musing on democracy and the church

democracy

President Obama visited Greece this week. In the historical birthplace of democracy, he reaffirmed his faith in the democratic process.

“Democracy can be especially complicated. Believe me. I know. But it is better than the alternatives because it allows us to peacefully work through our differences and move closer to our ideals.”

Democracy does not always work

Democracy is good…in principle. To be ruled by the will of the people is preferable to authoritative dictatorship. Sadly, a majority of voices does not guarantee wise choices. Worse, a majority can drown out and ignore the rights and needs of minorities.

Democracy is cheered when it replaces tyrannical, autocratic dictatorships. But the success of democratic governments depend on transparent, free and equal voting processes and the electing of leaders that will work for the good of their people. Sadly, this does not always happen.

What happens when democracy goes horribly wrong? President Obama, during his speech in Athens, reminded us that democracy has a built in safety valve.

“It allows us to correct for mistakes. Any action by a president or any result of an election or any legislation that has proven flawed can be corrected through the process of democracy.”

would democracy work in the church?

A democratic church has long been a battle cry for progressive Catholics. After the US election, I’ve been pondering how elections for church leadership might unfold.

who could vote?

Who would be given the right to vote? All baptized, adult Catholics? I can hear the shouts of protest already. Many would insist on a demanding registration process, perhaps allowing only “legitimate” Catholics to vote. How would this legitimacy be judged? Mass attendance? Contraceptive use? Financial donations? Would those living in “irregular” relationships be allowed to vote? I’m not sure we could get past this first step!

who would fund a church election?

Assuming that we could come up with a voter list, what would campaigning look like? In many elections, money talks. Where is the money in the Catholic church? It’s certainly not with the social justice groups and religious communities working on the fringes of society. The big war chests lie with the ultra-conservative institutions. These same institutions (Opus Die, Knights of Columbus, Legionaries of Christ, etc) have been shown to have undue influence at all levels of church life by lining the coffers of diocesan and vatican offices.

who would vote?

As with any election, even if all Catholics were given the right to vote, would they? Elections are often won or lost not by those who vote, but by those who stay home. Overcoming apathy with the average Catholic will be a challenge. Convincing the disillusioned, disappointed, and disgusted Catholics “in exile” to make their voices heard will be another.

Our church is as divided as society between progressives and traditionalists and the disgruntled right wing voices are often the loudest. Like Trump and other nativist political candidates around the world, they feed the fears of the people and harken back to better times. They are unabashed in their criticism of Pope Francis and his efforts to build a church of mercy.

Imagine rallies with “Make the Church Great Again” hats, promises of building a wall around a smaller, purer church, and righteous threats to purge the Vatican of all progressive reformists. Before you know it, we will have a Cardinal Burke for pope.

elections can only do so much

No, democracy does not guarantee the best leader will be chosen. More important is the constant, day to day working at the grass roots to keep our leaders accountable. In the church, it means supporting priests and bishops of integrity.

It also means challenging those who have taken reasonable conservatism and turned it into dangerous extremism. Bullies and extremists crave attention, headlines and the power it gives then. If dialogue doesn’t work, then bully pulpits must be neutralized and dismantled by ignoring them.

 

 

dare we hope for women deacons?

women deacons

VATICAN CITY Pope Francis has announced he will create a commission to study the possibility of allowing women to serve as deacons in the Catholic church, signaling an historic openness to the possibility of ending the global institution’s practice of an all-male clergy.

Source: Francis to create commission to study female deacons in Catholic church | National Catholic Reporter

Cyber-space has been humming and buzzing with this announcement. My initial excitement was tempered as I read past the head-lines. Pope Francis’s words, in response to questions given during an assembly of the International Union of Superior Generals (IUSG) in Rome, are simply promises of possibilities.

No, we are not going to have women deacons over-night. At the current rate of reform in our church, I wonder if we will have them in my life-time. With the current ideological divide, in the hierarchy and in the pews, I wonder if women will ever be “allowed” to take their rightful place beside men in church leadership.

What Francis has promised, seemingly on the spot, is to create a commission to study the possibility of women deacons.

Commissions are only as good as their members. Will this commission consist of a well-balanced group of lay and ordained, women and men? Will Francis invite theologians who have spent their lives studying the historical and biblical evidence of women deacons in the early church? Will the voices of those in the pews, whom deacons are called to serve, be included in the dialogue?

If this commission concludes that the permanent diaconate should be opened to women (in its current ordained role, not merely as “lady auxiliaries” without ordination), will the recommendation for reform be accepted by the more stridently conservative members of our church?

Recommendations from commissions have been ignored in the past. Remember the report from the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control in 1966? It proposed that artificial birth control was not intrisincally evil, suggesting that women and men should be allowed to discern which methods of birth control are best for them. Married couples around the world let out a sigh of relief. The relief was short-lived with the publication of Humanae Vitae shortly after.

In answering the questions at the IUSG assembly, Francis humbly admitted that he was unsure of the the role of deacons in the early church. NCR’s Joshua J McElwee reports,

“It was a bit obscure,” said Francis. “What was the role of the deaconess in that time?”

“Constituting an official commission that might study the question?” the pontiff asked aloud. “I believe yes. It would do good for the church to clarify this point. I am in agreement. I will speak to do something like this.”

“I accept,” the pope said later. “It seems useful to me to have a commission that would clarify this well.”

While we shouldn’t read too much into off the cuff statements, seeking “clarification” doesn’t necessarily imply that a change in teaching or reform in practice is around the corner.

For doctrinal types, “clarification”  often means digging in their heals into existing teaching; bold-facing the arguments that have rationalized a male-only priesthood while putting a gag-order on any dissenters. Clarifying, for them, equals reiterating.

“You still don’t understand why women can’t be priests? You poor dear. It’s really clear, after all. I’ll quote you the part of the Catechism that proves that only men can act in persona Christi” !

I hope that Francis is proposing “clarification” as a means to go beyond catechism based teaching to explore the good works already done by many theologians and historians who have been, and are studying the role of women in the church for many years now. Sadly, these works have too often been ignored or silenced in the past.

The windows have been opened a crack. We need Francis to courageously fling them wide open for a new and far-reaching dialogue on the full and equal inclusion of women in our church.

pondering a more centralized church

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Pope Francis is promoting a more centralized church. In my latest PM article, I ponder the good and the bad of giving bishops more power.

A decentralized church is not always a good thing. What if your local church is ruled by iron-handed episcopal edicts, focused on creating a purer church? What if your bishop spends more time delivering judgmental diatribes than compassionate messages of gospel love and hope? Would you want your bishop to have even more decision-making power in your diocese?

Read more here, at the Prairie Messenger.