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Leonard Swidler [1]



Can there be a spirituality of democracy? To respond to the question, we first must have a clearer understanding of the two key terms of the question before we can try to understand their relationship.




“Spirituality” is a term that has had a long use, but it has become more prominent of late in distinction to “religion,” with familiar statements such as: “I am not religious, but I am spiritual.” So, where does the word “spiritual” come from? It comes from the Latin spiritus, which means “breath” or “wind.” Ancient humans noticed that if there was no breath in a human body, it was dead, that breath was a reality which could not be seen, that was “within,” and obviously was literally vital to human life. Thus, spirituality refers to the interior, the internal, as distinct from the exterior, the external. It is that latter that the popular phrase means when it rejects religion. It understands religion as referring to externals, and spirituality to the interior life.


Actually seeing religion as merely dealing with externals is a quite reductionist view of religion. A standard definition of religion is: “An explanation of the ultimate meaning of life, and how to live accordingly, based on some notion of the Transcendent,” and it contains the four “C’s”: Creed, Code, Cult, and Community-structure. [2] The human being is not just an interior being, a spirit, but is also a body, or perhaps better, a body-spirit. One of the terrible deficits of many of the world’s religions— unfortunately very much including Christianity— has been a disdain for the body, as if, in order to appreciate the spirit, one had to simultaneously depreciate the body. Such an extreme dualist view runs counter to our own human experience, and as that experience is so eloquently expressed in the first chapter of the first book of the Hebrew Bible, Genesis, where it says that God took a little adamah, “earth,” and blew his ruach, “spirit,” into it and created ha adam, literally “the earthling” (not “the male,” as we often misunderstand), and God saw that what he had done was mod tov, very good! [3]


Regardless of how we understand or misunderstand the term religion, however, it is clear that spirituality refers to the interior meaning of our humanity. Thus, when we speak of the spirituality of something, we are trying to get at the interior meaning of whatever we are talking about.  We are talking about the internal significance of some external thing or actions. Clearly, then, when we speak of the spirituality of democracy, we are trying to name the interior meaning of something external which we call democracy. So then, let us turn to the meaning of democracy.




As every American school child learns, the word “democracy” comes from two Greek words: demos, “people,” and kratia, “rule.” Hence, literally, “democracy” means “the people rule.” Thus, at first blush, it would seem that the term democracy deals exclusively with externals—such as elections, officers, courts, etc.—in contrast to consciousness, which is something internal. This seems to parallel the contrasting pairing of spirituality-religion, internal-external. However, as with spirituality and religion, to reduce democracy to merely the externals without an internal democratic consciousness, would be to deal with a dead body. The externals, of course, are essential, just as the human body is essential to have a human being. However, just as the human body without the spirit is dead, so too democratic externals without a democratic internal consciousness, without a democratic spirit, without a “Democratic Spirituality,” would be a dead body politic!


What we want to do, then, is to analyze democracy in its fullness, that is, both its externals and its internal spirit, its spirituality, which must enliven the externals if we are to have a living, vital human community. Thousands of books have been written on democracy from many different perspectives. What I propose to do here is to look at what are eight obviously key “externals” of democracy and look for what must be the “internals,” the “spiritual” dimension of those eight “principles” of democracy. First, a brief list of those principles, especially as they pertain to the Catholic Church, though what is said here throughout applies to other bodies as well:


1. Principle of Representation: All groupings of the faithful, including women and minorities, shall be equitably represented in all positions of leadership and decision-making.


2. The Principle of Subsidiarity: All decision-making rights and responsibilities shall remain with the smaller community unless the good of the broader community specifically demands that it exercise those rights and responsibilities.


3. The Principle of Written Constitutions: Throughout the Church each community, from parish on up, shall form its own body of governing regulations, its Constitution.


4. The Principle of Participation through Elections: Throughout the Church leaders shall be elected to office through appropriate structures, giving voice to all respective constituents.


5.The Principle of Term Limits: Leaders shall hold office for a specified, limited term.


6. Principle of Accountability: All leaders and councils will regularly provide their constituents an account of their work, including financial accounts, to be reviewed by an outside auditor when appropriate.


7. Principle of Separation and Balance of Powers: A separation of legislative, executive, and judicial powers, along with a system of checks and balances, shall be observed. This entails representatively elected councils and leaders, as well as established judicial systems at all levels. All branches share responsibility in ways appropriate to the spirit of the Gospel and the community’s Constitution.


8.The Principle of Dialogue: Throughout the Church the formulations and applications of the tradition shall be arrived at through a process of charitable and respectful dialogue.




1. Principle of Representation

First a word about “person.” A person is a being who can know abstractly, and reflexively know itself, therefore being capable of making free choices, that is, of loving. The only “persons” we humans know are ourselves and fellow humans. This chair and my dog, e.g.,  are not “persons.” Only humans are. Those of us who are theists normally are also convinced that God is likewise Person, can know and love.


