The National Catholic Review

Cambridge, MA. When the election was upon us in the past few weeks, I was writing in this column about love; now that Barack Obama is our president-elect, it is a moment to reflect on the meaning of the election. Instead of any wide-ranging reflection — I am no pandit — I would like simply to make a single point, and then draw out an implication — a question — for the Church.
     However one views the election process and its results, it is undeniable that the political parties and their chief candidates strained to understand what voters wanted, and to meet, in a very complex fashion, the needs of various constituencies without alienating others at the same time. Despite its foibles and absurdities, the campaign was in an important way a national conversation on what we care about today. For winners and losers alike, it was a learning experience and — I suggest — we are the better for having had this conversation. If the Democrats are now pleased with the results and their success in connecting significantly with a wide spectrum of voters, Republicans can still have profited from the wake-up call: times have changed, new voter needs are paramount, losing touch is a bad thing, and so the party can and must now regroup itself and redefine where it is going. So, in a way, both winners and losers can be said to have profited from the election.
     And here is the application: The Catholic Church is not a democracy and it is only in dreams (for some) or nightmares (for others) that we could envision bishops campaigning for reelection and, on election day, some affirmed and returned to office, others sent off into retirement or a less public ministry for a time. We could even see, in dream or nightmare, a giant post-election rally in St. Peter’s Square, where the newly elected Pope — (re)elected in a global process — steps out on the balcony. The people have spoken, some Church leaders are out, and some are reaffirmed in their ministry. The Church goes on, better for the experience.
     Of course, this is not about to happen, but we can at least ask ourselves: If, as I have suggested above, democracy has a chastening effect, makes leaders listen much more carefully, and gives many the experience of having power, losing it, and only later possibly regaining it — then how do our leaders in the Church compensate for not having this experience? Prayer is important, fidelity to the work is important, and personal integrity matters a great deal. But really, there is nothing quite like having to explain to your people why you should continue to be their leader, and to face the prospect of losing office — not only due to political reasons, but also for very good reasons honest, concerned voters have on their minds. If there is no process of accountability, what may happen is depressing in its effects: knowing they are not really listened to, Catholics will stop listening, and simply make their own decisions in their own way. Thus, by one interpretation, the Catholic vote in this month’s presidential election: Catholics voting as they please, in elections where their votes count.
     If I were a bishop — no danger of that happening! — I would take a November moment to reflect on the disadvantages of having what is tantamount to a lifetime appointment; were I Pope (!!), I would worry every now and then, at least once a week, about the security and comfortableness that come with the knowledge that no matter how things go, or how tired and cynical I get in my old age, I will not, cannot lose my office, no matter how much I wander or fail in learning from my people.
     Much of ecclesial long-term security has to do with vocation and mission as received from God, and guided by the Spirit. This is crucial, and why the Church is not a democracy. But since we are human, it is hard to believe that the lack of electoral accountability — the sobering prospect of losing power — does not harm the Church, particularly in countries where all other important leadership positions require of public servants that they ask the people for a new mandate. It is hard to believe that most of our Church leaders would not be, yet again, better leaders, if they had to spend six years out of power, reflecting on why their people did not want them to continue as leaders.
     I write the preceding paragraphs with a modest sense of irony, since I am hardly in a vulnerable position myself. I am a Jesuit, and I am also a tenured professor and holder of an endowed chair at Harvard. Should I turn out to be a very poor teacher, or suddenly cease my research and writing, I would still have my job and my chair: limited accountability in my glass house too! But a bishop is more important than a professor, and the Church more important than Harvard, and it matters more that Church leaders be all the more attentive to the people, accountable in some real way.
     Perhaps the bishops are thinking about some of this as they meet for the fall meeting? I certainly hope so; there is too much at stake for our own leaders to be too cozy in their realization that they will never be on the outside looking in.

Comments

Anonymous | 11/12/2008 - 12:38pm
Historically, the Overseers in the New Testament are more likely local pastors, since most of the early Church consisted of one assembly rather than a group of congregations. I am not sure if I care how Bishops or Patriarchs are selected, including the Latin Patriarch of Rome. I care more about how parishes are run. Given the prospect of gallopping Christian unity, I cannot forsee the current situation continuing where the Bishop personally holds all diocesean assets in trust. Parishes will soon gain more independence in matters of property and administration, with elected Deacon administrators (some of whom will be female and all of whom will provide the Sacrament of Reconciliation). Priests (if the office survives) will be assigned to minister the sacraments rather than control the assets and staff. The various super-parish activities, like High Schools and Catholic Charities, will be governed democratically. Democracy is still alive and well in the Church. After all, the Pope is elected, just not by everyone. Orders have elections as well, as I seem to recall. Didn't the Society of Jesus just have one? Fr. Clooney, if you see this, give my best to Father Bryan (who baptized my daughter and who was selected by the Catholic Charities, USA Board democratically when he served as President).
Anonymous | 11/12/2008 - 10:06am
What a view of Catholicism! Here, bishops rule out of love for power and truth is up for (or ought to be)the vote of the populace. And, accountability is popularity. So long to service and and, "The Word of G_d"! And for,"Listening to the Spirit". French Revolution, anyone?
Anonymous | 11/11/2008 - 3:31pm
Perhaps it is a poverty much of the Church has lost democracy. Religious life enjoys a mesure of it as community leaders are discerned by the membership. The Church could do worse than return the selection of bishops to the diocesan level. An appropriate set of checks and balances could also be instituted to guard for orthodoxy, unity, and the like. Needless to say, re-election would be out the window, as would any sort of campaigning. I disagree the bishops are not accountable. They certainly are. They answer to the Curia, and to a lesser degree, the pope. I would also beg to differ in that the Holy Spirit is limited from participation if the selection of the bishop were returned to local election. Are we tossing out several dozen popes chosen by the College of Cardinals? I think that rather than add snickering to the merger of "church" and "democracy" in our discussions, we should seriously explore the notion. At the very least, I wonder if the snickers are not truly an uncomfortable laugh at the expense of the Holy Spirit.