Democracy in the Church

Fr Frank O’Dea SSS

When I say to people that I’m writing an article on democracy in the church, I get the reply: ‘Democracy in the church? That’s a contradiction!’ Yes, from the viewpoint of the 21st century, that is so, but when we look at the 2000 history of the church we find there has been a lot of democracy in the church.

This article will focus principally on the selection of bishops and popes.

Apostolic Times

Jesus himself chose the twelve apostles on his own initiative.

He went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons. (Luke 3:13-14).

Jesus did not consult anyone on his selection of the twelve.

The next ‘office bearers’ were the seven who were asked to assist the apostles in caring for the Hellenistic widows who were being neglected.

And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word. What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who payed and laid their hands on them.’ (Acts 6:2-7)

This seems to me to be a democratic way of choosing these seven men to look after the widows. They were not nominated by the apostles; it was the community who elected them.

However, this did not become the established procedure and ministers were usually appointed by the twelve or their successors. For example, we read that in the church at Antioch:

And after they (Paul and Barnabas) had appointed elders for them in the church, with prayer and fasting they entrusted them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe. (Acts 14:23)

There was no universally established system of governance in those early days as the different communities around the Mediterranean initially set up their own method of governing their local church.

It’s not easy to know exactly what happened in the very early church and there is no consensus among scholars. However ‘Albert Vanhoye agrees that the unambiguous testimony of the New Testament is towards a hierarchical structure.’ (Patrick J. Dunn, Priesthood, Society of St. Paul, 1990, p. 6), but with strong elements of community participation.

This hierarchical structure consisted of bishop, priest and deacon. The bishop was the leader of the community, the priest was an assistant and adviser to the bishop, while the deacon assisted the bishop in the liturgy and caring for the poor. ‘By the end of the second century this tripartite structure seems to have been firmly established throughout the church.’ (Dunn, p. 65)

Selecting Bishops in the Early Church

How was the bishop chosen? We will see this has a varied and fascinating history. Let’s begin with this quote:

Let the bishop be ordained being in all things without fault chosen by all the people. (Italics mine) And when he has been proposed and found acceptable to all, the people shall assemble on the Lord’s day together with the presbytery [priests] and such bishops as may attend. With the agreement of all, let the bishops lay hands on him and the presbytery stand in silence. And all shall keep silence praying in their hearts for the descent of the Holy Spirit. And after this one of the bishops at the request of all, laying his hands on him who is ordained bishop shall pray thus saying . . .’ (F. Sullivan SJ, Apostles to Bishops, 2001.)

This quote is from The Apostolic Tradition, perhaps by Hyppolytus, in the early third century, reconstructed by Dix and Botte.

This is clearly democracy, a decision of all the people.

In 374 the diocese of Milan was divided.  A man by the name of Ambrose who was not baptized but may have been a catechumen, gave a talk to calm the crowd and heal the division. The people were so impressed they began to cry ‘Ambrose for bishop.’ Ambrose consented to the people, was baptized and ordained. This was a case of the appointment of a bishop by popular acclaim.

The church in this period was governed by councils, and authority rested in ecumenical councils. The seeds for papal authority planted in 381 when it was agreed the bishop of Rome enjoyed primacy of honour since Rome was the ancient capital, and the place where both Peter and Paul had been martyred and had been buried. After the death of the Emperor Constantine, the church was made the official religion of the Roman Empire, and the bishops became imperial bureaucrats. Thus the pre-eminence of the bishop of Rome and the authority of the bishops was determined through imperial prominence, not apostolic succession.

Cyprian (died 258 AD) writing to another bishop about Cornelius as bishop of Rome, said, ‘He was made bishop by a large number of our colleagues who were present at the time in the city of Rome and who have sent to us on the subject of his appointment which acclaim his honour and esteem and cover him with glory by their praises. Moreover Cornelius was made bishop by the choice of God, by the favourable witness of almost all the clergy, by the votes of the laity then present, and by the assembly of bishops, men of maturity and integrity.’

The appointment of a bishop was by the votes of the bishops, the clergy and the laity. By the middle of the third century, however, evidence shows that women were excluded from the voting.

Pope Gregory (540-604) wrote rules for the election of bishops:

  1. Upon the death of a bishop, the pope appointed a neighbouring bishop as a visitor; his duty was to urge a speedy and orderly election of a worthy candidate to preside at the election and to send to Rome a letter attesting to the legality of the election and the worthiness of the candidate.
  2. The clergy and people of the widowed church were the electors.
  3. Only the clerics of the widowed church were eligible except when no one was a suitable candidate.
  4. The candidate must be free from all canonical disabilities.
  5. No layman could be elected.
  6. The person elected was to be consecrated in Rome, whither he brought the formal document of his election, confirmed by the signatures of all the electors. (John A. Eidenschink, The election of Bishops in the Letters of Gregory the Great, Catholic University of America Press, 1945)

Bishops Assume Secular Power

The invasion of the Roman Empire by the ‘barbarians’ meant the collapse of local government. The vacuum of leadership was replaced by the church’s bishops who took on the role of secular authority. They assumed secular power and dress such as mitres, palliums, thrones and rings.