We should always bear in mind that “persons” are the highest form of being, and that therefore everything is oriented toward them. Of course, every being has its own value, and therefore demands proportionate respect. E.g., morally, we may not abuse trees, the air, water.... but if a choice cannot be avoided, humans take precedence over other beings. This is likewise true of “principles.” Principles are for the sake of Persons, not Persons for the sake of Principles. As Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath!”


A community is made up of both individual persons and groupings of persons. If a community is going to make decisions about individual persons and/or groups of individual persons, it is obvious that those individuals and groups whose fate one way or another is being decided have the greatest  stake in such decisions. Who could possibly have more concern about these decisions than those whose fate is thereby impacted? The Spirituality of Democracy claims that those who are affected by decisions should have a proportionate voice in those decisions.


Indeed, even that redoubtable representative of authoritarianism, Pope St. Leo the Great (d. 461 A.D.), who faced down Attila the Hun and saved Rome from the sack, nevertheless wrote: “Let him who will stand before all be elected by all!” [4] Leo understood himself as chosen by all the Christians of Rome to act in their stead. This was a traditional monarchical understanding of representativeness. But, when in modern times the persons of a community “came of age,” as Pope St. John XXIII stated in his encyclical Pacem terris, then each person, each group was recognized as a mature person with the corresponding right and responsibility of representing her or himself more directly.


Thus, in that same spirit Pope John Paul II made it clear that,


Democracy...represents a most important topic for the new millennium...[the Church] values the democratic system inasmuch as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices, guarantees to the governed the possibility both of electing and holding accountable those who govern them, and of replacing them [5]


Surely if this insight it valid for the secular community, it is all the more valid for the even more comprehensive religious community! Following Pope John Paul II’s lead, in the Church, all members’ “participation is ensured...in making choices...guaranteeing...to the governed the possibility both of electing and holding accountable those who govern them, and of replacing them”! Stunning words from the pope who died less than a year ago! All persons in the Church—you and I—have the right  to elect, to hold accountable, and even to replace, those in the Church who govern us! Surely the pope is not advocating a double moral standard—freedom and responsibility in the secular world, and suppliance and authoritarianism in the Church. I reject such an accusation of duplicity on the part of the pope!


Today we are keenly aware that it is important to list explicitly those groups of persons who have tended to be overlooked: for example, Blacks, women, the poor, homosexuals.... lest this principle of representativeness be severely weakened. In other words, we need to call this Principle of Representativeness to our consciousness, to our inner spirit, to our “Spirituality of Democracy.”


2. The Principle of Subsidiarity

Subsidiarity means simply that if a smaller community can effectively accomplish an end, the larger community may not interfere. This is only the most obvious common sense (which sense is far too often honored in the breach). If, for example, a person can effectively stand and walk on her own, then to insist on supporting her from the outside, not only wastes valuable assets, it will also eventually literally waste the legs of the person herself! Further, if the town is constantly dependent on the province to provide everything, the town will, like the legs, also eventually atrophy and become not a contributor to the province, but only a burden.


At the heart of the Principle of Subsidiarity is the Golden Rule: We love our neighbor as we love our self. If our love of our self atrophies, we will proportionately love our neighbor ever more weakly. Jesus reiterated the Golden Rule (Luke 6:31; Matthew 7:12), which was articulated by his likely teacher, the great Rabbi Hillel (Btalmud, Shabbath 31a), and before them in the 1st-2nd- century B.C.E. Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and before that in the 2nd-century B.C.E. book of Tobit (4:15), and even earlier in the 5th-century book of Leviticus (19: 18). Simultaneously, and independently, 7th-century B.C.E. Zoroaster in Iran (Gathas, 43.1) and 6th-century B.C.E. Confucius (Analects, 5.11; 12.2; 15.23) in China and also expressed the Golden Rule.


Remember, Jesus, standing in the long Jewish tradition of linking together the love of self and neighbor with the love of God, [6] made it clear that the way to love God, “whom we cannot see” is to love our neighbor, “whom we can see” (1 John 4:20). And who is our neighbor? Everyone, but most of all those who cannot care for themselves, the thirsty, hungry, naked, sick....(Mt. 25:34-46). Who cares for those who cannot care for themselves? According to the Principle of Subsidiarity, first those who are closest: the family, friends, the town.... and on up the line, making sure that the most effective job is done.


A concrete example: My wonderful wife Arlene, who was my closest friend, intellectual partner, and beloved, has had Alzheimer’s disease for over fourteen years now. I know from the two times she was placed in an institution—very good ones—for just a few days in each instance, that had she been permanently put in an institution, say, seven years after the onset of the disease when she could no longer care for herself, she would have experienced a miserable, painful death already five or six years ago. It is only because of loving care at home that she has had years of a pain-free life, ever more limited though it be. It is not only charity or love that begins at home; everything does, and moves up the ladder only as needed—the Principle of Subsidiarity.


