity and the hierarchy, as well as some measure of collaboration and even representation. But the terminology of democracy becomes tricky when applied to a church with corporate headquarters in heaven.

What does "representation" mean, for example, to a religious tradition that is, in author G. K. Chesterton's apt phrase, "a democracy of the dead"? It means that contemporary opinion and experience is only one of many Catholic voices to be represented in any church deliberation about the meaning of revealed truth.

Whatever we are by virtue of our Baptism and the indwelling Spirit, we are not God; whatever we decide, it must be consistent with a divinely given law that is often unpopular and countercultural but nonetheless charts the only path to authentic human flourishing.

When conflict arises as to the interpretation of this law, those with pastoral responsibility must have the authority to judge which of the opinions is in accord with the faith of the church. In this sense, Vatican II speaks of bishops as the "judges of faith."

But why can't these judges be elected, or discerned, by the community of believing Catholics, as they have been in times past? Or, at least, might clerocracy return, in which bishops are elected by the priests they will govern?

There is no irreformable theological teaching preventing a return to ecclesial democracy; ultra-montanism is not a revealed truth. To be realistic, however, liberal Catholics, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot, must hope without hoping for the wrong thing—or for anything in particular. For, while Vatican II was groundbreaking, it was not foundation shaking. And it would take a shaking of the foundations, a less monarchical pope than John Paul II, and a bolder, more independent episcopacy than now exists, to steer the church toward the "churchly democracy" of the apostolic era.

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