The Catholic Church Is Not a Democracy

Pope Benedict’s surprise resignation has set off a frenzy of speculation as to who the next pope will be and what changes he might bring to Catholicism. Benedict was well-known as an enforcer of orthodoxy, cracking down harshly on nuns, supporters of same-sex marriage and other progressive factions within the church, and the beleaguered liberals in Catholicism are hoping that the next pope will bring a change of direction.

However, the odds of this are slim. All of the cardinals who’ll elect the next pope were chosen by either Ratzinger or John Paul II, making it almost certain that they’ll choose someone with virtually identical views. One of the current front-runners (according to the bookies, because apparently people place bets on this) is Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, who’s expressed his support for African laws that make homosexuality illegal, and who’s said that wearing a rainbow sash should be grounds for denial of Communion. For the record, I think it’s extremely unlikely that they’re going to pick someone who isn’t a white European male, but we’ll see soon enough how I do with that prediction.

But all the debates and speculation have brought to light a surprisingly common delusion: the belief among many Catholic liberals that they can influence this process, that they have some kind of say in the governance of the church.

Even before the pope’s resignation, there was evidence of this belief. Take Tony Flannery, a liberal Irish priest who’s been ordered by the Vatican to stay silent for the rest of his life unless he would sign a sworn a statement promising never again to challenge church teachings about contraception, homosexuality or the all-male priesthood. Flannery has refused to agree to this (meaning his excommunication is probable), and in his public statements, appears to believe that this violates some rule of due process, that the church owes him a trial or a chance to defend himself:

He believes the church’s treatment of him, which he described as a “Spanish Inquisition-style campaign,” is symptomatic of a definite conservative shift under Pope Benedict XVI.

“I have been writing thought-provoking articles and books for decades without hindrance,” he said. “This campaign is being orchestrated by a secretive body that refuses to meet me. Surely I should at least be allowed to explain my views to my accusers.”

About the statement he’s been asked to swear to, he says:

“How can I put my name to such a document when it goes against everything I believe in,” he said… “If I signed this, it would be a betrayal not only of myself but of my fellow priests and lay Catholics who want change.”

Except that it doesn’t go against everything he believes in – because he’s a Catholic priest. That’s supposed to mean he believes in the authority of the Pope as God’s representative on Earth who can issue infallible proclamations about doctrine and morals. That’s part of the definition of a priest. If he doesn’t believe that, then he must have gone through the rite of ordination under false pretenses.

On the same note, the author Anne Rice posted on Twitter the other day encouraging ordinary Catholics to contact the Vatican and to voice their opinions about who the next pope should be, in the apparent belief that the church welcomes or would listen to or heed such feedback:

I hope Catholics everywhere speak up and out as the church ponders a new pope. Talk to Rome! Offer your wisdom…

Like Flannery, Anne Rice seems to think that lay Catholics have a voice in the church’s governance, or that, if they don’t have one, they’re owed one. But common sense ought to tell against this: the hierarchy has never given the slightest regard to what ordinary people think.

The church’s absolute prohibition on birth control is almost unanimously ignored by lay Catholics. The prohibition of divorce is also widely disregarded. Marriage equality for same-sex couples now enjoys majority support in the U.S. and elsewhere, and is becoming the norm even in historical strongholds of Catholicism like Spain and Portugal, in defiance of the Vatican’s wishes.

If the church cared what its members thought, it would long since have abolished the teachings that a vast majority of them refuse to accept. Instead, if anything, the Vatican has redoubled its insistence that agreeing with everything it teaches is essential to Catholic faith.

Along the same lines, Salon asked its Catholic and ex-Catholic readers to provide their “wish list” for the new pope, eliciting suggestions about lifting the ban on contraception, allowing women and married men to be priests, and other sensible, rational measures that will never happen. Catholic gay-rights advocates also hope for positive change, although in most cases their optimism is tempered by realism. E.J. Dionne even ludicrously imagined the possibility of choosing a female pope.

In one sense, this misguided hope is a sign of humanity’s moral progress. Ideas about democracy, about human rights, about accountability, and about equality have become so widely accepted, most people now expect that every institution they participate in will respect them. This is normally a good thing, but there are times when that democratic optimism runs smack into a brick wall of reality, and this is one of them.

Although liberal and progressive Catholics may be well-intentioned, they’re acting as if they don’t understand what it is they’ve signed up for. The Roman Catholic church is not a democracy. The church hierarchy isn’t elected, doesn’t have any checks or balances, and it doesn’t solicit or care about the opinions of ordinary churchgoers as to how things should be run. On the contrary, the Catholic church is an absolute monarchy! It’s run by a dictator-for-life who’s not accountable to anyone, who can’t be overruled, and who effectively chooses his own successor.

In the U.S., the president is formally chosen not by popular vote, but by a majority of the Electoral College, although the electors are supposed to vote in accordance with the popular vote in their state. But now imagine if the electors didn’t have to pay any attention to the popular vote, and imagine if the president, during his term in office, could handpick the electors who’d choose the next president after him. Now you get some idea of how governance works in the Catholic church.

Because the hierarchy is self-perpetuating, it has no accountability and no need to pay attention to outside criticism. The only influence that ordinary Catholics can exert, the only way they can signal their disapproval, is through the indirect route of no longer attending services or giving money. Anything else, the church can and will take as support for their current political program.

The church was born in an era of empires and monarchies, and it modeled its leadership on the societies of the time. But while all those empires have fallen and those monarchies have become democracies, the church has stayed mired in the past, clinging to the medieval model of one absolute ruler who makes the decisions for everyone. If ordinary Catholics are surprised or dismayed to realize this, it’s only because they made the mistaken assumption that moral progress within the church has kept pace with moral progress in the wider world.

The Sci-Fi Fans Who Fear Change
How Religious Bigotry Was Beaten Back in Indiana
#BlackLivesMatter in Baltimore
No, Belief in Satan Doesn't Make Us Moral
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X