|Professor Leonard Swidler was a former teaching colleague with Pope Benedict at the University of Tubingen. Professor Swidler, like many people today who were excited and energized by the Second Vatican Council, has become increasingly disturbed in recent times by the endeavours to turn back the insights and reforms of that Council. Headlines over Easter generated by Pope Benedict have drive Dr Swidler to address this open letter to his former colleague.|
NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part V
Today's commentary is the first half of the second chapter of Professor Swidler's series of talks on the history of democracy in the Catholic Church and how in the last 200 years — basically since the time of the French Revolution — it gradually got snuffed out by the centralists in the Roman administration.
Democracy in the early, Medieval and American Catholic Church
There is a Latin phrase I learned in my high school days that is pertinent here: Repetitio est mater studiorum — "repetition is the mother of studies", which is another way of saying here that I am going to repeat some things I said in the previous chapter because they are so important for the topic at hand that they need to be restated. But more than that, they need to be driven deep into our consciousness because they are part of the theoretical foundation on which everything else is built. Further, as I noted in my first lecture, we all have a number of deep-seated unconscious pre-suppositions about everything that must be brought up to the conscious level so that they can be analyzed and judgments made about them: yes, no, partly … partly.
I am talking about lifting up the negative presuppositions that we Catholics have had driven deep into our consciousness, not just in our personal lifetimes, but for centuries! These negative presuppositions are precisely about the very topic of our whole lecture series: democracy. In brief, that negative presupposition that we Catholics have deep in our psyches is the notion, as it is frequently expressed: "The Catholic Church is not a democracy! And that means that it never was, and can never be a democracy!" That is a deep, deep presupposition that we all have been immersed in from the very beginning of our Catholic lives, and our forbearers' lives for centuries. The problem with this presupposition is simply this: It is not true!
There is today a growing enthusiasm on the part of some, usually more conservative, Catholics for the reintroduction of Latin. I personally am all for it, so long as we learn to understand it. So, as my contribution to your growing knowledge of Latin, let me add another helpful Latin phrase here: Ab esse, ad posse, "If it happened, it's possible". Its pertinence here is that in fact there have been many elements of democracy in the history of the Catholic Church. So, when someone claims that the Catholic Church cannot be democratic, the first response is: Ab esse, ad posse. In fact it was democratic; therefore it can be democratic! So, let me lay out for you, be it ever so briefly, some of the data that highlight the fact that there have been many democratic elements in the history of the Catholic Church.
What are the main democratic elements that have been present in the history of Catholicism? They fall in two main categories: I. election of leaders, and II. broad participation in decision-making. Some of these data we have already seen last week in different contexts, but remember: repetitio est mater studiorum.
II. THE ELECTION OF LEADERS
1. The Ancient and Medieval Church
We saw before that besides the New Testament itself wherein, for example, the whole community elected the seven men to serve as deacons, two other 1st-century documents confirmed this approach when The Didache, (15:1-2) stated: "You [the Faithful] must, then, elect for yourselves bishops and deacons" and the First Letter of Clement of Rome wrote that bishops should be chosen "with the consent of the whole Church".
This practice passed into the post-Apostolic period, as evidenced by one of the oldest known synods, that is, a gathering of the church leaders of a province (already in the 2nd century), that all the faithful participated in early synods: "For this reason believers in Asia often assembled in many Asian localities, examined the new doctrines, and condemned the heresy". St. Cyprian (3rd century) bore witness to the custom of the people having the right not only to elect, but also to reject and even recall bishops: "The people themselves most especially have the power (potestam) to choose worthy bishops, or to reject unworthy ones".
Cyprian added more evidence when speaking about Cornelius, the bishop of Rome: "Moreover, Cornelius was made bishop by the judgment of God and of His Christ, by the testimony of almost all people who were then present, and by the assembly of ancient priests and good men". Indeed, lest there be any doubt about the people having the right to elect their bishop, St. Cyprian in another epistle used the technical term "suffrage": Cornelius was elected the bishop of Rome "in the Catholic Church by the judgment of God and the suffrage (suffragium) of the clergy and people". The famous scholar of the early church, Theodor Mommsen noted that when this text described the participation of the people as suffragium, it referred to the voting of citizens in an electoral committee (comitia). Still further, concerning another bishop St. Cyprian wrote: "On the basis of the voting of the entire congregation and of the judgment of the bishops who had personally come … hands were laid on him and the episcopal office was handed over to him".
