The Catholic church is not a democracy

Joanna Bogle
17 April 2005

When Jesus Christ founded a church, he did not found a democracy. He did not follow the fashions of the time and place in which he lived and worked. He did not establish a meritocracy – whether of intellectual skills, acquired expertise in team management or inspirational leadership. Rather, he went against the pattern established by the pagan religions of his day, where the priesthood was female, and chose twelve men. As leader of these, and in anticipation of his own ascension to heaven, Christ chose as his designated representative one who had once in a cowardly moment denied him and then repented with bitter tears.

Today, 18 April 2005, when the direct spiritual descendants of those first apostles meet in Rome to choose Peter’s successor, they will have scripture to guide them, and the knowledge that in the choices they make and the way they arrive at them, they are answerable to Christ himself who will one day judge their every action.

None of this makes sense to commentators in modern western Europe. In a dying culture – our birthrate now so low that we are no longer reproducing ourselves – and in a social milieu where deliberate and conscious commitment to a revealed religious truth is regarded as rather sinister, Christ and his church are objects of scandal.

This is to be expected. Christ told us that the meek would inherit the earth. Not the well-paid media commentators of the rich half of the world, or the pressure-groups from which they feed. Not the well-to-do scurrying from moderately comfortable hotel to busy TV studio via a recommended restaurant. Nor the purveyors of comfortable opinions that chime with political trends and ease the consciences of those for whom raw church teachings have proved a bit too challenging.

Also in the openDemocracy debate on the Catholic church and democracy, articles by Neal Ascherson, Lavinia Byrne, Laura Greenhalgh, Ariel Dorfman, Timothy Radcliffe, Michael Walsh, and Arthur Waskow

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There has been something enjoyably ridiculous in the confusion among “liberal commentators” in the aftermath of the funeral of Pope John Paul II. Unexpectedly, vast hordes of banner-waving young people – over a million of them – had poured into Rome for prayers and hymns and vigils, honouring an 85-year-old whose chief message to them had urged unfashionable virtues of unselfishness, courage, chastity, truthfulness and obedience to church teachings. And across the world, especially in its poorest parts, this pope had engendered huge popularity – cheering crowds, sometimes of millions-strong as in the Philippines, always predominantly young.

The Catholic faith is spreading rapidly in Africa and in Asia, in countries where just a hundred years ago missionaries were still being slaughtered for teaching it and enduring appalling hardships in its service. Worldwide, the church is the biggest single provider of education and healthcare, reaching remote districts and decaying city slums where other agencies are unable or unwilling to provide a presence.

Meanwhile, media debates about the church, including most of those on the internet, are dominated by western Europeans and north Americans. Many of the commentators were brought up in Catholic families or educated at Catholic schools at a time when it was fairly easy to be a Catholic in their particular corner of the world. They did not experience the gulag of the Soviet Union or the flimsy hut of an African shanty-town. For some, life went on to offer employment within the church itself – a situation which, while having its restrictions and irritations, also offered in the 1960s and 1970s considerable rewards: status, excellent opportunities for study and creative work, companionship, financial security, even freedom from some of the more mundane obligations of family life.

The first apostles were a lot more like the bishops of poorer districts of what is fashionably called the “developing world” or the “global south” today. These bishops have enthusiastic and swiftly growing numbers of followers, great missionary zeal, considerable practical difficulties especially when travelling, and a need for real courage in the face of local wars and passionately held tribal and racial loyalties. It is hard for “liberal Catholics” of the west to understand or feel empathy with such men: they seem odd and simplistic.

“Liberals” think that Catholicism should make us feel comfortable. It must adapt itself, they believe, to accepted current notions popular in London or Brussels or New York about feeling good about oneself, even if (perhaps especially if) these entail transgressing Christian teachings on chastity or the sinfulness of homosexual behaviour or of creating one’s own image of God to replace that revealed in scripture.

Across the globe, but perhaps especially in the poor places – the dirty ugly Soviet-era blocks of flats lacking decent kitchens or lavatories, the miserable huts fringing south American cities, the grief-stricken camps where tsunami victims still mourn their dead – prayers will rise for those electing the new pope. They will probably not be very congenial or comfortable prayers to those who like things to be phrased in media-friendly language. They may be chanted rosaries, Hail Mary’s counted on beads, invocations of much-loved saints, popular local prayers taught by rote. They may even be accompanied by genuine sacrifices – acts involving pain and suffering that are “offered up” by people not too proud to do so, of the sort that liberals today tend to recall only with sneers, as the anachronistic customs transmitted by aged nuns.

Among those praying will be me – not in a slum or refugee camp but in our small suburban maisonette, pondering the awesome reality of successors of the apostles gathering to elect one of their number to be another Peter, knowing that the last holder of that office has now gone to meet God.

The pope’s task – Peter’s task – is to pass on faithfully the message that all must seek salvation through Jesus Christ. This message brought Peter, and many of the other early popes, martyrdom. Today, the pope can expect ridicule, hatred and attempts to undermine and derail his work. The church has many enemies: she always has had. As ever, these include those who cannot accept the “hard sayings” of the church, who resist the notion of a God who loves and will one day judge us, who are appalled at the blood-sacrifice of the cross and the notion that it was the price paid by a loving saviour to redeem us from our sins.

In my lifetime, the church has seen off communism – that evil notion that the fruits of human work should be seized by the state and distributed according to the will of those in power. It is likely that the church will see off her other enemies too. God bless our new pope.

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