Pope John Paul II articulated the Principle of Subsidiarity in some detail when he stated:


Smaller social units—whether nations themselves, communities, ethnic or religious groups, families or individuals—must not be namelessly absorbed into a greater conglomeration, thus losing their identity and having their prerogatives usurped. Rather, the proper autonomy of each social class and organization, each in its own sphere, must be defended and upheld. This is nothing other than the principle of subsidiarity, which requires that a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its rightful functions; instead the higher order should support the lower order and help it to coordinate its activity with that of the rest of society, always with a view to serving the common good (cf. Centesimus annus, May 1, 1991). Public opinion needs to be educated in the importance of the principle of subsidiarity for the survival of a truly democratic society. [7]


We see that the observation of the external rule of subsidiarity fosters the internal development of dignity and sense of responsibility and right. Otherwise the spirit will tend to turn to moral flab—for the Christian, the very opposite of what Jesus is all about, for he said: “I would that you have life, and have it more abundantly! (John 10:10)


3. The Principle of Written Constitutions

It might at first seem odd to include as a principle the need for Written Constitutions. However, every teacher knows that open dialogue, and especially writing, produces a quality of thought that is not only precise, but also tends both to be practical and to capture the heart. A Presbyterian friend of mine once said that when he goes to important meetings, he likes to be the secretary— because what he writes, that is what happened at the meeting! Months and years later, what is left of all the wise words spoken in the dialogue is what was written. Another example: think of 1789, not so much as the beginning of the French Revolution, but the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and how it directs our life to this very day!


To stay with the profession of teaching a little longer: Every good teacher strives to bring to bear as many senses on important subjects as possible. She will lead the student to grasp the new idea by reading (employing the sense of sight), getting him to talk about it (the sense of hearing, and as close as we can come to using the sense of taste—our tongue), and to write about it (employing the sense of touch).


But even more, having to write down a set of rules by which a community decides to govern itself is in itself a very sobering, reflective interior experience. It develops both a deep-dialogic and critical-thinking interior mentality. It is “deep-dialogical” for it forces each of us to listen carefully to the deep concerns of our partners, to try to get inside their minds and hearts so as to address adequately their  concerns—and to lead my partners to do the same for me. It is “critical-thinking” for it forces all partners to try to lift out of the unconscious level all those pre-suppositions that each of us is unknowingly burdened with—“all women are emotional and men are rational,” “blondes are light-headed,” “the poor are irresponsible,” are some of the better known ones, but there are many, many which are as yet unknown to each of us. Only then can we analyze the unconscious pre-suppositions that we all carry from our childhood, and then make a judgment about them: Yes, they make sense; no, they don’t make sense; yes and no, they make sense partly. Our English word “critical” comes from the Greek term krinein, “to make a judgment.” But we can make an informed judgment only if we have before us the relevant evidence—which is impossible unless we can bring our assumptions out of the un-conscious level to the conscious level—“critical-thinking.


We all know that it is very easy to “talk around” a subject and seemingly arrive at a consensus, only to have the apparent consensus later, when some crisis arises, show itself to be totally chimerical when the understanding of what was originally said turns out to be as varied as there were people in the room! However, if one is forced to write down what one thinks in such a way that all the others likewise agree with the line of thought, then such later potential disagreement, though never totally eliminated, is vastly reduced. Everyone is forced to think very, very clearly and choose words very, very precisely, for everyone, including one’s grandchildren and great grandchildren, are going to have to live by these words. Of course, even such written words will in the future have to be interpreted and applied to new situations, but there will be a solid foundation of the written word to build on.


Thus, the linkage between the external words, and actions built on them, and the internal thought—deep-dialogue/critical-thinking—is clear for all to see. Community action without the inner spiritual dimension of the carefully thought through, and perhaps even fought through, reflection and choice of the right concepts, insights, concerns as reflected in the precisely written words will drift into arbitrariness and even tyranny. Hence, the Principle of Written Constitutions.


4. The Principle of Participation through Elections

There is nothing “magic” about the notion of elections in the sense that they are strange, new-fangled things. Except for hereditary leadership, everyone in a leadership position normally gets there by some kind of an election process. Very often those who have the power to participate in that choice are very few—like the politicians gathered in the proverbial smoke-filled back room, or the one hundred or so cardinals electing a pope. What makes the notion of the election of leaders new in relationship to democracy flows from the claim that was mentioned at the beginning of these reflections, namely, that “everyone effected by a decision should have an appropriate voice in that decision.”


