Just Good Company
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The Continuum International Publishing Group in New York came out in January with an eye-opening anthology on reform of the Church, Governance, Accountability and the Future of the Catholic Church

The book spins off a symposium of historians and other scholars who met at St. Thomas More Chapel at Yale University's Catholic Center in late March 2003. It is edited by Francis Oakley, the Edward Dorr Griffin Professor of the History of Ideas and President-Emeritus of Williams College, and Bruce Russett, Dean Acheson Professor of International Relations and Political Science at Yale University.

You can get some of the flavor of the book from this passage by Brian Tierney, a former president of the U.S. Catholic Historical Society, who was a member of that symposium. He wrote:

The early Church was a community in which all participated in community life; when the first major doctrinal issue arose, it was settled by "the apostles and elders with the whole Church" meeting in council in Jerusalem (Acts 15:22). The first popes did not even claim the powers that modern ones take for granted. They did not exercise jurisdiction over the whole Church; it did not occur to anyone that they were infallible; they did not appoint bishops; they did not summon general councils. Bishops were elected by their clergy and people, and general councils were summoned by emperors. It is a long way from there to here. The Church has been governed in different ways in the past and it may be again in the future.

We think you will enjoy the book's concluding chapter by Bruce Russett. We "reprint" it here with the permission of Dr. Russett and his publisher. And we cannot resist an opinion: that there's something to be said for the kind of freedom that Drs. Oakley and Russett enjoy in the halls of our secular universities. We wonder if they could have the same freedom if, today, they were on the faculties of any Catholic university anywhere.

Conclusion of Governance, Accountability and the Future of the Catholic Church
Monarchy, Democracy, or “Decent Consultation Hierarchy”?

Bruce Russett


 It should be clear from reading all the preceding chapters that sexual abuse scandals, in the United States and elsewhere, are but a symptom of the church’s much more fundamental problem: its current institutional structure of government is extraordinarily centralized and hierarchical. In 2002 Pope John Paul II warned a group of Austrian bishops visiting the Vatican, “The church is not a democracy, and no one from below can decide on the truth.” Yes, the church is not a democracy, because it lacks institutions of democratic accountability, and that is the problem. Saying the church is not a democracy is not just saying that democracy in the church would be bad, but continues a hierarchical suspicion of democratic government itself, as manifested in nineteenth-century papal pronouncements like Pope Leo XIII’s condemnation of the heresy of “Americanism.” Saying the church is not a democracy becomes the assertion of a point of pride that it is not like those “others.” The church’s lack of democracy is embedded both in its culture and in its lack of adequate institutions to constrain abuses of power. Consequently we have one of several central and pernicious myths: the myth that democracy is irrelevant to good governance in the church .

Some historical reasons are evident. Over the centuries the church periodically faced powerful and hostile secular authorities who threatened its independence. Rome’s response, understandably, was to seek temporal as well as spiritual power, and eventually to construct a centralized, hierarchical, even monarchical, institution capable of resisting those threats. That institutional structure corresponded with that of temporal authorities in a long era of monarchy in which secular monarchs often claimed to be ruling by divine right. Church authorities could not, in those conditions, claim anything less than divine right for themselves. Even so, just as parliaments and representative estates arose in the national kingdoms, so too in the church a conciliar tradition was in tension with strong papal claims. The powerfully centralized church structure as we know it coincided with the rise of absolutist monarchies from the late sixteenth into the nineteenth centuries. It was solidified by the First Vatican Council, in a Rome beleaguered by revolutionary forces. Its centralization has been deepened and extended since the time of the Second Vatican Council, to a degree that sharply contrasts with many other institutions in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries’ era of widening democracy.

The chapter in this volume by Francine Cardman identifies the loose and decentralized community structure of the early church, and those by Brian Tierney and Francis Oakley recount some of the ups and downs of centralization, leading eventually to the contemporary monolith. Consolidation of the monolith is a recent phenomenon, and was by no means a linear process. The story of an instant monarchy is a second central myth. Like other foundation myths of governance, it has been propagated by those who create and maintain the institutions, and are privileged by them.

