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A Council in the Likeness of Pope John

A Council in the Likeness of Pope John

by Joseph Dunn

From No Vipers in the Vatican.(The Columba Press, 1996), pp133-142; here reprinted with permission from the publisher.

The arguments for more democratisation in the church

The church is not a democracy

When I published No Lions in the Hierarchy in 1994, my archbishop reminded me that the church was not a democracy. ‘The hierarchical church is of divine not human origin,’ he pointed out. ‘To present it in a light that requires it to conform to a democratic political institution is to create a distortion that inevitably leads to error.’ And that indeed is the Catholic position. Popes, bishops, priests and deacons derive their authority, not from winning elections, but from a call from God and a mandate from Christ. The truths of our Catholic faith are not determined by vote or sociological survey.

I would go further and say that many if not most of the organisations that impinge on our daily lives do not conform to democratic political institutions either. RTÉ, for instance, is not a democracy, decisions are made by a Broadcasting Authority which is appointed, not elected. CIE is not a democracy - the workers don’t elect their chairman or chief executive. Nor do university students elect their president or governing body. So the fact that members of the church don’t conform to a democratic political institution does not make the church particularly unique within the framework of a democratic civil society.

The pressure towards ‘democratisation’

To say the church is of divine not human origin does not of course mean that it is a divine society! From Reformation times the Catholic teaching has insisted that the church is a visible human society with a human structure: it is not, as the Reformers once taught, an invisible relationship between the individual believer and God. But if it is a human society with human structure, then many of the same rules that apply to other human structures will likely apply to it. And no matter how they are constituted, it seems that most institutions nowadays cannot avoid coming under pressure to democratise. Take RTÉ for instance. In 1995 - for the first time ever - RTÉ staff were permitted to elect one of their members to the RTÉ Authority. Previously the government had appointed one member of staff, and previous to that the staff were not represented at all. One could pick other examples. A student - in practice the elected head of the Students’ Council - is now appointed to the governing body of UCD, and there is talk of widening this representation That is different from when I was a university student there. CIE trade unionists elect four members to the board - the other eight are appointed by the government. Many other industries have in recent times introduced a form of power sharing, and found the well-being of the workers and the efficiency of operations much improved. Everything indicates that the church is no more immune than any other society to this pressure to democratise. A survey, for instance, in the US indicates that two thirds of all the Catholic laity under fifty-five years of age favour more democratic decision making at every level of their church from parish to Vatican Curia. Archbishop Connell himself has recently instituted a Women’s Forum in the diocese so that women’s concerns may be better heard. So even if democracy is out, by definition, democratisation may still be in.

The Vatican Council

The Vatican Council provides a very interesting case study of this democratising process within the upper echelons of the Catholic church. And whereas it wasn’t the prime purpose of A Council in the likeness of Pope John to make this point, many of the interviews illustrated it.

Wilton Wynne is an American journalist who reported the Council for Time magazine.

At the first meeting of the Council the agenda had been drawn up by the arch-conservatives in the Vatican and Pope John knew it wouldn’t hold up. And in fact the agenda was practically disregarded in a few weeks. John called the bishops of the world in, he told them to practice holy liberty in their discussions and he made clear to them that there would be no pressure on them from the top - it was what we call in America an ‘open convention’. And as the bishops realised this in fact was the case, they conducted their debates in a framework that you could only call holy liberty.

The evolution of democratic procedures

Fr Ralph Wiltgen, who was involved in press relations at the Council, spoke about the evolution of democratic procedures.

As the Council evolved, whenever a Council father would make proposals to amend a document and the new draft of the document would come back, the responsible commission for revising the text in view of the proposals would always indicate why they accepted the amendment or why they didn’t accept it: or perhaps they would indicate where this matter had already been covered elsewhere in their document or in some other document. It gave the Council fathers the feeling that they as individuals were important, and what they had to say could then eventually become part of a Council document, and this is what actually happened.

The involvement of other Christians

Dr George Lindbeck, a Lutheran observer from the United States, remembered with enthusiasm the involvement of Protestant observers in the decision making process.

One had a situation in which the observers not only had greater knowledge, greater access to what was happening within the Council, but also in many respects greater input than the bishops themselves! That is to say the Secretariat for Christian Unity was constantly asking us for our reactions to various drafts and then sometimes the observers would hear their suggestions repeated by the bishops in their speeches before the Council. One observer, Oscar Cullmann, is reported to have been responsible for as many changes in the Council drafts as any other single individual. Well this naturally made us feel very important: but more than that we also were received with extraordinary warmth.

