The Church Isn’t a Democracy

GEORGE JONAS

This non-Catholic writer seems to have grasped what a surprising number of modern Catholics have failed to understand, that the Roman Catholic church is neither a debating society, nor is it a democracy.

I'm not a Catholic, either by cradle or conversion. I certainly don't feel entitled to comment on the latest of the Pope's great encyclicals which has created such a controversy in recent weeks, especially in North America.

I am, however, puzzled by the stance of some of the Pope's critics. It is a stance that has puzzled me before. Although I rarely write about religious matters—for the simple reason that I'm not religious—I have written about the reaction of some Catholics to their spiritual leader because they give rise to some general questions of plain logic.

I remember reading a newspaper piece by someone four or five years ago who was outraged at one or another of the Pope's edicts. He was a Catholic, but he didn't want to be told how to live. He didn't think it was “democratic.” He asked, rhetorically, whether the Pope realized that Canada was a free country.

I wouldn't presume to speak for His Holiness, but I suspect that the Pope has always known that Canada is free. But I wonder if the writer who asked the question realized that he was supposed to be a Roman Catholic.

The trick about being a Catholic, as I understand it, is that you don't quite have the burden of figuring out right and wrong for yourself. The Church does not discourage you to think about these matters if you're so inclined, but just in case you get lost in the complexity of spiritual and metaphysical affairs, it offers you some guideposts. It sets up a pretty solid beacon for you in the institution (among others) of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The Catholic Church is there to mediate between your conscience and God. It is, I suppose, a kind of compulsory arbitration. When you become a member of the faith you undertake to abide by it.

If you don't go in for that kind of stuff; if you'd rather have your conscience plugged in directly to God, what you do is become a Protestant. You will, of course, have preachers interpreting the Bible for you even then, but if you don't agree with one of them, you can always go to another. There are a lot of Protestant churches or sects and you're almost sure to find one that suits your individual conscience.

If you find even this too structured for your taste, you can become a God-fearing individual who belongs to no organized church. Or you become an agnostic, like me.

But if you are a Catholic, you listen to God through the Holy Father in Rome. That's the deal. You can ask questions, you can ask for guidance, and you can certainly pray, but you needn't be your own theologian. The Church has never pretended to be a debating society, not is it a “democracy.” The Pope does not count votes on matters of doctrine and faith.

This doesn't mean that the Pope wants to restrict anyone's freedom as a citizen of a secular state. The Pope has no divisions (to borrow a phrase from the late and unlamented J. V. Stalin). All he has is moral authority, voluntarily acceded to him by millions of the faithful, based on two millennia of history.

The Pope is doing what he has been anointed to do. My opinion about this or that particular of his teaching is immaterial. It would be just as immaterial if I were a Catholic columnist. My job would still not be to teach him, but to accept his teaching.

If I couldn't, I'd have another choice, of course. I could leave the Church.

Some contemporary Catholics, however, would prefer to hijack the Church. They can't credit the Holy Spirit talking to the Pope, but for some reason have no trouble crediting that the Holy Spirit talks to them.

They want to convert the Vatican to their own views (which, incidentally, tend to be social rather than spiritual views) not caring that in the process they might destroy the Church they profess to love. My sympathy for such people is nil—whether or not I happen to agree with them on the issues of contraception or abortion.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Jonas, George. “The Church isn't a Democracy.” Toronto Sun, 10 April, 1995.

Reprinted with permission of the Toronto Sun.

THE AUTHOR

George Jonas writes for the Toronto Sun.

Copyright © 1997 Toronto Sun


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