Reliance on decision-making by top-down appointees, like bishops, rather than elected representatives, is at odds with the democratic ideal to which the modern world aspires

By John Warhurst | Australia, in La Croix, June 2021

Democracy is a modern ideal, still fighting for acceptance in some parts of the world. It has had to be fought for by brave advocates. The church by contrast is an ancient pre-democratic institution, which shows in its hierarchical organisation and undemocratic internal processes.

Yet now Archbishop Mark Coleridge, Archbishop of Brisbane and President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, insists that the days of monarchical and autocratic leadership in the church must be consigned to the past. Co-responsibility and synodality, alternative ideas expressed in distinctive church language, are the suggested way forward. But the democratic ideal of equal participation by all members of a society still has much to offer the church.

The hierarchical church’s aversion to democracy is shown in the way the term is used in ecclesiastical discussion.

A clear example came in the recent announcement of Pope Francis’ declaration of new world-wide diocesan synods in the lead up to the 2023 Synod of Bishops on the theme of synodality. Quick as a flash this announcement was followed by an instinctive insistence by the Secretaries of the Synod of Bishops that these new processes were not to be mistaken for democracy or populism. Even by linking democracy and populism in the same breath the church betrayed its confusion of a virtuous model of community organisation with its dysfunctional abuse. The instinctive reaction against democracy treats it as a virus which the church must strenuously avoid.

This is to its own cost. Democracy has many virtues. Its principles and processes incorporate equal representation in assemblies and parliaments while guarding against both the abuse of executive power and the danger of the misuse of majority parliamentary power.

The latter is done by the incorporation of democratic checks and balances. There is already a strictly limited form of democracy within the church, though top-down appointment is the norm.

Some leaders, including popes, presidents of bishops’ conferences and congregational leaders, are chosen by a vote. Even a limited number of members of the 2021 Plenary Council, including leaders of religious institutes, were chosen by their peers.

But at the basic level of democratic principles the church continues to fall short by embracing its traditional hierarchy and by failing to ensure equal representation of the People of God in the life of the church, including in its decision-making processes.

Checks and balances are even greater within democracies

The Plenary Council fails to adequately represent lay Catholics, although they make up the vast majority of church members.

At the level of democratic process Pope Francis himself rejects what he calls parliamentarism. Francis, in his book Let Us Dream: The path to a better future (2020), points to the weaknesses of so-called parliamentarism’s approach to resolving differences. He highlights the way people take sides, like warring political parties, in order to resolve differences by achieving majority support. This leads to inappropriate campaigning, both inside and outside the assembly, and denigration of opposing positions. Francis rightly seeks consensus, respect for minorities, and the avoidance of polarization, under the influence of the Holy Spirit. But he should not neglect the ways in which mature democracies have dealt with the limitations of their systems of government. His fear of parliamentarism is based on the worst of modern party politics and probably is influenced by what he has lived through in Argentina. In Australia it is widely recognised that ‘winner takes all’ is not a basis on which to resolve the most divisive community issues. Legislation must be passed through two houses of parliament, one elected on a territorial basis (The Senate) and the other elected on a population basis (The House of Representatives). Checks and balances are even greater within democracies when undertaking constitutional change. Constitutional change in Australia requires a parliamentary majority in two chambers, followed by a double majority, of states and of the population, in a national vote of citizens. This requirement makes change more difficult for reformers to achieve, but recognises the seriousness of any change proposed.

The Plenary Council members comprise bishops, who have a deliberative vote and other members who have only a consultative vote. Different types of majorities are recognised in the Plenary Council Statutes and Norms. A distinction is made between motions which are passed by a Simple Majority of 50% plus one of those present and those which are passed by a Qualified Majority of two-thirds of consultative votes, but the ultimate import of this difference is unclear. The crucial deliberative votes by the bishops are taken after the non-binding consultative votes. The church should take note of the sophistication of democratic developments rather than shying away from the mere mention of the democratic ideal.

Reliance on decision-making by top-down appointees, like bishops, rather than elected representatives, is at odds with the democratic ideal to which the modern world aspires.

Moving in this direction means learning from the democratic world by proceeding with an adult rather than a juvenile conception of ways to make decisions within communities and institutions. At heart democracy depends, like synodality and co-responsibility, on the existence of a widespread supportive culture. Whatever its future direction the church would benefit from the greater presence of a democratic spirit.