Consultation and collegiality

Francis Sullivan, a Jesuit theologian at the Gregorian University, remembered how theologians felt involved as well.

One of the great events of the life of the church since I’ve been in Rome was the collaboration that took place between bishops and theologians during those four years of the Council. And it was evident that a great number of bishops felt the need of the counsel and help and advice of theologians, and not only the ones they themselves brought with them. So there was a great deal of consultation.

One of the most prominent issues in the documents that were approved by the Council was the role of bishops - what is so often called ‘collegiality’. In other words, the bishops as a whole college have a role to play in the life of the whole church, in the government, in the decision making. Not all the answers can come from Rome. The bishops are there and the Pope really has to work with them as a group. In the second session, 1963, there was a crucial vote on collegiality. The vote made it perfectly clear that a very great majority of the Council was in favour of a strong position on the collegiality of the bishops.

It is interesting to note that when Paul VI requested the Council fathers to include a statement in the schema on the church saying that the Pope was answerable only to God, they refused. The Pope may be head of the college of bishops, but bishops as successors to the apostles are co-responsible with the Pope for the unity, legitimate diversity, and freedom of the world church. And that by divine institution (according to Canon 375) - not because the Pope appoints them.

Dissatisfaction with the Synods

The memory of the openness of the Council made it more difficult for the bishops to accept the renewed curial control exercised in the post-Vatican II synods. Bishop d’Souza from India attended the Council and subsequent Synods.

The Synod of bishops, as it was conceived by the fathers of the Council, was of a completely different complexion to what is now taking place. Matters that are absolutely harmless are being brought into the Synod. The bishops meet, they talk, and then what happens to the discussions? We are not even aware of the resolutions, the discussions. What we envisaged at the Council was that the Synod should be a more effective way of involving people from different parts of the world in the administration of the church.

The ethos of democracy

The Vatican Council is a striking example of what some like to call the ethos of democracy - the ethos which encourages mutual respect, a readiness to listen to others and participate with others in decision making. But the Council did more than that. It also provided statements and definitions which give a major impetus to democratisation in the wider church. For instance, it changed the notion of ‘church’ from the kingdom of God, holy without spot or wrinkle, and in no need of reform or change, to the notion that the church has to be constantly reformed or changed to remain true to itself in a changing world. The buzz word of the Council was ‘aggiornamento’, which means ‘updating’.

Updating on democracy in civil society

The Decree on the Church in the Modern World speaks about democracy in civil society with favour, even if in a rather convoluted fashion.

It is fully consonant with human nature that there should be politico-juridical structures providing all citizens without any distinction with ever improving and effective opportunities to play an active part in the establishment of the juridical foundations of the political community, in the administration of public affairs, in determining the aims and the terms of reference of public bodies, and in the election of political leaders. (75)

This certainly was updating the church’s teaching, bearing in mind that Pius XII was the first Pope ever to say that Catholic social teaching supported democratic forms of government. Pius’s teaching was in turn a major update on Libertas Praestantissimum, an encyclical of Pope Leo XIII written only 83 years before. Leo then called the theory of separation of church and state an absurdity, and condemned free speech and freedom of the press because the law must protect ‘the untutored multitude from error and falsehood’.

Updating on democracy within the church

The Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church tells us that those who are reborn in Christ are finally established as ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation ... who in times past were not a people, but now are the People of God’. Each member of this People of God participates in the priesthood of Christ and shares ‘a true equality between all with regard to the dignity and to the activity which is common to all the faithful in the building up of the body of Christ. ‘By reason of the knowledge, competence or pre-eminence which they have, the laity are empowered - indeed sometimes obliged - to manifest their opinion on those things which pertain to the good of the church.’ (Lumen Gentium 9, 32, 37)

Granting that selective quotation from Council documents can support different points of view, it still seems the inescapable message of these and similar texts that the Council fathers at least believed that the People of God should have a role to play in the church which is’ greater than the tradional pay and pray.

Summing up the Council

1. It seems fair to say that a democratic collegial approach to decision making fits better with the church’s self understanding after the Vatican Council than an authoritarian approach.

2. A democratic approach within the church fits better with the church’s present teaching on the need for democracy in the civil society.

