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The Catholic church and democracy: a reply to Neal Ascherson

Timothy Radcliffe
11 April 2005

Neal Ascherson’s analysis of Pope John Paul II’s attitude to democracy is highly perceptive. It is a vast exaggeration, however, to say that the late pope suppressed “any hint of radical ‘liberation theology’”. He was opposed to some aspects of liberation theology, but liberation theology is alive and flourishing not only in Latin America, as at the beginning of his pontificate, but in every continent. Indeed his own statements and writings partially embraced it, in their support of “a preferential option for the poor”, rather than a straightforward option for the poor.

Ascherson is entirely right in suggesting that for the pope freedom was a more fundamental value than democracy, and that both were to be seen in the light of our dignity as beings who can make moral choices rather than as voters or consumers.

When one is thinking of the pope’s attitude to the internal life of the church, it is worth bearing in mind that the Catholic church could never be a democracy in exactly the same sense in which a western nation might claim to be one. This is because it exists in response to revelation. It says “yes” to the gospel. The contents of the gospel cannot be decided by vote. We could not vote, for example, to say that Jesus did not rise from the dead. If we decide that he did not, then we have, in effect, left the community of those who accept the gospel.

Also in openDemocracy on the Catholic church and democracy:

Neal Ascherson, “Pope John Paul II and democracy”

Austen Ivereigh, “Through the Vatican white smoke”

Michael Walsh, “Cutting the Vatican down to size”

Laura Greenhalgh, “Cardinal Arns of Brazil on Pope John Paul II, the Vatican and the poor”

Ariel Dorfman, “The five minutes of Pope John Paul II”

Lavinia Byrne, “The Vatican, the Kremlin, and the Feminine”

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Yet things get complicated when we accept that discussion and debate do have a role in determining the meaning of revelation. From the beginning of the church’s life it was undisputable that the bible maintains that Jesus was the son of God. But did that mean that he was God? It took three centuries of discussion and debate, with general councils voting, to see whether that was the right reading of the texts. And we can never say that the process has finished and that we have arrived at a final understanding of the gospel. In that sense some form of debate is not only permissible but necessary in the life of the church, and it is a challenge for the church to develop this further.

It must still be the case that the church’s democracy would necessarily be unusual, in that most of the “voters” are dead. The mind of the church is not just of those who happen to be around today; it includes all the councils of the church. A lot of people have cast their vote already. If one is to understand the pope’s response to the American Catholics who were campaigning for the ordination of women, then it is necessary to grasp that he would not have thought that he was being undemocratic.

Like Pope Paul VI on contraception, he did not feel that he had the authority to go against what he believed was the mind of the church, as expressed over centuries. It is perfectly legitimate to believe that both these popes were wrong on these issues. But they did not conceive of their decisions as acts of personal power – “I could let women be ordained but I have decided not to” – but because both popes believed that they were not powerful enough to take such decisions.

If we are to have, as we must, more free and open discussion within the church, then what we need are more spaces and places that make this possible. The medieval church was complex. There were all sorts of institutions that gave different people the authority to speak and act: universities, guilds, religious orders.

People often oppose “the institutional church.” Much of this was lost after the terrible wounds of the thirty years’ war. But what we need are more institutions in the church that give a voice to lay people, including women. The church has mirrored the evolution of secular society in a centralisation that has led to the weakening of intermediary institutions. We need institutional creativity.

Cardinal Newman believed that there were three sorts of authority in the church: tradition, represented by the hierarchy; reason, represented by the universities; and experience, represented by the whole people of God. If the church is to flourish and we are to have the debates that we need, then we do not need to replicate secular democracy and give everyone votes. We need the institutional complexity that will sustain the debate, so that everyone’s voice is heard.

Many prominent cardinals have argued for reform in the government of the church. The late cardinals, Westminster’s Hume and Vienna’s Koenig, came to share the view of San Francisco’s Archbishop John Quinn that the Vatican should serve the government of the church by the pope and bishops, rather than that the bishops should serve the government of the church by the pope and the Vatican. After the mourning for Pope John Paul II ends and the cardinals gather to choose his successor, that fundamental point will need to be addressed.

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