In any social institution some people must take decisions on behalf of others. Most institutions exhibit some degree of hierarchy. Every hierarchy is led by administrators. People at the top of any hierarchy are expected to take decisions on behalf of the institution, and to look out for the interests of those who depend on that institution. Those occupying the peaks are supposed to be “agents” of those “principals” below them. They are supposed not only to be looking after the well-being (material, and in many organizations spiritual) of the principals, but also must in some degree be responsive to the perceptions of the people below about what they need and want. In any organization this responsiveness is limited, and needs to be. Complex organizations require specialists, with particular skills, experience, and insights. They cannot be run by a continuing plebiscite from below. At the same time, they must not ignore the views of those below. Every institution needs some mechanisms to keep people at the top responsible to all of the people below.

Many contemporary institutions have created systems giving voice and authority to all members. Some are finding that their governing structures, though designed to promote responsibility to those below, have been subverted or captured. The top leadership is not responsive to the interests of those below, and this can lead to a situation where the organization is hijacked and looted by the leader and his co-opted board of governors. Obvious examples are those multinational corporations of which the directors are unwilling to restrain their chief executives, and ordinary shareholders lack the information or the ability to exert control. These abuses have spurred efforts to restore greater accountability. The absence of such mechanisms creates the fundamental problem identified by Lord Acton, who coined his famous aphorism as a commentary on the Renaissance popes: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The church is not immune to this problem, but its governing structures stand out as an anomaly. John Beal documents how the writing and interpretation of canon law has constrained the diffusion of information and discussion in favor of yet another myth, that of special holiness for the upper hierarchy. Gerard Mannion makes it clear how pervasive the effects are in Europe as well as North America. We like to think that church leaders are especially motivated to serve God and humanity, to care for the well-being (eternal as well as temporal) of those in their charge. And it is reasonable to assume that they are so motivated, and well intentioned. Yet they are also human, meaning subject to the failures induced by original sin. Holiness and spirituality give some protection against such failures— but cannot be a sufficient protection. No one is free of imperfection or selfcenteredness. Church leaders, like all of us, will sometimes fail. History is full of examples. Recognizing this practical and theological insight, the problem then is to mitigate and restrain such failures.


Saying the church should not be a democracy can be a rhetorical ploy of deliberate exaggeration, by implying that democracy means that everyone gets to vote on everything. This — government by plebiscite — is one form of democracy. Close to that was the direct democracy of ancient Athens where all the citizens (meaning adult males, not women, foreign residents, and slaves) voted on all major decisions of the city. Some of these decisions were indeed disastrous.

But modern democratic organizations with far more members than the small citizen class of Athens do not govern directly. Rather they create representative institutions of members elected by the citizens, with those leaders kept responsible for their acts by the periodic need to face their electorate and risk being thrown out of office. Representative democracy requires allowing leaders to make some decisions on behalf of the larger membership, and sometimes to enforce those decisions. Yet democracy also implies an institutionalized system to restrain leaders and, if necessary, to make it possible for the people to remove leaders who consistently make decisions that damage the general well-being. Contemporary understanding of democracy requires a political system in which most of the adult population is eligible to vote, in fair and competitive elections, and where the chief executive, if not elected directly, is chosen by and responsible to a body of elected representatives (as in a parliamentary system). Civil liberties— notably free expression and assembly — are also essential, as is some measure of decentralization of authority and separation of powers. The precise form and strength of these elements varies widely across different systems, but all are necessary, and mutually reinforce one another. Democracy thus means checks and balances, devolution, and periodic community re-authorization of the leadership.

There are institutions within the church that may lay some claim to democratic principles. Most, however, sharply circumscribe any such claim. Here are three examples, ranging from top to bottom.