But apart from mining Council documents, there are other ways of exploring the concept of democratisation in the church. One can look to see how far there has been a democratic tradition at different stages of its history. One can enquire what Christ had to say about how he wished his followers to act. One can see what thoughtful Christians have had to say about decision making. And lastly, one can examine the roots of authoritarian leadership and see whether they are sourced in the teaching of Christ, or in models devised by ancient pagan societies.

1. Evidence for a democratic tradition

The New Testament

One familiar quotation from Jesus is quite dramatic in its rejection of authoritarian rule: ‘You know that among the pagans their so-called rulers lord it over them, and their great men make their authority felt. This is not to happen among you ...’

In the New Testament, the Greek word we translate as church is ‘ekklesia’ (from which comes English words like ecclesiastic). The original meaning of this Greek word is ‘a democratic assembly of full citizens’. Surely that is a significant choice of a word by the sacred writer!

The early church

At the height of the Roman Empire the apostle Paul spoke of a remarkably democratic ethos in the infant church, equating Jew and Greek, citizen and slave. ‘For just as the soma (a political term meaning body/corporation) is one, and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one soma, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptised into one soma - Jews or Greeks, slaves or free - all were made to drink of one Spirit.’

When it came to choosing leaders in the community, the Acts of the Apostles records that the whole assembly participated in the selection of Matthias to replace Judas among the apostles(l:15-26), and also in the choice of the seven men after the Hellenist dispute (6:1-6). The popular election of ministers thus became a paradigm for the early church. The election of Ambrose, governor of Aemelia- Liguria, as Bishop of Milan is one of the better known examples from the fourth century. The laity insisted that on the death of the Arian bishop Auxentius, Ambrose should succeed him, even though he had not yet even been baptised!

Involvement and consultation of the laity

At the beginning of his episcopate (c 248) St Cyprian writes to his presbyters and deacons, ‘I have decided to do nothing of my own opinion privately without your advice and the consent of the people’.

The fact that the laity were actively involved in councils of the church from the Council of Carthage in the fourth century to the Council of Trent in the sixteenth, is often overlooked. The emperor Constantine summoned the Council of Arles in 314 when he was invited by churchmen to intervene in the Donatist dispute. An important precedent was thereby established. One tends to forget that it was the emperor, a layman, and not the Pope who went on to convoke the seven great councils of antiquity, the only ones recognised by both the Eastern and Western churches.

The medieval church

When Gregory VII, Hildebrand, attempted to reconstruct the hierarchy and remove it from the control of Italian groups in the eleventh century, he recalled the old traditional manner of electing bishops by the priests and people of a region.

After 1305, the Avignon papacy, having no tax basis in France, used the granting of bishoprics as a means to generating revenue. Local rulers chose the candidates, but the Pope insisted on approving them - for a substantial fee.

Scandal and schism and the problem of having two and then three claimants to the papal throne, led to the calling of councils at Constance and Basle in the first half of the fifteenth century to try and sort out the problems. These councils provided an opportunity for some democratic thinking in the wake of the scandal brought about by a totalitarian and corrupt papacy. The councils insisted on freedom of speech, free and equal voting power, and committee systems to help with decision making. Constance decreed by perpetual edict ‘that general councils should be held every ten years forever'. Unfortunately they weren’t. Unfortunately too, the conciliar movement in the church failed, not because it was wrong, but because the Popes returned to a policy of absolute monarchy as soon as it was feasible for them to do so. I say unfortunately, because if the more democratic decision making process of councils had become the norm, who knows but that the divisions among Christians in the sixteenth century might have been resolved without schism.

The Reformation and after

The effects of the reformist teaching of Luther and Calvin was to challenge the legitimacy of papal and even episcopal leadership. The church reacted by reinforcing the pyramidical structure - laity-priests-bishops-Pope. The violent upheavals in secular society as it moved away from monarchical government in 1789 and 1848 also seems to have engendered a fortress mentality which didn’t begin to melt until after the second great war in this century. The Second Vatican Council, as we have seen, laid the groundwork for a more democratic church. However, its promise has not been fulfilled due to a powerful conservative reaction in the Curia.

Popes are still elected

Election of bishops by local clergy was normal well into the middle ages. Indeed the election of the Pope by the College of Cardinals is a relic of this practice, since the ‘cardinals’ were simply the priests of the cardinal churches of the diocese of Rome. Nowadays cardinals come from all around the world, but the tradition remains of appointing them as titular priests of churches in Rome itself.

Elections of religious superiors

Abbots, abbesses, superiors of religious orders are normally elected, and this is a long democratic tradition. Indeed, some religious orders have carried democratisation to extreme lengths since Vatican II, one of the penalties being endless meetings and painful tardiness in reaching decisions!


