"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Is the Church a Democracy?

In my conversations with Protestants it is not uncommon for me to hear or read a statement like this, "I'd come back to the Catholic Church if the Pope did x, y, and z", where x, y, and z are actions that in some respect would 'Protestantize' the Catholic Church, either in doctrine, in sacraments and liturgy, or in Church government. (For a similar way of thinking, see, for example, the Touchstone article titled "Plausible Ecumenicism", and my reply to Craig Higgin's comments therein.) Last week I was in a conversation in which a Protestant said, "True ecumenicism means everybody has to compromise."

Statements such as that reveal a Protestant conception of the Catholic Church, a viewing of the Catholic Church while wearing Protestant 'glasses'. Of course I do not expect Protestants to wear Catholic 'glasses' while looking at the Catholic Church, but successful ecumenical dialogue does require that all participants, insofar as possible be aware of the 'glasses' they are wearing. Protestants are in some way aware of this shared Protestant paradigm. When I went from Pentecostal to Presbyterian, nobody said anything to me. When I went from Presbyterian to Anglican, again, nobody said anything to me. But when I made known that I was becoming Catholic, suddenly, I was getting many letters and phone calls urging me to reconsider, even on the very morning that I was to be received into the Catholic Church. Why?

These well meaning persons (who genuinely love me, and whom I genuinely love) recognized that I was leaving "the Protestant paradigm". I have discussed this before, in my post titled "Two Paradigms", but I want to expand on it here. Just as a fish cannot know that it is wet until it experiences dryness, so it is very difficult to know a paradigm that one has always been in, until one steps out of it (in some respect). When I stepped out of the Protestant paradigm, I came to see it more clearly. It had been with me all along, through my Pentecostalism, through my Presbyterianism, and through my Anglicanism.

What had been with me all along, through this process, was a certain way of thinking about the Church and myself in relation to ecclesial authority. In this paradigm, I would pick the denomination that seemed to me most true to Scripture and most conducive to meeting my spiritual needs. That right there almost defines the paradigm. (See my post titled "Ecclesial Consumerism vs. Ecclesial Unity".) According to this paradigm, if or when that particular community or denomination no longer seemed most true to Scripture or no longer met my spiritual needs, then I could and should go elsewhere.

Once, for example, when I was discussing my list of 'exceptions' to the Westminster Confession of Faith, a fellow seminary student said to me, "Well, if you're going to take that many exceptions, why do you even want to be one of us?" The obvious background assumption was that one joins this denomination because one agrees with it for the most part. Notice what he didn't say: "You should agree with and submit to our denomination because of the authority of our denomination." The recent FV controversy in the Presbyterian Church in America shows the very same way of thinking, as FV advocates are sometimes urged to leave and find a denomination that is more friendly to their FV way of thinking. J.I. Packer's recent
decision to leave the Anglican Church of Canada, and align himself with a South American Anglican bishop shows a similar way of thinking. You place yourself under those who teach your way of interpreting Scripture (cf. 2 Timothy 4:3). Those Protestants who reply to the Catholic, "But you do the same thing" show that they are still perspectivally restricted to the Protestant paradigm. (See "The Alternative to painting a magisterial target around our interpretive arrow".)

Loaded into this paradigm is a conception of the Church as defined by form, not matter, as I shall explain. According to this paradigm the Church is an invisible body with many 'branches' more or less true to Scripture but whose essence is some kind of "mere Christianity". Conceiving of the essence of the Church as some kind of "mere Christianity" is the way in which this paradigm defines the Church by "form". According to this paradigm, no 'branch' is "the Church" or is "the institution that Christ founded". According to this paradigm, no existing ecclesial institution was founded by Christ. Hence in this paradigm, no 'branch' of the Church has ultimate ecclesial authority. Each 'branch' has an equal say at the ecumenical dialogue table, though in practice the greater number of members had by a denomination gives it more say. (This is, roughly, the ecumenical paradigm one finds in the World Council of Churches.) In this paradigm, the Christian's ecclesial task is to find the branch that best suits him at that time in his life. Hence the phenomenon of "church shopping". If you are disciplined or 'excommmunicated' in one branch, you just move to another branch, or start your own branch.

