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.



democracy and the church


Our western society views democracy as an inherent right.  We have fought wars in its name. We believe that democracy can cure the ills of many nations, and have self-righteously offered it as a panacea for countries suffering from instability and chaos.

Many reform minded catholics yearn for a more democratic church; one where the people have an effective voice in current issues, and a vote in their leadership.

The reality is that democracy does not guarantee good leaders. It does not guarantee a just and equitable society.

Democracy is at its best when the people are invested in the process and make the effort to be informed. Sadly, we experience wide spread voter apathy and a media that too often resorts to schlock reporting rather than in-depth analyses.

There is a soap opera quality to daily political news. What shocking headlines will hook us into reading an article or viewing a video online? What new dirt has been dug up on the current roster of candidates? Whose star is rising and who is tumbling into electoral oblivion even before the polls open? What cheesy plot is being rehashed yet again? Our news is delivered in sound bites, often wrapped with blatant bias. We find out more about the personal lives and missteps of candidates than about the real issues at hand.

The serious voter will delve into the story behind the head-lines and listen to or read speeches in their entirety. They will explore candidate and party platforms and search well written, intelligent commentaries and opinion pieces. It takes serious work to be a serious voter. Yet, many of us shirk the duty to educate ourselves about issues. Too many don’t even make the effort to vote. Seriously….we don’t give a damn. And, this does not bode well for democracy.

Would democracy have a better chance in the church?

I confess to being a church news junky. I scour catholic sites for the latest news. My shelves and Kindle are filled with more church related books than novels. But, church news can take on the same “soap opera” quality as does political coverage. It is human nature to be hooked by headlines that announce more sensational stories. When church leaders speak, their quotations can also be taken out of context or the full issue is not presented clearly.  Even with a well written article, discussion boards show how quickly the main message can be thrown aside in order to better serve the narrow agenda of some posters. 

If we were offered the opportunity to vote within our church, would we? How many catholics really care about church issues beyond Mass on Sundays? How many catholics would participate in a leadership vote if given the chance? How many catholics would lend their voices to a dialogue on issues affecting women and men in the church? Would an open electoral process help unify us, or simply magnify the existing polarity between progressives and traditionalists?

I admit that these are simple musings, as I watch our electoral process unfold yet again both in Canada and the USA. It has made me think about our own church politics. I view the popularity of a Donald Trump with horror. Then, again, there are bishops in the church that are darlings to one crowd and enemies of another.

I believe that it is time to reform the hierarchical structure of our church. Authority and voice can no longer be barricaded and protected behind the walls of ordination. Are we, as lay women and men, invested enough in the issues of our church to “give a damn”? Do we try to understand and inform ourselves about the issues facing our local, national and world church? Are we willing to enter into dialogue with those who think differently from us, to help seek common ground rather than feed divisions?

Again….I’m simply musing….