Back to the future – governance in the Catholic Church


Throughout the Catholic Church, something is moving about the way we are governed.

For many of us in the Church and in society, we don’t care much about this topic. Long ago we made peace by being part of communities, organizations, nations and even families where we just carry on with our lives and let those who like to be in charge of things run the show.

But now in the Church each of us is presented with the challenge and opportunity to play a greater role in setting the course and managing the conduct of what we are already a part of: the Church.

Even in parts of the Catholic Church where Eastern Church precedents create different models of liturgy and Church structure – the Syrian tradition in India, for example – the model of governance is under pressure.

Our response is based on extensive experience of participating in communities and their governance.

Some of them are relevant and others are totally irrelevant to the challenges and opportunities of today in charting the way and managing the conduct of our life in the Church. For example, today we can take on greater managerial responsibilities depending on our qualifications and experience in particular areas of missionary or apostolic activity, whether or not we also hold ecclesiastical status such as, for example, a clerk can enjoy it.

Many more of us live in societies that are authoritarian and centrally controlled political entities.

And then there are the tasks and responsibilities that require the munus or office authorized by the clerical state. And this is exactly where the problems begin for the exercise of governance in the Catholic Church.

Despite all kinds of exhortations to share and participate in the government of the Church, it is simply and practically impossible without the munus that comes with the controls.

Some of us live in democratic and participatory societies. Many of us live in societies that are authoritarian and centrally controlled political entities. Very often throughout history this experience has been mistakenly adopted as normative for church governance.

No listening; no inclusion of those on whom the changes impacted in the decision-making process; Top-down management, command and control was common in medieval societies and was adopted in the Church, with ecclesiastical rationalizations providing for an operating structure that actually had no theological mandate.

An alternative collegiate structure was also quite common in the Middle Ages and led to the creation of types of collaborative governance better known as capitular, collegiate, or even conciliarist structures that still persist in religious orders and congregations that regularly elect their leaders. and also to legislate for the conduct of their life together in the chapter.

These are all forms of collegial, collaborative and participatory leadership. Now, under the leadership of the current Pope, but building on the encouragement and structure suggested by Vatican II, we are building a life of leadership through some form of synod governance.

But what does this mean exactly?

It has been suggested that synods can be built and operated as the Church’s response to democracy. But this is not really the case.

The two main forms of democracy at work or available in the world are representative democracy and participatory democracy.

Representative democracy is more common, and elected representatives have voted in assemblies to legislate what those they represent consider most desirable. Then, when their work is done, they can be replaced by other representatives.

Participatory democracy can only work with smaller populations where all those who have a stake in the legislative outcome can vote on what that outcome will be.

Synods are very different because only people of a certain status in the Church can participate and not all who participate have a say in what is decided. Sometimes the best that many in a synod without a voice or a deliberative or decisive voice can hope for is consultative status.

Thus, synods are not democratic. The Australian Plenary Council is like that. It is something like the British House of Lords whose members are not elected by anyone but constituted by birthrights or by virtue of a status granted by the Crown – a peerage.

Obviously, Catholics have a long way to go if they aim to catch up with Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant structures and processes.

The Synod “fathers” are all men and are in their place by virtue of their ordained status in the Church. Most, it seems (as in Australia), are appointed by bishops and appointed, not elected. The scope and significance of this statute are clearly restricted and circumscribed, and it would be difficult to find the ordinary operations of a synod in the Catholic Church to be anything more than a tiny step on the road to solving the challenges of the governance.

The governance of the Anglican Church is more developed in its use of synods and we have much to learn from them. They are not the last word because they reflect the church and the society in which they were formed. But they would be a good place for Roman Catholics to start learning how voices other than bishops might be heard, what the formalities of the Catholic process mean – bishops appoint synod members and ultimately vote on all recommendations.

Anglicans have three houses – bishops, clergy, and laity – established for their decision-making. In this they borrowed from the Orthodox and Lutheran Churches. It will now be up to Roman Catholics to learn from these other churches how to go about structuring and harmonizing these diverse voices for more effective governance.

Obviously, Catholics have a long way to go if they aim to catch up with the Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant structures and processes that have developed as Catholics have increasingly trusted to do everything from Rome over the years. centuries.

But Catholics cannot stay where they are. They will simply get bogged down in their own frequent failures to meet the challenges of the times.

* The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official editorial position of UCA News.


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