John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University, the Chair of Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn and a delegate to the Plenary Council.

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The Vatican confesses: the hierarchical Church has lost the peopleHoly See makes ill-fated, last-ditch attempt to alter proposed anti-homophobia law supported by most people in democratic ItalyBy Robert Mickens | Vatican CityAdd to your favourite storiesCall it the Vatican or call it the Holy See.It hardly matters anymore because the difference and nuances between the two terms (or entities) are lost on most people. That includes the majority of Catholics.Increasingly, it seems, people don’t care whether a distinction even exists.Holy See and Vatican mean only one thing to most folks — headquarters of the Catholic Church or bureaucratic center of a two-millennia-old religious behemoth.And that behemoth, as I argued last week, continues to experience an implosion that dates back to at least the Reformation. Certainly by the time of the Enlightenment in the 17th century, this implosion became an ongoing process.As the ancien régime arrangement of “throne and altar” in Old Europe was giving way to democracy, the Church — especially the part tethered to Rome — tried mightily with every weapon in its spiritual and worldly arsenal to barricade itself and its subjects against the modernizing trend.The Church’s futile attempt to make peace with modernityFrom time to time “enlightened” Christians raised their voice to warn the Church’s hierarchs that this was futile. Then, finally, the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) sought to make peace with “modernity”, including democracy.It is now obvious that the Council did not succeed, at least not completely. One need only observe the the continued attempts by Catholic bishops in various parts of the world to dictate to democratically elected governments and heads of sovereign states the course of political action they should pursue.The US bishops, for instance, have been doing this the past 40 years regarding the issue of abortion. In their total failure to convince people to stop aborting fetuses, they have bankrolled politically conservative movements and banked on the civil courts to simply outlaw the practice.It’s a political and legal strategy the Catholic prelates have only doubled down on as they’ve seen their own moral authority steadily slip away, especially after their disastrous and flatfooted response to clergy sex abuse of children and adolescents.Bishops everywhere are increasingly unable to persuade members of their own Church how to respond to the moral and social issues of the day.In effect, the bishops and the institutional Church they think they are “leading” have lost almost all credibility and influence.The hierarchical Church in Italy begins to crumbleTake the bishops of Italy.In this country, which is geographically the home of the papacy, 74.6% of the population still identifies as Catholic, according to the most recent statistics.This is significant drop from a few decades ago when upwards of 90% of the Italian people were baptized members of the Church. But it is still a significant majority.The bishops here, however, are also becoming less and less relevant in the lives of the people.The latest clear example of this was their inability to convince Italian lawmakers to modify an anti-homophobia bill that was ratified last November in the lower house of parliament and is currently being debated in the Senate.The bishops, traditionalist Catholics and right-wing politicians fear that priests or catechists could be fined or arrested for preaching Church doctrine on human sexuality if the bill becomes law.And one of their most absurd worries is that Catholic schools will be forced to observe a new National Day Against Homophobia, as if this were a violation of some religious principle.But a majority of Italians — 60% of them — are in favor of the proposed legislation.The Vatican steps inThe bishops have completely failed to convince them or their democratically elected representatives that there are reasons to oppose it.Why? Obviously, because the people see the bishops and the arguments they employ as out of touch, irrelevant and plain wrong.In an unprecedented legal action on June 17, the Holy See all but admitted that the bishops have failed and have lost their people when it delivered a “nota verbale” — an official communication between sovereign states — to the Italian Embassy to the Holy See demanding that the proposed law be revised.The note invoked the Lateran Treaty, a legal agreement between the Holy See and the Italian State that secures certain rights for the Catholic Church in Italy. It said the bill under review violated some clauses of that treaty.Jurists, politicians and old men in barbershops argued whether or not this amounted to Vatican interference in the affairs of an independent State.At least one newspaper editorialist reminded readers that Italy is no longer a “colony” of the papacy or the Vatican, while others argued that the Catholic hierarchs should worry about saying their prayers and leave the business of democracy to the legislators and those who elected them.An unhappy ending for the status quoThe Holy See does, in fact, have the right to intervene as it did.It expressed concern that the “contract” it had made with Italy would be violated if the bill were to become law. That is something an arbitrator may have to decide if the bill is ratified and signed into law, should the Holy See decide to contest it.But was this the most prudent course of action?Probably not. Even if it were to be decided that the legislation violates the Lateran Treaty, the moral authority of the institutional Church and its bishops will be further discredited.The majority of Italians already perceive the Vatican as having blocked the will of the people. If an arbiter were to rule in the Holy See’s favor it would only reinforce in people’s minds that the Church continues to wield power it should not be allowed in a sovereign democratic country.And it could also lead to a further push by various forces in Italy — both conservative and progressive — to dissolve the Lateran Treaty, a move that already has significant backing in certain quarters.No matter what happens, the Holy See’s recourse to legal means to try to foist its will on Italy, is not likely to have a felicitous ending.This week may go down in history as the beginning of the collapse of the status quo between Church and State in the Bel Paese — the final bulwark in the old, anachronistic paradigm that no longer serves the Body of Christ or the rest of humanity.