One is the process of choosing a new pope, as done by the College of Cardinals in secret ballot. This is, at that high level, a democratic process. It is, however, a one-time event since the pope is then elected for life, in recent centuries, with neither any prospect that he can be removed from office nor a precedent for voluntary retirement. Even more restrictive to any democratic claim is the answer to the question, “How are the electors chosen?” That answer is of course obvious. They were chosen, by previous popes, from the celibate male bishops. Cardinals lose their voting power at age eighty, making it likely that most of the electors were chosen by the immediately preceding pope if he had any extensive reign. Currently 96 percent were appointed by John Paul II. Moreover, in this papacy in particular, they have been selected with painstaking attention to their loyalty to the principles so forcefully articulated by that pope. Thus the college does not represent in any vaguely proportional way the perspectives of the clergy at large (not to mention the laity), and may not represent them even in token fashion.

A second is the national bishops’ conference, which frequently issues statements on public and ecclesiastical topics. It does so by majority vote after public debate and sometimes, as for the US bishops’ 1983 letter on peace, after wide consultation. But, as just noted, this is not an institution drawing its legitimacy by selection from below. Bishops are not chosen by any national body, and are not even self-replicating. Not since the time of Archbishop John Carroll have any American bishops been elected by their priests. Gerald Fogarty’s chapter outlines the process whereby both priests and bishops lost control, to the Vatican, over the composition and independence of the US hierarchy. Should the American bishops as a group have any inclination toward independence they know that the Vatican can now forbid the issuance of any collective statement they adopt if the vote falls short of complete unanimity. Is this how the principle of subsidiarity is to be practiced in the church?

A third possibility might be found in local parish governance, with a role for parish councils, finance committees, or, as for a while in nineteenth-century America, by trustees. But the trustee experiment was abandoned by the middle of that century, and most parish councils and finance committees have little real authority. Much more often than not their members are appointed by the pastor, not elected by the parish. They rarely have any role in choosing that priest. (Nor may the priest have much to say about where he is assigned.) Consequently, such bodies may exemplify hierarchy all the way down. Decrees of the Second Vatican Council called for greater participation and active involvement by the laity as part of “the people of God,” and urged pastors to consult them and listen—but did not require them to do so.


Not only is the church no democracy, it is not even as responsive to the vast majority as many hierarchical systems are. John Rawls, the eminent political theorist, conceded that some hierarchies are so constituted as to share, with democratically governed systems, the label “well-ordered peoples.” His last book describes such “decent consultation hierarchies” as those allowing,

[A]n opportunity for different voices to be heard—not, to be sure, in a way allowed by democratic institutions, but appropriately in view of the religious and philosophical values of the society as expressed in its idea of the common good. . . . [Members] have the right at some point in the procedure of consultation (often at the stage of selecting group’s representatives) to express political dissent, and the government has an obligation to take a group’s dissent seriously and to give a conscientious reply. . . . Judges and other officials must be willing to address objections. They cannot refuse to listen, charging that the dissenters are incompetent and unable to understand, for then we would not have a decent consultation hierarchy, but a paternalistic regime. Moreover, should the judges and other officials listen, the dissenters are not required to accept the answer given to them; they may renew their protest, provided they explain why they are still dissatisfied, and their explanation in turn ought to receive a further and fuller reply.

Some—perhaps many—local parishes would qualify as decent consultation hierarchies. Yet many would not. And the farther one looks above the local level, the more uncertain even that label often becomes.

In the current crisis, many people are calling for greater participation and responsibility in local churches, and for independent organizations capable of speaking up to priests and bishops. That is an essential start, but not sufficient.