But the documentation for the election of bishops by the people does not stop in the third century, but rolls on: the 4th-century Apostolic Constitutions very clearly directed: "Elect bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord…" (15.1), and in the early fifth century Pope Celestine 1 (reigned 422-432 A.D.) wrote: "No bishop should be installed against the will of the people". His successor, Pope Leo I, the Great, as we saw last week, dramatically stated: "Let him who will stand before all be elected by all", and later added that this was "so no city will disdain or hate a bishop who was not chosen, for who is not free to have whom he wishes will be less religious than is proper". What a sensible understanding of human nature!
These principles of the early centuries of Christian practice were repeated in synods at least until the Council of Paris in 829 A.D., and basically the election of bishops by the clergy and people remained intact until the 12th century — more than half the present period of Christianity. Further, the first seven Ecumenical Councils, which set all the basic Christian doctrines, were all convoked, presided over, and promulgated, not by popes or bishops, but by lay men and — shocking — a lay woman!
2. The American Catholic Church
For us Americans the question of the election of our leaders was from the beginning a natural assumption, and indeed it started out that way. Benjamin Franklin learned that the pope was thinking of appointing the first bishop for the new American republic, and since he had come to know John Carroll as a young priest when the two of them went together on a rather dangerous mission during the Revolution, he wrote to the pope and recommended Carroll. The pope took the suggestion and notified Carroll that he was to be appointed the first American bishop. However, Carroll, insisted to Rome that the selection of the bishop be done by election by all the priests of America, and he was in fact duly elected 24-2 on May 18, 1789 — the same year the United States came into existence under the Constitution. Carroll clearly wanted this tradition of the election of bishops to continue, as in indicated in one of his letters to a fellow former Jesuit: "I wish sincerely, that Bishops may be elected, at this distance from Rome, by a select body of clergy, constituting, as it were, a Cathedral chapter". Further, he naturally assumed that this would continue to be the case, and arranged the election again by all of the priests of the next two American bishops-who were needed because of the expanding American Catholic Church. However, he was given to understand by Rome that they were to be the last of such American elections.
However, it was not only the first American bishops who were elected. So too were the parish pastors. John Carroll obviously thought this a good thing, for he wrote: "Wherever parishes are established no doubt, a proper regard (and such as is suitable to our governments) will be had to rights of the congregation in the mode of election and representation". To the parishioners of our own Philadelphia Trinity church (i.e. where Professor Swidlers originally delivered this lecture), Carroll wrote: "Let the election of the pastor of your new church be so settled that every danger of a tumultuous appointment be avoided as much as possible".
Beyond the documentation from more than the first thousand years of Catholic history of the key democratic element of the election of leaders, we have the further example of every religious order of priests, sisters, or brothers who from their beginnings with St. Benedict in the sixth century governed themselves by Constitutions(!), which included the election of leaders, as well as limited term of office, due process of law …-all democratic structures centuries before the American Constitution. How much more quintessentially Catholic can you get than religious orders? And they contained the heart of democracy!
Thus, from the very beginning, all through twelve centuries of the history of the Catholic Church, and even at the beginning of our own American Catholic Church-and of our own two parishes, Old St. Mary's and Trinity (!)-we have had the central democratic feature, the election of church leaders, that is, pastors and bishops.
III. PARTICIPATORY DECISION MAKING
1. The Ancient and Medieval Church
In the ancient Church it was not only in the election of their deacons, priests, and bishops that the laity were involved in Church decision making. Eusebius reported, as we saw, that already in the second century the "faithful … examined the new doctrines and condemned the heresy". St. Cyprian in the third century noted that he himself often convoked councils: "Concilio frequenter acto". On the burning Church issues of the day he wrote to the laity: "This business should be examined in all its parts in your presence and with your counsel". St. Cyprian did not content himself with consulting a few of the powerful laity, but insisted that everybody be involved. He made this very clear when he wrote: "It is a subject which must be considered … with the whole body of the laity". He absolutely insisted on a full democratic procedure: "From the beginning of my episcopate I have been determined to undertake nothing … without gaining the assent of the people". Furthermore, this custom of participatory decision making was prevalent not only in North Africa, but also the very center of the Roman Empire, that is, in the Roman Church of the time, for the Roman clergy wrote: "Thus by the collaborative counsels of bishops, presbyters, deacons, confessors and likewise a substantial number of the laity … for no decree can be established which does not appear to be ratified by the consent of the plurality (plurimorum)".