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Part II: Synods without true synodality?Bishops in many countries are still reluctant to open up discussion among all the people and are trying to carefully limit what can be talked about
Bishops, as they attend the XVI Ordinary Meeting of the Synod of Bishops led by Pope Francis at the Synod Hall, Vatican City, 6 October 2015 (Photo by EPA/ETTORE FERRARI/MaxPPP) 

By John O’Loughlin Kennedy | IrelandAdd to your favourite storiesIn the first part of this essay, we outlined the synodality envisaged by Pope Francis for the Church.It would be characterized by an ongoing, open dialogue among the people of God at all levels, listening and considering one another’s views.The response from national episcopal conferences has only started but the difference between theory and reality is already beginning to show.GermanyIn Germany, der synodaler Weg (Synodal Path) is under way but this is causing anxiety at the Vatican. Already, we see attempts to limit its scope.Some officials in the Roman Curia have suggested that the Synodal Path should not include discussion of settled doctrines, even secondary and derived ones, that have no claim to infallibility but manifestly need updating.Fortunately, the German bishops seem sufficiently united to withstand the curial pressure and listen to Pope Francis instead.And the German Church has to be treated with respect. It is a substantial net contributor to Vatican coffers.AustraliaIn Australia, the preparation for the Plenary Council (PC) is at an advanced stage.It began with a listening process. The faithful were asked for their advice and suggestions. This evoked 17,457 responses — 4,700 from individuals and no less than 12,757 from groups.Some of the submissions were quite extensive, including one from a Melbourne group, Catholics for Renewal, which was published as a 350-page book, entitled “Getting Back on Mission”.Overall, there was an amazing display of concern in a country that has seen Mass attendance drop from 74 per cent of Catholics in 1954 to 12 per cent in 2016.As one might expect after all that the Catholic Church in Australia has been through, the responses included some radical proposals and creative suggestions for building a better future.Analyzing and ranking these to decide what needed the attention of the Plenary Council has been done in three stages.The first analysis took place at the diocesan level and gave clear indications of the weight of concern among the faithful for the various categories of reform. When these reports were brought together for the national report, however, the relative weightings became vague.This may have resulted from variations in how the categories were defined at the diocesan level, which would preclude their being simply added together.Continuing the journey or already at journey’s end?Unfortunately, the national report was published before the diocesan analysis This obscured the extent of concern among the faithful on the different issues and opened the door to sanitizing the final agenda.The next stage of distillation did just that. Published under the title of Continuing the Journey,it is the Instrumentum Laboris (working document) on which the agenda of the council will be based.It was the work of a team made up of a bishop, a priest and two lay church employees, one male one female. They worked behind closed doors and consulted with the bureaucracy in Rome which looked for some changes before giving its approval.The outcome appears to have been influenced by the anti-Francis sentiment in the curia.As we have seen, allowing everything to be discussed would impact on the unlimited power of the papacy. The official approval by the curia for the Instrumentum Laboris has the regrettable side-effect of setting limits for the agenda of the Plenary Council.As far as proposals for significant changes to remedy the problems in the Church are concerned, it might well have been entitled “Journey’s End”.It has been greeted with dismay by reform groups. All the challenging and really creative suggestions have been edited out.In a recent article carried by La Croix International, Professor John Warhurst, chair of Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn (CCCG), is critical of the blandness and anodyne nature of the proposals that have survived the further distillation.CCCG has published a detailed analysis of the various stages of preparation as organized by the bishops. At each stage the challenging suggestions have been progressively played down to the point where they can be all but ignored in the final agenda.Far from responding to the pope’s call for a renewed openness, the bishops are sticking doggedly with obfuscation and the old defensive secretiveness — and this with the approval of the Roman Curia.Never waste a good crisisAustralian bishops are particularly conscious of the need to maintain good relationship with the curia since the 2011 abrupt dismissal, without due process, of Bishop William Morris of Toowoomba.He had dared to question current regulations that obstructed him in fulfilling his episcopal responsibilities.He