Informal grass-roots organizations wither without sustained, committed, and collective leadership, and they do not have the potential of making much impact on the established hierarchical institutions. Those institutions themselves need to be reformed, with people at all levels given a voice. At present, officials who grossly violate the interests of those for whom they are responsible can be removed and replaced only by a superior official. A priest may be removed by a bishop; a bishop by the pope; a pope only by God. If the superior chooses to keep the official in office, those below him have little recourse. That is not sufficient. Nor is Bishop Wuerl’s endorsement of what would in effect be a voluntary transparency. The chapters by Peter Steinfels, Francis Butler, and James Heft all illustrate in various ways both the need for greater transparency and the insufficiency of transparency alone to sustain accountability without structural change. John McGreevy and Thomas Reese, while identifying the difficulty of producing change in structures, make evident the likely futility of any reform that does not address the need for extensive structural repair and renovation. The US bishops’ lay review board encountered great openness and compliance from some bishops, and great resistance or stone-walling from others—to the undiplomatic but understandable frustration of its former chair, Governor Frank Keating. Bishops who fail to report on their practices can be exposed to lay outrage, but the only sanction is potential embarrassment, not any assurance of dismissal or required change of policy. Bishops who cover-up face far less accountability, from below or above, than do the errant priests farther down the chain of authority. The church experience mirrors the mixed success of enforcing transparency in governments and corporations. In all such institutions, structures must be in place to insure that gross offenders can be removed and replaced at the insistence of those below.

The church may never be a democracy in the sense of truly elected leaders all the way from bottom to top. Theology cannot be made by simple majority vote. All the faithful need to be led and taught. But there is room for much more democracy. In a democratic era that shows no sign of abating, mere arguments from authority are not enough. Authority figures cannot simply impose doctrines which are deeply contested among a majority of the people of God. We have been rightly proud that our Catholic faith is accessible to right reason. Thus we have a right to hear reasoned argument, by people who hear and respect a reasoned response. Just as the institutional structure was in times past far less monolithic, Marcia Colish’s chapter shows how theological belief and practice have been far more pluralistic, with vigorous participation by the laity in modifying hierarchical doctrine on matters such as marriage and money. Peter Phan draws on the Asian experience of an ecclesiology directed away from defense of the church as a reign of hierarchs and toward the kingdom of God; that is, a community of equals in justice and peace, with local participation and mutual learning and dialogue. Donald Cozzens concurs that the situation constitutes an ecclesiological crisis, and raises a passionate call for speaking truth to one another, in love.

Whether influence over temporal matters can in practice be insulated from influence over issues of doctrine is doubtful. In no case, however, can the possession of acknowledged teaching authority be equated with good judgment on more worldly issues of finance or personnel. Those who are expected to contribute to the treasury have a right to monitor fiduciary responsibility: “no taxation without representation.” Those whose lives may be blighted by leaders’ scandalous acts have a right to full participation in institutions and procedures that choose those leaders and hold them to account. These are fundamental rights of a people both holy and free.

Maybe there is something to be said for the ancient principle of a mixed constitution as reported by Tierney, with elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy serving as checks and balances on one another. There is no perfect balance for all time for any institution, and the church has experienced many variations over its history. What is clear is that the present mix, heavily tilted toward monarchy, is so badly out of balance as to endanger the institution itself and all its members. The revival of constitutional structures rescued from a forgotten past is essential, as is the design and construction of new ones. Several chapters in this book make concrete proposals. All need further exploration, and none alone would suffice. What matters is that the changes be embodied in theology and canon law, give solid rights to those at the base of the pyramid of power, and not be dependent on the energy or good will of particular individuals. The next decade or so will provide a key opening in the history of the church, when major changes may be possible. After that the institutions are likely to solidify again, whether as reformed or reaffirmed essentially as they have been.

Institutions in crisis evoke three kinds of behavior from their members: exit, voice, and loyalty. Exit means leaving the church, with little likelihood of return. (“I’m out of here.”) Many are doing just that—but none of the contributors to this volume is doing so. Loyalty in this context means simply accepting without protest whatever the hierarchical authority decrees or does. (“Just as you say, father.”) Voice implies loyalty to the community and to the institution, but not uncritical silence. It means speaking up, insisting on being heard and heeded. It is not a course of action for the faint-hearted, and it requires a long-sustained effort. Let us therefore “make a joyful noise:” not joyful because we are satisfied with the status quo, but joyful because we see a chance to reinvigorate the institution we love.

Bruce Russett is the Dean Acheson Professor of International Relations and Political Science at Yale University.