The Catholic conception of the Church, on the other hand, is that the Church is a visible body founded by Christ upon the Apostles. Essential to the Church is the authority of Christ passed down through sacramental succession from the Apostles by the laying on of hands. This sacramental understanding of Apostolic succession is what makes the Catholic conception of the Church not merely formal, because the laying on of hands intrinsically involves matter. Form (i.e. doctrine) and matter (i.e. sacramental succession from the Apostles) are retained as integrated and mutually essential to the Church. This precisely is why the Catholic Church recognizes Orthodox Churches as actual [particular] Churches, but regards Protestant bodies as "ecclesial communities", for they lack Apostolic succession. See Responsa ad quaestiones, which was released last July. And see here for the response by the World Council of Churches. Hopefully it is clear, given the differences between the two paradigms I am describing, why the Catholic Church is not a member of the World Council of Churches.

In the Catholic paradigm, if a person is excommunicated, there is simply nowhere else to go (cf. John 6:68); that person has been excommunicated from "the Church". In the Catholic paradigm, if the Church establishes a dogma, and a person rejects it, that person is ipso facto a heretic. (See Aquinas' statement on that here.) The person who accepts it by faith on the authority of the Church, even while not understanding it or its basis, exemplifies that supernatural virtue of faith described by the phrase fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding). Faith involves believing on the basis of the authority of the successors of the Apostles, for that is the way in which the hearers of the Apostles believed the Gospel, i.e. on the authority of the Apostles. ("For my part, I should not believe the Gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church." - St. Augustine) The individualism and egalitarianism of the Protestant ecclesial paradigm limit faith to belief in the divine inspiration and authority of the Scriptures, excluding faith from the interpretive act per se.

As you can see from the diagram above, there are twenty-two Churches within the Catholic Church. There are even four Rites with the Latin Church. So in this sense, from the Catholic point of view, there is diversity, and there are branches, *within* the Catholic Church. But these are all still within one institution, in full communion with the bishop of Rome.

As I have argued here, conceiving of the Church as defined by form, not matter, has individualism and anti-hierarchical egalitarianism as a necessary implication. And the only form of government that conforms to individualism and egalitarianism is democracy. Statements like "I'd come back to the Catholic Church if the Pope did x, y, and z" are intrinsically anti-Catholic, because they carry with them democratic and egalitarian theological assumptions rooted in the paradigm that conceives of the Church as identified essentially by *form*. And the same is true of statements like "True ecumenicism means everybody has to compromise." The democratic conception of the Church is one of individual autonomy. Since governing authority is derived from the governed, it can therefore be taken away by (and/or is ultimately subject to the wishes of) the governed. But imagine if the Pope had to conform to the particular wishes and positions of all Christians, and achieve unity by common ground or common consensus. Not only would there would be no doctrine left (see here) , there would be no unity left. And without unity, there would be no being, i.e. the Church would no longer exist. (See here.) Ecumenicism grounded in this democratic paradigm is, as I wrote here:
"the kind of ecumenicism that seeks unity by finding the lowest common denominator between all the divided parties. Such an ecumenicism is doomed to failure, like the fragile unity with which the feet and toes made of iron and clay were unified (Daniel 2). The peace it pursues is the world's peace."

The Catholic conception of the Church is not democratic, and never has been. If we look at the way David treated Saul, we see a very different way of thinking, one that does not make the authority of the ruler depend on the opinion of the ruled concerning the character or beliefs of the ruler. Jesus shows us the same way of thinking in Matthew 23:2-3 when He tells the people that because the Pharisees sit in the "chair of Moses", "therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them." According to Jesus, their hypocrisy did not nullify their authority. (This is what made Montanism, Novatianism, and Donatism schisms from the Catholic Church – see page four and following,
here.) That is because in the Catholic paradigm, the ecclesial authority of Church leaders does not have its origin in the choice of those leaders by the laymen. In the Catholic conception, as I pointed out recently , authority is not bottom-up, but rather from the top-down. That is not to say that laypersons had no role or responsibility in contributing to the decisions and actions of the Church. But the locus of hierarchical authority has always been believed to come from the top-down, from Christ, to the Apostles, through the Apostles to the bishops whom they appointed, and then to the bishops they appointed, and so on. The locus of authority was never conceived of as coming from the bottom-up, that is, from the laypersons to the clergy.