In the case of the choice of leaders, everyone who is expected to be a follower ought to have an appropriate voice in the choice of those leaders. It is that “interior,” “spiritual,” claim that the exterior rules for participation in the election of leaders ought to conform to the interior expectation that is critical. Of course, the long existence of exterior rules can shape, or rather, mis-shape, the interior understanding, so that many will come to believe interiorly that there is no proper right to participation in the election of leaders. Then, what is needed is an effort to shift the interior understanding, the “spirituality,” to realize that exteriorly there ought to be that broad participation in the election of leaders. That is what I want to do here in very brief fashion specifically in the Catholic tradition.


From New Testament times the Christian community elected their own leaders, as, for example, in the case of choosing Deacons (Acts 6:3), and continued this practice. We find corroboration in two other first-century documents, the Didache and Clement of Rome’s First Letter: “You must, then, elect for yourselves bishops and deacons...”; [8] bishops should be chosen “with the consent of the whole Church....” [9]


Early in the third century Hippolytus made it clear that it was an “apostolic tradition,” which was still practiced, for the entire local community along with its leaders to choose its own deacons, presbyters, and bishop. [10] His testimony was closely followed by that of St. Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258 A.D.), who often referred to the election of bishops by the priests and people. He himself was elected and consequently made it his rule never to administer ordination without first having consulted both the clergy and the laity about the candidates: “From Cyprian to the presbyterium, deacons, and all the people, greetings! In the ordaining of clerics, most beloved brethren, it is our custom to take your advice beforehand and with common deliberations weigh the character and qualifications of each individual.” [11] Cyprian also reported a similar democratic custom prevailing in the church of Rome: “Cornelius was made bishop by the...testimony of almost all the people, who were then present, and by the assembly of ancient priests and good men.” [12]


Cyprian also 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 to choose worthy bishops, or to reject unworthy ones.” [13] Optatus, a successor to Cyprian as bishop of Carthage, attested to the continuance of the practice of electing bishops into the fourth century when he reported: “Then Caecilianus was elected by the suffrage of all the people,” [14] and over in Asia Minor the Council of Ancyra (314) confirmed the right of election and rejection of bishops by the people. [15]


Every Catholic schoolgirl and schoolboy knows the stories of the elections of St. Ambrose as bishop of Milan and St. Augustine as bishop of Hippo (fourth and fifth centuries) by the acclamation of the people: “We elect him!” [“Nos elegimus eum!”] A little later Pope St. Celestine (d. 432 A.D.) said: “No one is given the episcopate uninvited. The consent and desire of the clerics, the people and leadership are required.” [16] As we saw, that redoubtable Pope St. Leo the Great (d. 461 A.D.) who faced down Attila the Hun and saved Rome from the sack wrote: “Let him who will stand before all be elected by all.” [17] These principles from the early centuries of Christian practice were reiterated in various synods until at least as late as the Council of Paris in 829 A.D. [18]


Basically the election of bishops by the clergy and people remained in effect until the 12th centuryover half the present span of Christianity. Even at the beginning of the United States of America, our first bishop, John Carroll, was, with the full approval of Rome, elected at least by all of the priests of the U.S.; he then proposed a similar election of all subsequent bishops in Americabut Rome allowed the next two who were thus elected, but subsequently blocked his proposal. [19]


However, just this February, 2006, Timothy McDonnell, bishop “pro tem” of Springfield, MA (whose previous bishop fled in the middle of the night because of pedophilia charges) publicly invited the clergy, religious, and laity of the diocese to make recommendations for the regularly appointed diocesan bishop. Here is a courageous bishop who is trying to bring the externals of electing the leaders of the community in line with the clear interior claim as articulated by Pope Leo the Great: “Let him who will stand before all be elected by all!”


5.The Principle of Term Limits

The principle of limited term of office for leaders is something that we humans have learned from hard experience. Surely on the interior, the spirituality, level it is very easy for us to see why a time limit on the exercise of a leadership office helps to protect the holder from the siren seduction of power. Knowing that one day one will be on the other side of the desk provides a powerful prophylactic against slipping into an insensitive or arrogant exercise of power.


To begin, it must be recalled that there is nothing in either Scripture or theology which necessitates an unlimited term of office for any position in the Catholic Church. Every position, including that of pope is “resignable”—in fact, Pope St. Celestine V resigned as pope in 1294 A.D. On the positive side, it should be noted that there are many positions which have had time limitations set to them in a variety of ways. Various positions within a diocese, e.g., vicar general, dean, pastor, all depend for their longevity on the will of the presiding bishop. The temporal limitation of office in these cases is known only “after the fact,” not “before the fact.” Bishops, and cardinals, now have a specific “before the fact” temporal limitation, namely, they must retire from their posts at age 75. Further, the position of a bishop as an “Ordinary” in a particular diocese is not infrequently temporally also limited by his leaving that diocese and going to another.


