Volume > Issue > Democracy in the Church & the Lay Apostolate

Democracy in the Church & the Lay Apostolate


By John C. Cort | December 1987

The recent visit of the Pope set off an orgy of negative criticism by every malcontent the media could find, and they found plenty. They’re good at that, and they gave them lots of free time and space to air their grievances. I would not suggest that this was all bad, painful as it was to listen to their oft-repeated gripes.

Some of their gripes were legitimate, and even those that weren’t had the value of making the defenders of orthodoxy rise to the challenge and sharpen their own arguments. We certainly do not defend orthodoxy by silence or by repeating stale formulas.

One of the gripes has been that there is no democracy in the Church, that it is a feudal institution that is totally out of sync with the best in modern methods of organizing, governing, and relating to people. This is a gripe worth exploring, because there is some truth in it and an awful lot of confusion and failure to define and distinguish.

One does not meet this complaint intelligently or persuasively by responding cold turkey, “No, the Church is not a democracy. The Church is a monarchy.” This will not sell. Neither will it wash. The Church is not a democracy in the sense that the United States is a democracy, or a political organization is a democracy. We do not determine Church doctrine by majority vote. The pope, as articulator of the Catholic tradition as vivified by the Holy Spirit, has authority that the U.S. president does not have.

On the other hand, the fundamental law that issued from Vatican Council II was not the product solely of a monarchical pope. Over 2,000 bishops had something to say about it. Also there is a crucial difference between the requirements for the determination of fundamental law, and even more so for infallible teaching, and the whole area of administration or administrative law – how the universal Church shall be organized and run, how dioceses shall be organized and run, how parishes shall be organized and run. Popes are elected by the secret ballots of the college of cardinals, by the way. This is a democratic procedure.

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