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.