We the People of God

How democratic should the church be?

Sexual-abuse scandals, here and abroad, are but one symptom of a much deeper problem facing the church: its current structure of government is extraordinarily centralized and hierarchical. Leaders who grossly violate the trust of the faithful can be removed and replaced only by a superior official. A priest may be removed by a bishop; a bishop by the pope; a pope only by God. If a superior chooses to keep an official in office, those below have little recourse. This state of affairs has proved disastrous. Structures must be put in place to give voice and influence to those below. Yet, last fall, Pope John Paul II, repeating a familiar refrain, warned a group of Austrian bishops, “The church is not a democracy, and no one from below can decide on the truth.”

Yes, the church is not a democracy, because it has no apparatus of democratic accountability, and that is precisely the problem. Antagonism toward democracy is embedded both in the church’s culture and in its lack of adequate procedures to constrain abuses of power. Papal reminders that the church is not a democracy are not just warnings that democracy in the church would be bad. Rather, they continue a hierarchical opposition to democratic government itself, as manifested in nineteenth-century papal pronouncements like Pope Leo XIII’s condemnation of the heresy of “Americanism.” Saying the church is not a democracy becomes a point of pride that the church is not like those “others.”

There are historical reasons for this centralization. Powerful and hostile secular authorities often threatened the church’s independence. Rome responded by seeking temporal as well as spiritual power, and by constructing a centralized, hierarchical, even monarchical, institution capable of resisting such threats. Kings claimed to rule by divine right, and church authorities could not, in those conditions, claim anything less than divine right for themselves. As parliaments and other representative bodies arose in various kingdoms, a conciliar tradition in the church resisted strong papal claims. Still, the papacy as we know it today developed along with the rise of absolutist monarchies from the late-sixteenth into the nineteenth century. It was solidified by the First Vatican Council, in a Rome beleaguered by revolutionary forces. Resisting the liberalizing winds of the Second Vatican Council, the centralization of power in the papacy has been deepened and extended, in sharp contrast to many other institutions in an era of widening democracy.

In any organization, some people must make decisions on behalf of others. Some degree of hierarchy operates in most social institutions. People at the top are expected to make decisions on behalf of those below. Responsiveness to those below must be limited in any group. Complex associations cannot be run by plebiscite. Still, leaders must not systematically pursue their own goals at the expense of the whole, ignoring the wishes of those below them. Every institution needs structures for accountability. Without such mechanisms, Lord Acton’s famous aphorism applies: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Churches are not immune from this problem. Indeed, Acton was commenting on Renaissance papal power. We like to think that church leaders are especially motivated to serve God and humanity, to look out for the well-being (spiritual as well as physical) of all. This is a reasonable assumption. Like the rest of us, though, such leaders are also subject to original sin. Holiness and spirituality give some protection against self-seeking, but not sufficient protection. History gives many examples. Recognizing this theological and historical insight, the question then becomes how to mitigate and restrain the inevitable abuse of power.

Democracy in the church? It is a rhetorical ploy of deliberate exaggeration to say the church is not a democracy, for it implies that democracy means that everyone gets to vote on everything. Government by plebiscite is only one form of democracy. In ancient Athens, all citizens (meaning adult males, not women, foreign residents, slaves) voted on all major decisions of the city. Some of these decisions, of course, were disastrous.

Modern democratic organizations have far more members than those in the small citizen class of Athens, and must eschew direct government. Instead, they rely on representative institutions whose members are elected by citizens, and who are held responsible for their acts by the periodic risk of being voted out of office. Leaders in a representative democracy may make and enforce decisions on behalf of all the members. Democracy also means an institutionalized system of restraints: checks and balances, decentralization (as in the Catholic principle of subsidiarity), and regular community reauthorization of the leadership.

Representative government is not completely alien to the church. Some church structures and processes can lay some claim to democratic principles, but their claim is limited. Here are two examples, one from the top and one from the bottom.