There has not been a tradition of diocesan bishops being selected for their positions for a specific period of time. However, there has been the tradition for many, many centuries in the Catholic Church of the superiors of religious orders—including abbots and abbesses who often held ecclesiastical geographical jurisdiction powers comparable to that of bishops—of being elected for specific limited terms of office.  And all this has been duly approved by Rome.


Suffice it to recall the immense benefits of a limited term of office in the modern civil experience.  As noted, the prospect of soon, or at least eventually, being among those about whom one is now making decisions is a healthy tempering thought for the decision-maker. Unfettered power, with the best of will, tempts the realization of the famous saying of Lord Acton: “Power corrupts, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.” Hence, it is no surprise that in the wake of the liberating winds of Vatican II the Catholic Theological Faculty of the University of Tübingen in Germany produced a special issue of their periodical, the Tübinger Theologische Quartalschrift, 2 (1969), devoted to the questions of the election and limited term of office of bishops and that the whole faculty signed a careful argument in favor of the notion of a limited term of office of eight years for resident bishops. What is perhaps surprising, however, is not that Hans Küng was one of the signers of that document (which he was) but that Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, was also!” [20]


6. Principle of Accountability

Again, this principle is something interior, spiritual, that flows from the exterior fact that leaders of a community were elected by the community specifically to act for the benefit of the electing community, the “constituents.” In democracy it is the demos, the people, who kratia, who rule through their chosen exercizers of power.


Often one hears a demur that the Church is not a democracy precisely because its authority comes from God. But this claim proves far too much, for it is true of all authority, secular as well as religious—just as Jesus himself pointed out to the secular potentate Pontius Pilate: “You have authority only because it was given to you by God.” (John 19:11) Just because authority comes from God does not militate it being mediated by a variety of human instruments, as, for example, by birth (as in monarchies and aristocracies), or by limited suffrage or one-person-one-vote suffrage, or indeed, by cardinals, or bishops in a Provincial Council, or all the bishops and key lay people in an Ecumenical Council. Remember, the key first seven Ecumenical Councils were all called by, presided over, and promulgated, not by the pope, not by the bishops, but by laity, both male and female (!) the Emperor or Empress.


Thus, the chosen leaders, by whatever means, are responsible to the choosing constituents. This is manifested in a variety of ways, such as the very traditional (first articulated in 1140 by Gratian, the “Father of Canon Law”) “Doctrine of Reception”: “The canonical doctrine of reception, broadly stated, asserts that for a law or rule to be an effective guide for the believing community it must be accepted by that community.” [21] For example, Pope Gregory XVI’s and Pope Pius IX’s dual condemnation of freedom of conscience as “madness” (deliramentum) in 1832 and again in 1864, [22] simply were not accepted by the bulk of Catholic faithful, and then was definitively rejected by the Declaration on Religious Freedom of Vatican II in 1965.


We have especially outstanding example of how well this principle of accountability was put into action early in the history of our American Church. John England (1786-1842) was the bishop of North and South Carolina and Georgia from 1820 to 1842, when he died all too early. Bishop England—along with the first American bishop John Carroll—was a giant figure, whose accomplishments have unfortunately have not been matched since.


What I want to lift up here is his immediate provision for annual diocesan Conventions for all the clergy, and a proportional representation of the laity from each congregation, elected by all the people.  The Convention possessed certain decision-making powers parallel to those of each Parish Vestry, such as control of the General Diocesan Fund (used for the seminary, schools, hospitalsall of which England startedwidows and orphans and similar concerns). The bishop was required to make a full report on the expending of all funds to the Convention; England in fact did an exemplary job of this at every Convention.


In addition, he took the opportunity to present an overview of the Church in all America as well as in his diocese at each Convention.  Consequently his twenty-six Convention Addresses give a history of the Catholic Church in America for those years. Most importantly, it was through the Convention that the scattered Catholic churches began to grow together with a sense of unity and belonging to a larger church, a “catholic” Church, which was their Church where they had both rights and responsibilities. Early in 1842, however, he died, and with him his Convention, Constitution, and mostly everything else, it seemed, that made him great, for the small leaders who came after him could not match the stride of his footsteps.


7. Principle of Separation and Balance of Powers

Once more the Separation and Balance of Powers are exterior rules that clearly reflect a very reasonable interior, spiritual, human insight. As with the perception that limited terms of office would help greatly to ward of the corrupting influence of unlimited power, so to would the principle of the separation of ruling powers.


When we think of the modern democratic principle of the “Separation and Balance of Powers,” from the time of Montesquieu's De l'Esprit des Lois (1734 A.D.), we normally think of the legislative, executive, and judicial powers being separated. In the ancient and medieval Catholic Church there was for long stretches of time a similar separation of powers, though the terms used were not precisely those of Montesquieu or of today. The holders of powers were: 1) bishops, 2) teachers, and in the Middle Ages, 3) canon lawyers. I will deal briefly only with the first two.