European Catholics who emigrated to America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought ideas which led to the establishment of parishes run by lay trustees. Indeed, an Irish bishop from Cork, with the inappropriate name of John England, provided the intellectual underpinning for the system - which was killed later in the nineteenth century with the movement towards centralising authority in Rome.

The church’s social teaching

Pius XI, in his encyclical letter, Quadragesimo Anno (1931), stated that the principle of subsidiarity is ‘a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable’. In simple terms this principle states that it is wrong and unjust to transfer authority to larger and higher bodies which can be properly exercised at a lower level. Larger units of government should only take over functions when individuals, voluntary groups and local governments are not able to deal with the issue. While addressing a group of new cardinals in 1946, Pius XII noted that the principle of subsidiarity ‘is valid for social life in all of its organisations and also for the life of the church’.

Should not this principle of subsidiarity then be applied to the church government as well as to civil government as Pius suggested - for instance in the matter of appointment of bishops? Obviously it could, because it has been that way in the past. And taking into account the church’s self-understanding as the ‘People of God’, perhaps it should.

2. How can the church become more democratic?

Very easily. Many of the structures are there and only need to be activated. For instance:

1. The Synod of Bishops: The Synod of bishops should set an example of power-sharing in the church. But before it can do that, the following reforms would have to be implemented at the very least:

a) The Bishops’ Conferences must be permitted to interchange among themselves - and publish for the priests and laity - their response to the ‘Lineamenta’ or theme document proposed for each Synod. This would open up the document to discussion and mature consideration.

b) The bishops should be free to bring theologians and experts for advice and consultation - as they did during the Second Vatican Council.

c) The procedures at present prevent the bishops making any decisions or even voting between alternative propositions. Nor do they have any control over the final document that is supposedly issued from the Synod. This is written by the Curia in the name of the Pope, and as many bishops have said, often bears little relationship to what was actually said in the Synod. If the Synod of Bishops were allowed to function freely, and not under the autocratic control of the Curia, then that would be an immense step forward.

2. Conferences of Bishops. Bishop’s Conferences have made a marked contribution to democratisation. The US Conference in particular has initiated a system of consultation with priests and laity before issuing policy documents which set a headline for other conferences. The general tendency of Vatican pronouncements however has been to downgrade the importance of Conferences of Bishops again one suspects because the Curia prefers to deal with bishops as individuals rather than as a group who might queer the pitch of the centralised authority.

3. Councils of priests. Clergy are reasonably served with fora to express their views. In Ireland most, if not all, dioceses have a council of priests. In addition, priests have a National Council of Priests with direct elections from the dioceses and religious orders. This body tends to be more independent in its activities - they recently elected Professor Enda McDonagh as chairman, which suggests that they do not contemplate a conservative agenda in the immediate future.

4. Pastoral councils. The Second Vatican Council expressed the wish that pastoral councils, embracing priests, religious and laity, be set up everywhere. Canons 511 to 514 expand on the details, and declare that members of a diocesan pastoral council ‘are to be selected in such a way that the council truly reflects the entire portion of the people of God which constitutes the diocese’. Canon 536 speaks of pastoral councils at parochial level. National Synods of clergy and laity are also supposed to be encouraged, but very few ever came to be, presumably because of the Roman reaction to some of the early attempts - such as the first Pastoral Council which was held in the Netherlands. Its aim was ‘to foster the cohesion of all Dutch Catholics in the development of a common pastoral strategy’. Rome however made clear its view that many matters of pastoral policy were not matters for discussion by priests and laity, and the Dutch bishops capitulated. So nothing came of a movement which at the time galvanised the whole Dutch church - except great frustration.

There has been mention recently about the possibility of a National Synod to review the present state of the church in Ireland - some say crisis, but I think that is too strong a word. My own view is that there is no point in holding a Synod until there is a more relaxed attitude in Rome, and evidence of a greater willingness to share power in decision making. Otherwise expectations will only be raised, followed by frustration when the synod finds it has no power to change anything, and it’s recommendations are totally ignored.

But clearly new structures aren’t needed to bring about democratisation - at least immediately. Just the will to let the old ones function with the freedom of the children of God!

Read: Theologians and the Magisterium, by Richard A. McCormick. From Corrective Vision, Explorations in Moral Theology, Sheed & Ward, 1994, Chapter 7.

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