To suggest that the Catholic Church should become a democracy is to profoundly misunderstand...well, everything
“There needs to be a Catholic Spring, in which Catholics themselves demand the end of a middle ages dictatorship and the beginning of a little democracy and respect for gender equality in the Catholic Church.” – Sandy Newman, president and founder of the Voices for Progress, in an email to John Podesta, chairman of the Hillary Clinton campaign for President.
In response, Podesta — a Catholic — tells Newman that structures have been put in place to work toward that end. A headline in the Washington Post would suggest that the line of thinking in these Wikileaks-obtained emails was mere joking, but the conversational back-and-forth appears to be in dead earnest.
It also seems shockingly ignorant.
“Catholicism is not a Democracy, and it is not representative of any form of earthly governance, because ultimately, it does not belong to earth,” a Jesuit teacher once told me. “The twelve apostles didn’t each get a vote on the teachings of the developing church. They got to brawl, at times, but not to vote.”
It always seemed to me, on reflection, that the instructor missed one point on voting. The apostles, the early Church Fathers, the saints and the Doctors of the Church did get a vote of sorts. They got to vote “yes” or “no” for the church commissioned by Christ, and continually overseen by Peter since then. They all voted “yes”, so to speak. Sometimes — often — at the cost of their lives. Catholics do not get to “demand for themselves” anything, because they are willing subjects of Christ, the King. What Catholics get to be, is obedient.
“I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first,” said Thomas More when his obedience to Christ brought him to the chopping block.
“I am an obedient daughter of the Church,” said Dorothy Day. When asked what she would do if an unhappy Cardinal told her to shut down “The Catholic Worker,” she said, “I would shut it down.”
Because you see, the Church does not belong to earth, and this sort of obedience belongs to heaven. It is not mindless obedience, but rather obedience that is formed and activated by a profound sense of trust, a trust that says, “I know in whom I have believed.”
It is a trust that, usually, has been forged by fire — by personal suffering and the surrender that leads to triumph — and by the Holy Spirit.
Earthly governments cannot enjoy such obediences because, being earthbound, human (and therefore quite imperfect) institutions, they are as broken as the people in charge of them, and seldom as trustworthy as they want to seem. Where trust is rocky, obedience tends to be as well, which is why those governments will compel obedience where it is not offered freely.
The Church, of course, is administered by human (and therefore quite imperfect) beings, who are as broken as anyone else, and sometimes as corrupt and untrustworthy as any secular politician; this has always been true. But that fire of human suffering and hope, combined with the ever-flowing breath of the Holy Spirit is what transcends the human element within the church. We are all united to heaven, and to each other, through our individual crucibles.
Everything that Newman said in that statement above, and Podesta’s apparent sympathy with it, signals a lack of understanding. To assign Catholic sensibilities to the Middle Ages is not only short-sighted, it is — in the characteristic way of human beings — conceited about the times in which we live, which are neither the best, nor the worst, nor the wisest of times, but merely (and superficially) different than what has come before. It is to lose sight of Eternity through the dazzling newness of a passing age.
As to respecting Gender Equality, well! Setting aside the growing number of female canonists, diocesan leaders, theologians and Vatican consultants, because that’s for another piece on another day, we began the month of October celebrating the life of a short-lived bourgeois French woman we call a Doctor of the Church. In just a few days we will celebrate another female Doctor of the Church, this time a Spaniard, a great reformer, foundress, and author. Only weeks ago, we noted the life of yet another great woman and Doctor of the Church, Hildegard of Bingen, a German Abbess, author, healer, and musician. This weekend, we will canonize another Frenchwoman of music and letters, Elizabeth of the Trinity, and a number other very unique Catholics who voted “yes” for Christ and his church. And the others?
- One of them was only a child, a servant of the poor and the religiously oppressed, for whom he ultimately died.
- One of them died during the French Revolution, because he refused to take an oath of allegiance to the new government
- One of them was a priest who traveled to and lived with the poor and the spiritually oppressed, and died blind and leprous.
- Two of them were priests who educated the poor and the abandoned — the rejects of society.
So you see, in its own way and outside of earthly considerations, Catholicism — if it may be called “democratic” at all — is democratic in the very best way: everyone, despite class, despite education, despite country of origin, gets the one vote, “yea” or “nea” and then, with that vote, they are made free.
- They are free to offer the King with their gifts, a great part of which is about identifying forms of material and spiritual poverty, and then serving those needs.
- They are free to stand against anything that would work against the freedom to identify and then serve those needs, including governments.
- They are free to die to help others find that crucible-forged freedom.
Podesta & Company’s words speak for themselves. Intelligent people understand them, and points needn’t be belabored. The Catholic Church is not a democracy, and cannot be a democracy, because its formation and function survives by the pleasure of the King, who is All-in-All — fully beyond any of his servants or administrators.
The Church is Eternal because its founder is Eternal, and still alive within her, Present in every Tabernacle throughout the world; Present in people through whom Christ is still carried to the world, day in, and day out, through service, through charitable works, through innovation, through the arts, through encouragement and compassion.
Catholics who are fretsome about Podesta’s words, and the words of others in the trail of emails exposing our “public servants” as seriously short-sighted and dubiously motivated, really should not be. “If the world hates you, it hated me first,” said our Christ, (John 15:18). While the Podesta emails tell us who is firmly of the world, they pay us an unintended compliment, here, by recognizing us as part of something that cannot be tamed, or distracted from the call of the One who makes us free.
Whether we have earned the recognition is something we each must ask ourselves.