Even outside the reach of the law oriented culture of the Roman Empire the principle of participatory decision making flourished in the ancient Christian Church. For example, in the East Syrian Church the Synod of Joseph (554 A.D.) stated that "The patriarch must do all that he does with the advice of the community. Whatever he arranged will have all the more authority the more it is submitted for examination".
It was not only on the local and regional levels that the laity were actively involved in ecclesiastical decision making; from the beginning that was also true on the Church universal level as well. In the fourth century the great worldwide ecumenical councils began, the first of course being held in 325 at Nicea — called and presided over by a layman, the Emperor Constantine. In fact, as noted before, all the ecumenical councils from the beginning until well into the Middle Ages were always, with one exception, called by the emperors. That one exception was Nicaea II in 787 A.D., which was called by the Empress Irene! Moreover, the emperors and empress called the councils on their own authority, not necessarily with prior consultation and approval of the papacy-not even, for that matter, necessarily with the subsequent approval of the papacy. That is, the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils were promulgated and published by the emperor without always waiting for the approbation of the papacy, and those decrees attained validity only if and when the (lay) Emperor, or Empress, formally promulgated them.
Laity were also present at the Ecumenical Councils, as well as the large regional councils, such as, the ones at Cyprian's Carthage in the third century, the Council of Elvira in Spain in the fourth century, and again the (fourth) Council of Toledo in the sixth century, and on down through the centuries, reaching a high point in some ways at the Ecumenical Councils of Constance and Basel in the first half of the fifteenth century. Even at the sixteenth century Council of Trent, laity were present and active. Only with the First Vatican Council in 1870 did the participation of the laity in ecumenical councils shrivel to almost nothing.
2. The Early American Church: John Carroll and the Trustee System
A word should be said here also about the participation of the laity in church decision-making in the early decades of the American Catholic Church. This lay participation took place largely through the Trustee System. The trustees were the laymen of a parish who corporately were responsible for the temporal matters of the congregation. The physical assets of the parish were legally owned by the congregation who had provided the money, and the Trustees were legally responsible for its oversight. The trustee issue raised not only the question of the election of the parish leaders, the pastors, but also that of serious participation in Church matters in general.
Coming from Europe, the Catholic immigrants naturally carried with them the customs of their home countries, and at the same time were influenced by the new democratic environment. Both the old and the new pointed to the practice of the ancient principle: cujus est dare, ejus est disponere, that is, those who contribute should have a say in the disposition of their voluntary contributions. The trustees of our own Holy Trinity Church down the street here made the point about European customs clearly when in one of their petitions to the Pennsylvania state legislature they wrote, "In many towns in Germany, the Catholic priests are elected or chosen by the authorities of such towns. So also in France, the bishops have not the sole and absolute right of appointing pastors, which belongs more to the civil authority".
Of course those trustees were correct. One articulate trustee from right here in Old St. Mary's, Matthew Carey, had earlier noted that the historical tradition and canon law itself provided a foundation for some form of domestic nomination of bishops. Matthew Carey said that he was surprised to learn that in canon law there were some things "almost unknown-certainly unnoticed," about the election of bishops, noting that the Code of Canon Law "most expressly declared, that no Bishop shall be appointed for a people unwilling to receive him-and even that those are not to be regarded as Bishops, who are not chosen by the clergy-or desired by the people".
However, as the most knowledgeable scholar on trusteeism, Patrick W. Carey, has pointed out, "The new institution of the trustee system was a legitimate outgrowth of prior European Catholic customs and not a capitulation to the republican and Protestant values in American society". Carey went on to state that American Catholics did not simply borrow ideas and procedures from the host society, but re-appropriated flexibly and creatively the European Catholic traditions in an American context, which was the lens through which they were viewed: "Thus, the new circumstances forced them not so much to create a new sense of lay participation as to nourish and democratize traditions of lay involvement which were already rooted in their European Catholic experiences. Democratization, however, was indeed powerful new element".