The first is the process of electing a new pope, as carried out by the College of Cardinals through secret ballot. This is a democratic process. It is a one-time event, however, since the person elected is pope for life. Yet how are the electors chosen? The answer is hardly democratic. The cardinal electors are all chosen by previous popes, from the celibate male episcopate. Bishops themselves are not chosen by any national or regional body, and are not even self-selecting. Centuries ago, popes won their struggles with secular rulers over the right of investiture. Not since the time of Archbishop John Carroll have American bishops been elected by their priests. Cardinals lose their voting power at age seventy-five, resulting in an electorate chosen by the immediately preceding pope, if he has had any extensive reign. Currently 96 percent of the voting cardinals were appointed by John Paul II. Moreover, in this papacy in particular, cardinals have been chosen with painstaking attention to their loyalty to the principles so forcefully articulated by this pope. Thus the College does not represent in any proportional way the perspectives of the clergy at large (not to mention the laity).

A second example of democratic structures might be found in local parish governance, particularly in parish councils, finance committees, and-for a brief period in nineteenth-century America-parish trustees. The trustee experiment was abandoned by the middle of that century, and most parish councils and finance committees-if in fact they exist-have little real authority. Finance committee members are usually appointed by the pastor, not elected by the parish. Parish councils, even when elected, rarely have any role in the appointment of new priests for the parish. (Nor may the priest have much to say about where he serves.) Vatican II’s Lumen gentium and especially Gaudium et spes called for greater participation and active involvement by the laity as “the people of God,” and urged pastors to consult with them and to listen-but the council did not require them to do so. Consequently, such parish bodies tend to exemplify hierarchy all the way down.

A “decent consultation hierarchy”? Not only is the church not a democracy, it is not even as responsive to the vast majority, as many hierarchical systems are. John Rawls, the eminent political theorist, conceded that some hierarchies can share with democratically governed systems the label “well-ordered peoples.” His last book, The Law of Peoples, describes such “decent consultation hierarchies” as those allowing

[a]n opportunity for different voices to be heard-not, to be sure, in a way allowed by democratic institutions, but appropriately in view of the religious and philosophical values of the society as expressed in its idea of the common good....[Members] have the right at some point in the procedure of consultation (often at the stage of selecting a group’s representatives) to express political dissent, and the government has an obligation to take a group’s dissent seriously and to give a conscientious reply....Judges and other officials must be willing to address objections. They cannot refuse to listen, charging that the dissenters are incompetent and unable to understand, for then we would not have a decent consultation hierarchy, but a paternalistic regime. Moreover, should the judges and other officials listen, the dissenters are not required to accept the answer given to them; they may renew their protest, provided they explain why they are still dissatisfied, and their explanation in turn ought to receive a further and fuller reply.

Some-perhaps many-local parishes would qualify as “decent consultation hierarchies.” Many would not. The further one looks above the local level, the less applicable that label becomes. Greater participation and responsibility in local churches, and independent organizations able to speak up to priests and bishops, would be an essential start. Yet informal grass-roots organizations are insufficient. They wither without sustained, committed, and collective leadership. The hierarchical institutions themselves need to be reformed.

The church may never be a democracy in the sense of having elected leaders from bottom to top. Theological dispute cannot be settled by simple majority vote. The faithful need to be led and taught. Still, there is room for much more democracy. The people have a right to teaching by reasoned argument and to a leadership that truly listens and responds to their concerns-not just one that imposes as authoritative views that are deeply contested below. Moreover, being in possession of teaching authority does not guarantee good judgment in more worldly issues such as finance or personnel. Those expected to contribute to the treasury have a right to monitor fiduciary responsibility: “no taxation without representation.” Those whose lives may be blighted by leaders’ scandalous acts have a right to participation in procedures that call those leaders to account and replace them. These are fundamental rights of a people both holy and free. end

Published in the 2003-09-12 issue: 

Bruce Martin Russett is Dean Acheson Professor of International Relations, Yale University.

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