The irony in statements like "I'd come back to the Catholic Church if the Pope did x, y, and z" is that persons who think this way would still be Protestant in their conception of Church authority, even if the Pope happened to do x, y, and z, because such persons think that the Church should conform to themselves. We do not become Catholic to make the Church conform to what we think it should be; we become Catholic so that Christ through the Church may make us into what He wants us to be. To submit to Christ is to submit to His Church. Similarly, the notion that "True ecumenicism means everybody has to compromise" carries with it the implicit assumption that no present institution is the one Christ founded and to which all Christians should conform. Implicit in the very statement is the assumption that the speaker has the authoritative determination of what is "true ecumenicism". The authority issue simply cannot be avoided; one either finds authority and submits to it, or one arrogates it to oneself. I frequently see a bumper sticker that reads, "If you want peace, work for justice". In the context of the Church I think an appropriate one would be: "If you want ecumenical unity, seek out authentic sacramental authority."

As we prepare for Pentecost, may the Holy Spirit work in us to make us truly one.

In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.


contrarian 78 said...

How are "glasses" and paradigms distinct from worldviews as described by presuppositionalists?

Is it the underlying epistemological skepticism or are there deeper differences?

Principium unitatis said...

Hello Jonathan,

The notion of a 'paradigm' is similar to a worldview, though not necessarily as comprehensive as a "worldview".

My objection to "presuppositionalism" (or at least a common form of it) is, as you noted, the epistemological skepticism that leaves us with fideism as a philosophical starting point. We can reject that sort of fideism, be realists in the traditional Aristotelian-Thomistic sense, and still recognize that we operate in paradigms or conceptual frameworks. So acknowledging that we typically operate in paradigms does not entail any sort of fideism or epistemological skepticism. We can rationally (and not merely fideistically) compare and evaluate paradigms, which means that we are not entirely subject to them. (Kuhn, apparently, thought that paradigm shifts were non-rational events.)

I hope I'm answering your question.

In Christ,

- Bryan

Eric Telfer said...


Excellent essay. Some relevant questions for all of us to also consider:

(1) Are we free to alter the faith?

(2) Are we free to have the faith on our own terms?

(3) Do we have to have it on the terms of another?

(4) And, if another, who or which or what other?

(5) When does 'Mere Christianity' become 'My Christianity, as I claim it to be'? Is Mere Christianity anything other than that?

(6) How much can Mere Christianity be altered before it becomes Mire Christianity?

(7) What prevents Mere Christianity from being changed into Mire Christianity? What principle or thing could stop this? The Fundamentalists have tried to stop it by declaring the Fundamentals, which was a way of opposing modern liberalism's influence on and within various ecclesial communities. But on what authority do they rest? And what principle or thing can they appeal to to say what the faith is and to keep it the same?

(8) Is the faith really revealed to us in a way that it can be re-interpreted in so many different, even conflicting, ways?


Eric Telfer said...