The original term for bishopric, parochia, was replaced with the imperial term, diocese, and began to be called the bishop’s seat or see. Due to their new prestige, bishops were prevented from transferring to new dioceses as this was seen as ‘covetous’.

This was a very significant development as bishops now had not only religious authority but secular power as well.

Popular elections remained the norm at this time. Popes Celestin I and Leo I condemned any attempt to impose a bishop without popular consent. Attempts were made to prevent laymen from voting and restricted to the wealthy and powerful. By the end of the sixth century, seeing the church’s flourishing wealth and power, secular rulers desired to influence the selection of bishops.

Interference in Selection of Bishops

Popular elections remained the norm, but royal interference increased. Kings began to control nominations, even choosing laymen as bishops. By the tenth century, bishops were full feudal lords, even going to war with complements of troops.

Laity were completely removed from the election process and almost all bishops were appointed by monarchs. In 1059, to prevent control by the empire, councils of cardinals were created to elect the bishop of Rome.

Pope Benedict IX was made pope thanks to his father who gave a lot of money to secure his election. By the mid-eleventh century reformers introduced ‘liberty of church’ to ensure ecclesiastical offices were free of interference.

Church and empire fought for the control of bishops in the fifty year War of Investitures. This ended in 1122 with the Council of Worms. Lay investiture ended but did not finally destroy the power of royalty which still had much influence over elections.

The Lay Investiture Crisis, as it has been called, lives deep in the memory of the church and is one of the reasons the complete participation of the laity is not seen as a major priority.

Pope Nicholas II issued a decree in 1059 placing the election process in the hands of cardinals and a few laity. The emperor’s power was curtailed but was to be given ‘due reverence’. If there was a fear of interference, the election was to be held outside Rome.

Some emperors had the power of veto over papal and Episcopal elections right up to the 19th century.

By the end of the 12th century, episcopal elections were further limited as new bishops were elected solely by the cathedral canons – an elite group of administrative advisers. The symbols of the bishop became imbued with spiritual significance. The ring was seen as a sign of the bishop being wedded to his diocese, making transfer ‘spiritual adultery’. Yet, in its own way this was a kind of constitutional method of election if not fully democratic.

In the late Middle Ages, bishops stopped living in their dioceses but resided in papal courts in Rome. This absenteeism of bishops became a major problem as it left dioceses without appropriate leadership.

The participation by the laity in the election of the pope became limited but not entirely. Anselm, bishop of Lucca, was declared pope by a large assembly of Romans. Hildebrand became Gregory VII by popular acclamation.

In 1179 the Third Lateran Council decreed that the election of popes was by two thirds of the college of cardinals.

When lay involvement was allowed this was considered a privilege not a right. Some argued that the laity could approve an election already decided by clerics.

By the end of the twelfth century, the cathedral chapter came to enjoy a near monopoly in episcopal elections. Bernard of Parvia wrote, ‘In a collegiate church election belonged to the college.’

Though lay involvement became diminished, some lay persons, especially kings and princes, continued to participate in the selection process throughout the 12th century. Frederick Barbarosa (1154-1190) felt free to resolve disputed elections, even appoint his own candidate when the chapter was deadlocked.

Henry II and Richard I took active roles in filling episcopal vacancies. Pope Innocent III repeatedly challenged King John’s efforts to retain this time-honoured practice. By the beginning of the 13th century, the whole weight of the law shifted decisively against such practices. 

Several Popes

The popes lived in Avignon, France, from 1301 to 1377. Pope Gregory XI returned to Rome but died shortly after. Under pressure from Roman crowds who demanded a pope from Rome or at least Italy, Urban VI was elected. Later the cardinals regretted their decision and chose Clement VII who returned to Avignon and set up an alternate Papacy there. Thus began what has been called ‘The Great Schism of the West’ which lasted from 1378 to 1417.

Various countries and saints pledged allegiance to one or other of the papal rivals. To resolve the issue a general council was convened in 1409, and complicated matters further by electing another pope.

Eventually rival popes either resigned or were deposed by the Council of Constance, which, following a theory called Conciliarism (that is, that a General Council is superior to the pope) decreed that it had the authority to resolve the matter. The council elected a new pope, Martin V, who re-established an undisputed line of popes which has endured to our own day, and repudiated the Conciliarist decrees of the Council of Constance to reinforce papal authority but history records that it was a constitutional notion of the church that had resolved the ‘Great Schism of the West’.

The Right to Vote

The question of who has the right to vote became disputed at this time. The right to vote concept was employed in many areas of law from family relations to ecclesiology. Pope Boniface VIII who ruled the church at the turn of the 14th century had decreed that ‘what touches on everyone must be dealt with and decided by everyone’. Popes repeatedly used this phrase to describe the power of papal electors. Some said in special circumstances a few non-members of the chapter might be admitted to an election but lay persons were to be entirely excluded.

