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...

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About the Author

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