The difficulties were known not as the "trustee system," but as "trusteeism." It is extremely important to keep this distinction in mind because the vast majority of American Catholic parishes in the late eighteenth, early nineteenth centuries were incorporated under the trustee system, that is, the church buildings and properties were deeded to the trustees-but only a very few experienced any conflicts. It is that grouping of relatively few conflictual situations involving trustees that is known as "trusteeism." These conflicts almost always arose because of troublesome priests — frequently wandering immigrants — who the congregation, or a portion of it, wished to dismiss. In other words, the congregation through its trustees claimed to have a voice in the selection, and if necessary, dismissal of their pastors.
The claims of the trustees were largely accepted during the first decades of the new nation, but the few prominent "trusteeism" conflicts eventually led to a strong resistance on the part of a growing number of bishops as the early years of the nineteenth century wore on, and the entire trustee system was eventually crushed, particularly under the leadership of the Philadelphia priest, John Hughes, who became the bishop of New York. He was "a forceful advocate and practitioner of episcopal absolutism", who "in the same sentence referred to the 'venerable Brethren of the clergy and the beloved Children of the laity'."
This development had a lasting traumatic effect on American Catholicism. It engendered a mentality of opposition to lay and clerical participation in the Church's administration, producing an American Catholic Church with few if any local checks on episcopal authority. As Professor Carey noted, hostile memories "were passed on from generation to generation of American bishops and clergy, creating fears, even in some contemporary clergy, of recurrences of 'trusteeism' … they greatly affected … American Catholic structures and consciousness". However, in winning, the American bishops "merely ignored, submerged, or buried the ideological issues of the conflicts and therefore did not really solve the fundamental problem involved in trusteeism". This was: to adapt a hierarchical Church "to a democratic political climate in such a way as to preserve the values of both within the Church. Thus, the problem of more widespread participation in the American church kept arising in the subsequent history of American Catholicism".
What the more reflective and articulate trustees, both clerical and lay, attempted to do-again, to quote Professor Carey — was to establish an ecclesiastical "quasi-democracy in American Catholicism that would acknowledge the lay trustees' … rights to elect pastors and bishops, and at the same time the clergy's canonical status and prerogatives. The trustees wanted to define constitutionally the relative rights and duties of people, priests, and prelates within the church". In this they had significant support from the first American bishop, who even before he was bishop wrote to one group of trustees:
Whenever parishes are established no doubt, a proper regard, and such as is suitable to our Governments, will be had to the rights of the congregation in the mode of election and presentation; and even now I shall ever pay to their wishes every deference consistent with the general welfare of Religion.
A few months later he wrote to the pastor in question: "I know and respect the legal rights of the congregation. It's as repugnant to my duty and wish power to compel them to accept and support a Clergyman, who is disagreeable to them". Thus, it was clear that Carroll's legacy included as a top priority, governance by consensus, as befitted both the new American democracy and the ancient Church tradition. He wanted American Catholics to make their own decisions as much as possible. Already in 1785 while he was the American Prefect-Apostolic he wrote to the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Antonelli: "We desire … that whatever can with safety to religion be granted, shall be conceded to American Catholics in ecclesiastical affairs".
America was most fortunate in having at its very beginning a giant of a leader who was fully committed to both the Catholic Church and the American nation, with its principles of democracy, religious liberty, and separation of Church and State. Perhaps it would have been expecting too much to have looked for many more bishops of his stature among his successors) though one wonders whether their election rather than appointment might not in fact have much better fulfilled that expectation.
In any case, as late as the beginning of the twentieth century less than half of the bishops of the world were directly named by the pope. Thus it is only later in the twentieth century that the right of choosing our own bishops has been almost completely taken away from the priests and people contrary to almost the whole history of the Catholic tradition and the beginning of the American Catholic Church.
NAVIGATION: You are presently looking at Part V
What are your thoughts on this commentary?