It will probably come as somewhat of a shock for many Catholics to learn that in the history of the Catholic Church the pope and bishops were not always the supreme teachers of what was true Catholic doctrine. For well over nine centuries of Catholic history it was the “teachers,” the theologians who were the supreme arbiters in deciding what was correct Catholic teaching. This occurred in the first three centuries of the Christian era and again from the 13th through the 18th centuries. Concerning the first three centuries, one need only remember such outstanding “teachers,” who were not even priests, let alone bishops, as Clement of Alexandria (150-215 A.D.) and his successor Origen (185-254 A.D.).  It is clear that there were lay teachers in the Roman Church as well in this early period, for we find the Roman priest Hippolytus (170-236 A.D.) stating such in his Apostolic Tradition: “When the teacher....Whether the one who teaches be cleric or lay, he will do so.” [23]


The highly regarded Cardinal Jean Daniélou clearly described the situation at the first half of the third century in Alexandria when, in writing about Origen, he stated:


There were two distinct types of authority in the early Church....The visible hierarchy of presbyters [clergy] and the visible hierarchy of doctors [free teachers]....There were two distinct types of authority in the early Church. Both could be traced back to the charismata of the early days, but they were each derived from different ones. The two hierarchies took up different attitudes on certain points. The presbyters turned more towards the worship of God, the didaskaloi [free teachers] rather to the ministry of the word and to Scripture. Clearly Origen represents the viewpoint of the didaskaloi. [24]


Concerning the Middle Ages from the thirteenth century, on no less a person than St. Thomas Aquinas clearly distinguished between the professorial chair, cathedra magistralis, and the episcopal throne, the cathedra pontificalis vel pastoralis. “The first conferred the authority to teach, auctoritas docendi; the second, the power to govern and, if necessary, to punish, eminentia potestatis.” [25] There was no subordination of the magisterium of the teacher to that of the bishop; they were on an equal plane: “Teachers of sacred Scripture adhere to the ministry of the word as do also prelates.” [26]


In the 14th century we find the French theologian Godefroid de Fontaines posing the following question (and note how he poses it): “Whether the theologian must contradict the statement of the bishop if he believes it to be opposed to the truth?” He answers that if the matter is not concerned with faith or morals, then he should dissent only in private, but if it is a matter of faith or morals, “the teacher must take a stand, regardless of the episcopal decree...even though some will be scandalized by this action. It is better to preserve the truth, even at the cost of a scandal than to let it be suppressed through fear of a scandal.” And, Godefroid pointed out, this would be true even if the bishop in question were the pope, “for in this situation the pope can be doubted.” [27]


Thus from the medieval Scholastic perspective, the theologians were supposed to determine truth and error, and it was then up to the bishops to punish the offenders. That is why from the thirteenth century onward episcopal decrees were often issued “with the counsel of teachers” (de consilio doctorum). For example the bishop of Paris, Etienne I, condemned several propositions as heretical “with the counsel of the teachers of theology” (de consilio magistrorum theologiae). [28] The Western Schism (late fourteenth/early fifteenth centuries when there were two and even three popes simultaneously!) further reinforced the prestige and authority of the theologians, so that at the two Ecumenical Councils which resolved the Western Schism, Constance (1314-18 A.D.) and especially Basel (1431-49 A.D.), there were often hundreds of theologians present and only a handful of ignorant bishops and abbots.


Hence, as Roger Gryson put it, “one can not find any question on which the universal Church’s ultimate criterion of truth did not come around to the unanimous opinion of the Scholastics [theologians], through faith in their authority (eorum auctoritate mota).” And by the middle of the sixteenth century the famous Spanish Dominican theologian Melchior Cano applied to theologians the words of Jesus, “Whoever hears you hears me, who rejects you rejects me”: “When the Lord said: ‘Who hears you hears me, and who rejects you rejects me,’ he did not refer with these words to the first theologians, i.e., the apostles, but to the future teachers in the Church so long as the sheep need to be pastured in knowledge and doctrine.” [29]


This “separation of powers” wherein the theologians exercised the teaching power and, as St. Thomas described it, the bishops Regimen or “management,” continued through the end of the “Old Regimen” the French Ancien Régime, at the beginning of the last century.


Today, especially in the wake of the extremely centralizing effort for a quarter of a century by Pope John Paul II, there is a an intense concern that all power have been pulled into the single hands of the bishop, who acts as the arbiter of all teaching, legislator of all laws, judge of all conflicts, even ones in which he is entangled, and executor of all decisions. Some of the results of this destruction of the Principle of the Separation and Balance of Powers are manifest in the recent Grand Jury Report on Clergy Sex Abuse.


8.The Principle of Dialogue

Question: Can there not be, indeed, ought there not be different opinions, followed by possible dissent, then dialogue, and only thereafter decision in the Church, even on matters of the greatest religious significance? Indeed, should not this sequence of actions be adhered to especially in matters of the greatest religious significance?


