Continuing last week’s reflection about the theocratic distortion of Christian life……

The church as theocracy always gets in the way of accepting the church as democracy, the community of faith. (I have a couple bishop friends who get red-faced and throw pontifical fits when I speak about democracy in the church. They are good men but terribly short-sighted.) Theocracy blinds people to the full human reality of the Incarnation: God with us in the human journey. Not out there or up there passing judgment on lowly humans down below. Closer to us than the air in our lungs.

The Christian democratic experience is symbol and reality of God’s presence in human life. Leadership in the church should not be the old vertical pyramid but a horizontal circle of members and leaders in community and in conversation with each other: shared discussion, shared responsibility for the community, and shared decision-making. Vatican II called it collegiality. One of my old Louvain professors called it the infallibility of the people of God.

Indeed. Sometimes in fact church “members” see things more clearly than church “leaders.” It was that way from the beginning. The first followers of Jesus who gave witness to and announced that Jesus had been raised from the dead were women members of the community of disciples. (An important reminder for certain men at the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith….)


Vox populi vox Dei is an old understanding: the voice of the people is the voice of God. Sometimes it takes a very long time for certain Christian realities to sink in. Across the globe, the people of God have been speaking clearly about issues of marriage, gender, sexuality, liturgy, and leadership in the church. Many leaders up there in their ecclesiastical pyramids still remain deaf, blind, and paralyzed like old (and occasionally young) static sphinxes.

Last month, for instance, students at the Catholic University of Santiago launched a demonstration against Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, because of his dismissal of a prominent liberation theologian, Professor Jorge Costadoat. The widely-respected Jesuit priest and professor of theology has been outspoken on the social mission of the Church, about a contemporary and broader understanding of sexual morality, and about Communion for divorcees who have remarried.

In a letter to the newspaper, El Mercurio, Fr Costadoat said he did not know what the cardinal, who is Grand Chancellor of the university, was accusing him of. Fr Costadoat told El Mercurio that there were other professors at the university who were “fearful” about their future, feeling they were “being watched” because of their contemporary theological views.

Often in the news, Cardinal Ezzati, is one of Pope Francis’ group of nine advisers and one of the first bishops whom Francis had made a cardinal. He is also a conservatively controversial figure in the Chilean Church.

Cardinal Ezzati was accompanied at last month’s event, where the student demonstration took place, by the newly-appointed Bishop Juan Barros, who was also targeted by the protesters. Bishop Barros is alleged to have colluded in or covered up the child abuse committed by the priest Fernando Karadima, who was banned from ministry by the Vatican. More than a thousand Catholics have protested the appointment of Barros as Bishop of Osorno and have petitioned Pope Francis to have him removed. Barros still remains in place.

In Chile the old power structure appears deaf and blind to the protests. In California as well, where in an unprecedented move, more than 100 prominent Roman Catholic donors and church members have signed a full-page ad running  in The Chronicle that calls on Pope Francis to replace San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone for fostering “an atmosphere of division and intolerance.”

Such vertical leadership blindspots are hardly limited to Santiago and San Francisco….

Nevertheless, in the Gospels we see  the historic Jesus stressing the importance of open eyes and ears in the community of faith. In the Gospel of Luke, he reminds the community: “The one who listens to you listens to me, and the one who rejects you rejects me; and the one who rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” And in the Gospel of Matthew: “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

Jesus, “Son of God,” was not very theocratic. Reading the scriptures, we are continually reminded that the church is a community: a body with inter-related and inter-dependant parts, animated by God’s Spirit. Without distinctions and hierarchic positions, as Paul reminded the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Christian life is an amazing grace. It takes some Christians, however, a long time to really understand it….

7 thoughts on “Christian Democracy: Amazing Grace

  1. Jack, another perspective for today’s homilies on “vine and the branches”. Fairly long drive to the first mass with enough time to rethink a bit. Thanks for your wisdom.

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    Take care,


    Jim Sheil 35755 Detroit Rd. Avon, OH. 44011 440-937-2778

    Sent from my iPad


  2. It seems to me quite simple to reorganize the church by meaning what we say, and accepting the truth of our words. The “servant of the servants of God” IS a servant, not a boss; the “episcopos” is the financial/material steward in charge of the Master’s household–another sevant; the “presbyteros” is an elder, someone not so much with authority but with advice (a grandfather, not the “father” in the family); the “diaconos” is one more “doulos” on the job of helping not running things. It is not so much that the inmates have taken over the institution as that the servants/slaves are now running the household (of God, the Father).

  3. Jesus could say “I am the true vine, and you are the husbandman.  Every branch in me that beareth not fruit, take it away!” But he did not – in John 15:1 the husbandman is the Father. Maybe the tree needs branches growing into different directions – some of them catching the sunshine in the morning, other in the evening.

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