Just a Thought - The Church and Democracy. (June 23)
The Catholic Church has, for several years, both globally and locally very much in the spotlight, and for all the wrong reasons: the clergy sex abuse saw to that. Here in Australia we have held a Royal Commission. One of its findings points to a major cause of this scandal: abuse of power. This should surely cause us to reflect on the whole issue of power in the Church, making use of the tools of theology and political sociology, and with the aim of determining whether the Church is able to meet the requirements of democracy in its organisation and life.
What can we conclude?
That Christianity is based on one essential affirmation - that the one we call God has made him/ herself known in a decisive and definitive fashion in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This man caused shock waves by the way he involved God in human affairs - something very different from the Jewish authorities of that time. This eventually was to result in his condemnation for blasphemy and sedition by the high priests and his execution by the Romans. The Catholic Church, which claims to recognise Jesus as the Messiah/ the Christ/ the Anointed one, is commissioned to involve God in human affairs by proclaiming a message that raises questions wherever it is taken and announced. While it announces the Kingdom/ reign of God, attested by the resurrection of Jesus, it does not do this alone.
It is the People of God - the assembly of the baptized - which is the final guarantor of the gospel message. This is stated in the 'Constitution of the Church' (Lumen Gentium # 12) of the Second Vatican Council: 'The entire body of the faithful cannot err in matters of belief'. This is precisely what Henry Newman said when he insisted that it was the people of God who remained faithful during the period of the Arian heresy, and when several bishops fell into heresy. The conclusion/ outcome here is that the bishops need to base themselves on the people of God, which guards the deposit of faith in the final instance. Thus the Magisterium (the teaching authority) - pope and bishops - is governed by a norm that is constituted by the Word of God and understood as the Gospel.
Based on this theological note, it is possible to draw on a point made by the French philosopher Claude Lefort - in a democracy, is statutory void in contrast to the situation in a monarchy. This void is filled temporarily at each election. Applying this to the church, it can be said that Christ is the head of the church and he is the only one able to exercise power in its fullness.
Those in 'ordained ministry' (bishops and priests) are merely trustees of this power in service to the People of God. In Christianity, there are no 'holy persons', but simply ministries of the community. Their way of life may evolve. They can be celibate or married and exercise a profession in society or not. This way of life does not change the theological definition of what a priest is.
May these reflections contribute to the vitality of the church, which needs to return to a form of theological reflection that also draws on sociology.