In 1485 Pope Innocent VIII required that instead of pledging fidelity to their archbishop, candidates now had to pledge fidelity to the pope. This was a step towards power being centralized in Rome.

Cardinal d’Ailly, a renowned and respected scholar, wrote a treatise on the respective spheres of power of a council, pope and college of cardinals.  He advocated the doctrine of Conciliarism which maintained  that supreme authority in the church rested with a general council, not the pope.

He wrestled with the question of who has the right to elect a pope.

Arguments like d’Ailly’s would eventually be forgotten within the church, but outside the church, these ideas flourished. The great constitutional writers of the 17th and 18th centuries drew from these arguments that first appeared in the church. These ideas are now making their way back into the church.

Arguments such as d’Ailly’s are at the very heart of modern theories of democratic governance.

St Thomas More was also one of the great advocates of a constitutionally democratic church, believing that church governance should be shared by the consensus of all the faithful in good standing.

Council of Trent to Present Day

The Council of Trent laid down the following norms for bishops: birth in lawful wedlock, freedom from censure and irregularity, or any defect of mind, purity of personal morals and good reputation. He should have a degree in theology or canon law and be fit to teach.

The choice of bishops belonged exclusively to the pope, but there were numerous exceptions. In most of Austria, in Bavaria, in Spain, in Portugal and in Peru, the government submitted three names to the pope. This was so in France and in several republics of South America before the rupture of the concordats between the states and the Apostolic See. The cathedral chapter was authorised  to elect the bishop in several dioceses of Austria, Switzerland, Prussia and in some states of Germany. For example in France, Napoleon Bonaparte only conceded the power to appoint bishops to the pope in the Concordat of 1801. This concordat very quickly became the universal norm, centralising such appointments in the person of the pope, even to the present day. This centralised practice thus grew out of a church under siege from secular rulers over who had the power to appoint bishops.

The Appointment of Bishops Today

Ultimately the appointment of bishops rests with the pope.

Bishops of a province are required to draw up a list of priests who may be suitable candidates as bishops every three years.

The papal representative (apostolic nuncio or delegate) asks the outgoing bishop or the vicar general to give a report on the needs of the diocese. He also asks the metropolitan archbishop and other bishops of the province and members of the college of consultors. He may also consult other clergy or ‘lay persons of outstanding wisdom’. The views of these people must be confidential.

The nuncio then draws up a list of three candidates called a terna for further consultation.

This list is sent to the Congregation of the Roman Curia together with all the information about the candidates. They must be at least 35 years old and a priest for 5 years, and be well versed in scripture, theology and canon law. The congregation submits its conclusion to the pope who makes the appointment. If he agrees, he tells the nuncio who advises the candidate. If the pope does not agree he may appoint his own candidate (as he did with the Archbishop of Westminster, London in 1865, and the Archbishop of Armagh , Ireland in 1846. The process may take up to nine months.

What’s Next?

Will there ever be a return to a democratic church, or preferably to a broad constitutional church that enables far greater participation by all in the key decisions of the lay community? If it could be done in the early centuries, then surely it could happen now. Today many lay people, men and women, have degrees, masters and doctorates in theology, scripture, church history etc. They are well qualified to vote.

Democracy is taken for granted in the secular world almost universally, and where there is dictatorship there are protests, sometimes violent.

A suitable method of doing this would need to be found. Modern means of communication would make it easier than in the early centuries. The election of a bishop should not be too difficult. Voting would be voluntary, of course.

The democratic election of a pope would be more difficult, but not impossible. Perhaps it could be done by regions or countries, each region or country selecting a representative to vote for them.

Pope Francis has indicated that bishops and regions should be more responsible for what happens in their area, rather than being dependent on Rome to make all the decisions. This gives hope that a new form of democracy could be found. In October 2014 there was a synod on marriage and family. A questionnaire was sent out so that people could suggest ideas.

Besides the 190 clerics, there were 14 lay couples at the meeting to give their input. This is a tiny start towards democracy. Hopefully, it’s the first step of a long journey towards a restored democracy in the church.

Vatican II replaced the pyramid style of leadership with the concept that the church is the people of God. However that was thwarted by an even more centralization of power in Rome.

We need to pray very ardently for the guidance of the Holy Spirit for the future governance of the church.

In a certain parish, the parish priest was moved away and a temporary replacement was made. The people of the parish liked the replacement and asked the local bishop to leave him there but the bishop refused. The people pleaded with the bishop to have their wish granted, but the bishop thundered, ‘The church is not a democracy; it’s a dictatorship.’ If only the poor bishop had known the history of the church! Sadly the bishop’s comment is universally accepted.

Catholic Encyclopedia on-line, unless otherwise indicated.

I wish to acknowledge the valuable corrections and suggestions of Peter Price M.Min (Master of Ministry), Ph.D (History Monash University) who lectures at Yarra Theological Union, Melbourne, Australia.