had floated some proposals to meet the sacramental famine in his diocese where he was trying to cover an area of half a million square kilometers, almost equal to the size of France, with fewer than fifty priests!Given the scale and urgency of the problems facing the Church, the agenda that is taking shape is much too cautious. It risks losing the rare opportunity offered by a Plenary Council for an effective response to the problems.Professor Warhurst will be one of the lay members of the Council. He has expressed concern lest the mandatory oaths of fidelity be invoked to prevent them from raising the really important issues that are missing from the agenda.However, a strict application of canon law could offer some unexpected freedom in this regard.All this promises a Council that will suffer from the same limitations that created the problems in the past and have prevented their solution.Wasn’t it the advice of Winston Churchill that one should never waste a good crisis?Italy and IrelandRecently, after about five years of prompting from Pope Francis, the episcopal conferences of Italy and Ireland have each announced that they will start the planning process for national synods.In Ireland, preparations are expected to take a further five years, by which time the Jesuit pope, if he survives, will be 92 years of age!England and WalesThe Catholic Bishops of England and Wales have yet to announce any similar response to the pope. This is understandable.When they held a National Pastoral Congress in Liverpool in 1980, no less than 2,000 people attended. The final report, condensed by the bishops into a document entitled “The Easter People”, was presented to John Paul II by Cardinal Hume and Archbishop Warlock.The late pope pushed it to one side and rejected it, apparently without even reading it.There would be no reconsideration of contraception or the issue of Holy Communion for those remarried without an annulment. He was not interested in the voice of the faithful even when transmitted through the hierarchy.However, there is more to the Church than the bishops.I was recently honored with an invitation to address a very exciting group of people in Great Britain. They are leading the way in active response to Francis’ call for open ongoing synodality at every level.Two Church reform groups composed of women have joined forces to organize the Root and Branch Inclusive Synod. They are calling it”a synod that starts with women and does not end there”.What is more, having started in Great Britain, it has already spread farther afield. Using Zoom, it has been gathering twice monthly, to hear guest speakers on topics that will help form the agenda.The engagement after the talks is so lively that they gather again the following day for a “coffee chat” and exchange of ideas and reflections. I was asked to speak because some of the members had read my book The Curia is the Pope, which is a critique of the governance structure that has brought the Church to its present condition.The newsletter of the Diocese of Clifton gives the details:Meeting online since October 2020, Root and Branch Inclusive Synod has drawn interest nationwide and internationally, from Catholics and other denominations and faiths, with laity, religious and clergy meeting as equals. Whether you are a parishioner or a prelate, not practicing or excluded from the church or from ministry, please join us. It is good to talk!The Root and Branch Inclusive Synod will reach its conclusions on issues of equality, inclusion and governance in online workshops running from 5th– 8thSeptember 2021. The Synod will culminate with a conference from 10th– 12thSeptember, at the state-of-the-art conference center of St Michael’s Church, Stoke Gifford, beside Bristol Parkway Station. (Contact:, email is open to all as brothers and sister in Christ.Church dignitaries are welcome but are requested to leave the regalia of office at home. By attending they will be responding to the pope’s demands but risking the disapproval of the anti-Francis faction in the curia.In its openness, inclusiveness, courage and trust in the Holy Spirit, the Root & Branch Inclusive Synod will provide a rare channel of expression to the sensus fidei fidelium.In allowing free exchange of ideas and thus applying synodality as understood by Pope Francis, it will set a standard and example for the future, as genuine synodality becomes more widely adopted throughout the Christian Church.If the impetus for change comes gradually from the people, it will be less likely to lead to further schism.This is aggiornamento in action!John O’Loughlin Kennedy is a retired economist and serial social entrepreneur. With his wife, Kay, he founded Concern in Ireland 1968 and guided it for its first ten years. In addition to responding to humanitarian crises, Concern currently employs 3,500 people on agricultural development and educational and medical projects in 24 of the world’s poorest countries. His recent book The Curia is the Popeis published by Mount Salus Press.Click here for Part I: Synods without true synodality?

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