Response: “The Christian faithful.... have the right and even at times a duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church.” “Those who are engaged in the sacred disciplines enjoy a lawful freedom of inquiry and of prudently expressing their opinions on matters in which they have expertise.” These are not the wild words of a radical group of non-Catholics, or even of a group of liberal Catholics. They are the canons 212,3 and 218 of the new 1983 Code of Canon Law. This might seem to some to seal the argument, but there is more. Listen to these “radical” words: 


Christ summons the Church, as she goes her pilgrim way, to that continual reformation of which she always has need....Let everyone in the Church...preserve a proper freedom...even in the theological elaborations of revealed truth....All are led...wherever necessary, to undertake with vigor the task of renewal and reform ....[All] Catholics’....primary duty is to make a careful and honest appraisal of whatever needs to be renewed and done in the Catholic household itself.


Who this time are the radical advocates of freedom and reformation “even in the theological elaborations of revealed truth”? All the Catholic bishops of the world gathered together in Ecumenical Council Vatican II (Decree on Ecumenism, no.4).


Recall again that the same Council also declared that “the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all human beings are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals, social groups and every human power.... Nobody is forced to act against his convictions in religious matters in private or in public....Truth can impose itself on the mind of humans only in virtue of its own truth” (Declaration on Religious Liberty, nos. 1,2). The Council further stated that the “search for truth” should be carried out “by free enquiry...and dialogue.... Human beings are bound to follow their consciences faithfully in all their activity....They must not be forced to act contrary to their conscience, especially in religious matters” (ibid., no. 3).


There is still more: In 1973 the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith stated that the “conceptions” by which Church teaching is expressed are changeable: “The truths which the Church intends to teach through her dogmatic formulas are distinct from the changeable conceptions of a given epoch and can be expressed without them” (the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1973 Declaration Mysterium ecclesiae). But how can these conceptions” be changed unless someone points out that they might be improved, might even be defective, that is, unless there is deliberation, possibly dissent, and then dialogue leading to a new decision on how to express the matter?


And a real mind boggler: “Doctrinal discussion requires perceptiveness, both in honestly setting out one's own opinion and in recognizing the truth everywhere, even if the truth demolishes one so that one is forced to reconsider one's own position, in theory and in practice.” Words of the Vatican Curia (!) in 1968 (Vatican Secretariat for Unbelievers’ Document Humanae personae dignitatem).


Even Pope John Paul II encouraged responsible dissent and supported theologians in their invaluable service done in freedom. In 1969, then Archbishop of Cracow, he said: “Conformity means death for any community. A loyal opposition is a necessity in any community.” A decade later, as pope, he declared that, “The Church needs her theologians, particularly in this time and age....We desire to listen to you and we are eager to receive the valued assistance of your responsible scholarship....We will never tire of insisting on the eminent role of the university....a place of scientific research, constantly updating its methods and working instruments...in freedom of investigation (“Address to Catholic Theologians and Scholars at the Catholic University of America,” October 7, 1979emphasis added). A little later he even went so far as to remark: “Truth is the power of peace....What should one say of the practice of combating or silencing those who do not share the same views?” (More than ironically, even as a countersign, that statement was issued on December 18, 1979, three days after the close of the “interrogation” of Schillebeeckx in Rome and on the very day of the quasi-silencing of Hans Küng.)


One of the main functions of the Magisterium, and especially the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, therefore, ought not be to put a stop to deliberation, dissent, dialogue, and then decision, but instead precisely to encourage, promote and direct it in the most creative possible channels.  As a 1979 petition in support of Father Schillebeeckx signed by hundreds of theologians urged,


The function of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith should be to promote dialogue among theologians of varying methodologies and approaches so that the most enlightening, helpful, and authentic expressions of theology could ultimately find acceptance. Hence, we call upon the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith to eliminate from its procedures “hearings,” and the like, substituting for them dialogues that would be either issue-oriented, or if it is deemed important to focus on the work of a particular theologian, would bring together not only the theologian in question and the consultors of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, but also a worldwide selection of the best pertinent theological scholars of varying methodologies and approaches. These dialogues could well be conducted with the collaboration of the International Theological Commission, the Pontifical Biblical Commission, universities, theological faculties, and theological organizations. Thus, the best experts on the issues concerned would work until acceptable resolutions were arrived at. Such a procedure of course is by no means new; it is precisely the procedure utilized at the Second Vatican Council. [30]


Indeed, even the pope and the Curia wrote of the absolute necessity of dialogue and sketched out how it should be conducted.  Pope Paul VI in his first encyclical, Ecclesiam suam (1964 A.D.), wrote that dialogue,


is demanded nowadays....It is demanded by the dynamic course of action which is changing the face of modern society.  It is demanded by the...maturity humanity has reached in this day and age....This desire to impress upon the internal relationships of the Church the character of a dialogue....It is, therefore, our ardent desire that the dialogue within the Church should take on new fervor, new themes and new participants, so that the holiness and vitality of the Mystical Body of Christ on earth may be increased.


