musing on democracy and the church


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.



calling all prophets


After Trump’s surprising win, there have been calls for America to unite behind their new president. For the sake of the country, they say, he should now be given the respect, support, and cooperation demanded by the highest office in the land.

I don’t believe it’s time for nice words and gestures. This is not the time to appear gracious in the face of loss, for this is so much more than a lost election. It is not the time for appeasement, for history shows us that appeasement is too easily interpreted as affirmation.

Yes, bridges must be built and divisions healed, but first the hate-filled rhetoric and actions that fuelled the Trump campaign must be challenged. The ignorance, immoral behaviour, irresponsible promises and threats cannot magically disappear the day after an election. Trump must be pressured now, and in the months to come, to ensure they have no place in his agenda as president. Support and respect for an office cannot be given blindly. It must be earned.

America needs prophets who aren’t afraid to observe, judge, speak out and act.

a time for prophets

Now, more then ever, prophets are needed to stand by and hold the new leader(s) to task. Like biblical prophets of old, women and men are being called to make life hell for leaders who ignore the down-trodden while languishing in comfort and plenty. Prophets are needed to preach mercy above judgment, compassion over tyranny, and economic fairness before unbridled wealth.

Advent is around the corner. The liturgical readings of Advent are my favourite. I relish the images of a New Jerusalem and over-flowing banquet tables with seats for all. I yearn for a world of peace where lion and lamb lie down together. I hope for visions to become a reality; visions of a land where God’s justice reigns all.

Prophets weren’t known for social graces or niceties. They were God’s instruments, speaking truth to power. They were spat upon and persecuted. They were often denied natural talents that would make the job easier. Instead, they depended on God’s spirit working through them,  giving them words and courage they did not know they had.

I have many American friends who are fire-brands in their own circles, not afraid to speak out in the face of injustice. I hope and pray that they, and many others like them, will have the strength, energy, faith and courage to take up the mantle of prophet in the days and months to come.




the end of american exceptionalism

As a Canadian, I have long been impatient and angered at American exceptionalism; the belief that America shines above all other countries. Chants of U…S…A!!! sound egotistical to those of us used to a more subdued nationalism. At its worst, the chants sound like a rallying war cry against the rest of the world.

I bristle whenever I hear the American president described as the “leader of the free world” or “the most powerful man on earth”. I live in a free country with its own leaders. I am a Canadian, not an American. With the recent election of Donald Trump, I want to shout ever more forcefully, “your president is NOT my president!”

Trump fed this need for superiority with promises to make America “great” again. He preached a nativism that too often morphed into racism. He promised to build walls to keep the unwanted out, and to take away basic freedoms from those who are already in. He vowed to make American interests a priority, regardless of global ramifications. A “great” America meant a pure America, embracing its God-given role as leader of the world.

The history of the Catholic church shows us the dark side of exceptionalism. The deep seated belief that Christianity was the only true religion, and the Church of Rome was the sole heir of this religion, paved the way for horrific inquisitions and disastrous crusades. Religious exceptionalism nourished a spirit of superiority while feeding the populace on a regular diet of fear and distrust of the “other”. It turned the church into a militant fortress focusing more on fighting heretics than dialoging with other people of goodwill.

Examples of the exceptionalist model of church can be found today in extreme right wing church leaders, blogs and movements. Their voices are loud, proud, and too often filled with hateful rhetoric. They are the “heresy hunters”, bullies seeking out all who dare question the church or who do not live up to their narrow version of Catholicism.

Others, myself included, have had our images of a perfect church shattered long ago. The sins of the church have been laid bare to the shame of us all. We might try to stand back and claim no responsibility for the scandals and abuses, but we were all part of an institution that demanded, and received, blind obedience to both its leaders and its doctrine.

But, we do not despair. When we hit rock bottom, we believe that hope lies in reform. We must work together to rebuild the church. We have a pope who now calls us to leave behind the fortress mentality and head into the streets and bring gospel values and actions into the world.

Perhaps this is the message for America. It is time to let go of your exceptionalist mentality. The sins of history are not sins of your past. Sadly, they continue to be the sins of the present. The U.S. boasts of equality and freedom, yet this election has exposed your divisions to the world.

We have stood by in shock watching a mud-slinging, racist, misogynistic, hate-filled man become your president. Of course, one evil man does not a country make. And yet, we couldn’t believe the crowds that rallied to his support, men and women cheering as their candidate thumbed his nose at political correctness and basic human decency. Rudeness and crudeness was given a green light. It’s going to take a lot of work to restore civility into public discourse.

While the victors rejoice, many believe that America has hit rock bottom. There is a sense of a Great Depression, emotionally and spiritually, spreading not only across the U.S. but across the world. There is an old adage that when the U.S. sneezes, Canada catches a cold. This whopper of a sneeze is being felt beyond North America.  Who knows how this virus will effect global politics, what epidemic it will bring?

I have little faith that President Trump will be any different than Businessman Trump or Candidate Trump. No, he will not make “America great again”.

It is time for America to face her historical and present day demons. It is time for honest introspection. It is time for reform. The reform might have to come outside of its bizarrely long, sinfully expensive and obviously flawed electoral process.

In moments of darkness, the light shines even brighter. Voices for dialogue, sanity, equality, justice and peace will not be silenced. They have just been handed a mandate to speak even louder. To challenge even more. To work ever harder.