The term 'paradigm' or talk about it in terms of lenses or glasses is not so important as the notion that we use the term or 'paradigm' to indicate that we come to conclude a great many things are true or probably true in our lives and those things that we have concluded to can be talked about collectively as a paradigm or world-view or with other such similar terms, i.e., set of conclusions or beliefs, a complex of truth-claims and surrounding assumptions, implications, a conclusion or belief network, a conclusion or belief or truth claim complexus, etc. We are not locked into a thing called a paradigm, however. We many times are used to thinking of and evaluating things in terms of or alongside or in connection with our already held conclusions. Prior conclusions, be they broad enough or relevant enough, do influence us for there are implications to our conclusions about extra-mental things because extra-mental things are related in this way and that, which means that a truth claim about one thing may be influenced by a truth claim about another, or vice versa, directly or indirectly, proximally or distally. This is easy enough to see. It should also be noted that this sort of influence, which is an attempt at consistency (at least in part), is not just horizontal, but also vertical, as more general conclusions guide and tend to direct more specific conclusions, at least when they are kept at the forefront of the mind, and many times even when they are not. And because we often speak metaphorically or analogically, we find the different conclusions from different fields sometimes influencing our conclusions in another field. Similarly, if we are focused so much on one thing in life we sometimes start to think about other things in terms of that one thing, which can be helfpul, but can also lead to various forms of reductionism and a great many partial truths about the thing not expressed so well as they might be otherwise. Indeed, a one-track mind is a sub-conscious key to reductionism, i.e., in the machine age some focused so much on machines that they then wanted to talk about everything in terms of machines, even people. With each new technological development and fad there are people who tend to do reduce in this way. But, we can talk about paradigms and world-views. We just have to understand that not everyone means the same thing by them. Reason aimed at truth can transcend paradigms and world-views, able as it is to break in and out of different paradigms and different world-views, comparing, contrasting, experiencing, etc., along the way. We can conclude things and develop a set of conclusions, i.e., a conclusion network, that might be characterized, be guiding in some sense, be influential in some other sense, be relied on in some sense at certain times, etc. But also we can learn the conclusions of others, compare our conclusions to the conclusions of others, reflect on our conclusions, eventually disagree with our conclusions, even disagree with a large part of our previous held set of conclusions, etc. We are not trapped in the complexus of conclusions that we form in life. And yet it is true also that once we get into a groove or into a certain structure or habit of thinking, we may have difficulty understanding the broader picture, the more zoomed out view of things, or any other particular conclusion or set of conclusions at the same zoomed in level as our own. And yet difficulty should not be equated with impossibility, which is what some fideists do on this issue, for we can, as Bryan points out, *rationally* evalute our conclusions, our conclusion networks and the conclusions and conclusion networks of others. We can then compare these to the extra-mental world and make more conclusions, affirming, judging and checking along the way.


andrew said...

Our ecclesial story arcs are pretty similar, except substitute "Bible church" for "Pentecostal" at the beginning.

American Presbyterianism, Anglicanism, and denominationalism in general, is a big boiling pot of alphabet soup. Which letters did you scoop up? I was OPC (Orthodox Presbyterian Church) and then APA (Anglican Province in America).

What do you think about Rite-shopping, or parish-shopping, within the One Catholic Church?
Simply stated, does this post apply to Catholics?

Grifman said...

I'm curious about something though. Isn't it a fact that in the early church, bishops, even popes, were elected by the local churches? That seems to have changed over the centuries.

Principium unitatis said...

Hello Andrew,

I was Assemblies of God growing up, and then PCA, through seminary. And then I was in the Anglican Church International Communion.

There is a significant difference between "church shopping" *outside* the Church, and rite shopping *in* the Church. The former involves disregard for schism. The latter does not involve schism. Ideally, however, Catholics would simply worship in their home parish. This fits with the principle of subsidiarity, and with the understanding of geographical proximity as intrinsic to community.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Principium unitatis said...


Thanks for your comment. It is true that local churches (understood in the diocesan sense) 'elected' persons to be ordained. But the ordination itself, that is, the conferral of ecclesial authority, came from a bishop having Apostolic succession. The local church might know better than the bishop who would make a good priest, and who definitely would *not* make a good priest, hence the importance of their role in selecting candidates for ordination. There is a sense in which that remains true today, especially with respect to the local church recommending young men for acceptance into seminary or religious orders. The recommending priest is also speaking for the people, in such cases. Likewise, at an ordination, those who are being ordained are presented to the bishop as having been examined by the local church, and found suitable for ordination. Then the bishop accepts this examination, and declares that he will ordain them. (I was at an ordination mass about two months ago, and that's how it went.)

If you read my post (a few posts ago) about how philosophy helped me accept the papacy, you will find a link to what Aquinas thinks about the proper political structure of the Church. He agrees that the Church is not a democracy, but he also doesn't see it as a dictatorship. He sees it as having the best aspects of each form of government. So he agrees that laypersons should be involved, in some respect, in the government of the Church.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

YoungCatholicSTL said...

I find your "glasses" argument very compelling. I've often made a simlar remark in abortion debates, where both sides seem to be arguing on almost entirely differently plains at times.

Btw, I stumbled across this blog from a comment you left on STLCatholic. When I saw the picture, I was momentarily taken aback, and then realized I was staring at a picture of Bryan Cross! You were my Ethics professor at SLU about 4 or 5 years ago!! Hope everything is going well in your life!