Then in 1968 the Vatican declared that,


the willingness to engage in dialogue is the measure and strength of that general renewal which must be carried out in the Church, which implies a still greater appreciation of liberty....Doctrinal dialogue should be initiated with courage and sincerity, with the greatest freedom...recognizing the truth everywhere, even if the truth demolishes one so that one is forced to reconsider one’s own position.... Therefore the liberty of the participants must be ensured by law and reverenced in practice” (Humanae personae dignitatem, emphasis added).





We can now, I believe, answer with confidence the initial question: Can there be a spirituality of democracy? with a resounding Yes! More than that, there can see that there be no Democracy without a vital Spirituality of Democracy. The externals of democracy, as those we analyzed above, and others, are essential. However, if there is no corresponding democratic understanding, democratic consciousness, Democratic Spirituality, the result will be a moribund shell which will quickly succumb to one form of tyranny or another. This is the clear lesson we humans have been painfully learning day by day in secular history.


What has this to do with the Catholic Church? As we have seen, in the beginning centuries the Catholic Church was democratic in very many ways. However, when the Roman Empire became Christian in the fourth century, the Catholic Church simultaneously began quickly to become increasingly Imperial both in structure and in spirituality. Then in the Western Middle Ages, the Church added the feudal dimension both to its external structure and its internal consciousness, which has largely perdured until Vatican Council II, which created a consciousness, a spirituality largely given over to the principles of freedom, dialogue, reform, collegiality, that is, democracy.


But the external structures of those spiritualities were largely frustrated in the last quarter of a century. However, now, in spite of the fears of many, the way to install those democratic structures under the impulse of a spirituality of democracy begins to seem possible once more. There will not be leadership in this direction from above, but “permission” seems apparent with the sign of Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical—on love!


The leadership to democracy must now come from below. From you and me.

[1] Leonard Swidler has an STL in Catholic Theology, University of Tübingen and a Ph.D. in history and philosophy, University of Wisconsin.  Professor of Catholic Thought and Interreligious Dialogue at Temple University since 1966, he is author or editor of over 65 books & 180 articles, Co-founder (1964) with his wife Arlene Anderson Swidler,and Editor of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies. His books include: Dialogue for Reunion (1962), The Ecumenical Vanguard (1965), Jewish-Christian Dialogues (1966), Buddhism Made Plain (co-author, 1984), Toward a Universal Theology of Religion (1987), A Jewish-Christian Dialogue on Jesus and Paul (1990), After the Absolute: The Dialogical Future of Religious Reflection (1990), A Bridge to Buddhist-Christian Dialogue (1991) and Muslims In Dialogue. The Evolution of a Dialogue (1992), Die Zukunft der Theologie (1992), Theoria± Praxis. How Jews, Christians, Muslims Can Together Move From Theory to Practice (1998), For All Life. Toward a Universal Declaration of a Global Ethic: An Interreligious Dialogue (1999), The Study of Religion in an Age of Global Dialogue (co-author, 2000) Dialogue in Malaysia and the Globe (2004), Confucianism in Dialogue Today. West, Christianity, and Judaism (2005).

[2] See Leonard Swidler and Paul Mojzes, The Study of Religion in an Age of Global Dialogue (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000).

[3] See Leonard Swidler, Jesus Was a Feminist. Why Aren’t you!? Unpublished book manuscript.

[4] Leo, Epistle, x, 4; PL, 54, 634.  “Qui praefuturus est omnibus ab omnibus eligatur.”

[5] John Paul II to Sixth Session, Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Feb. 23, 2000

[6] “Love the Lord and the neighbor” (Testament of Issachar 5:2); “I loved the Lord and every human being with my whole heart” (ibid., 7:6); “Love the Lord in your whole life and one another with a sincere heart” (Testament of Daniel 5:3); “Fear the Lord and love the neighbor” (Testament of Benjamin 3:3); “And he commanded them to keep to the way of God, do justice, and everyone love his/her neighbor” (Jubilees 20:9); “Love one another my sons as brothers, as one loves oneself.... You should love one another as yourselves” (ibid., 36:4‑6).

[7] John Paul II to Sixth Session, Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Feb. 23, 2000

[8] Didache, 15:1-2.

[9] 1 Clement, 44,5.

[10] Hippolytus, Traditio Apostolica, 2,7,8.

[11] Migne, Patrologia Latina, 4, 317-318. Cyprianus presbyterio et diaconibus et plebi universae salutem. In ordinationi- bus clericis, fratres charissimi, solemus vos ante consulere, et mores ac merita singulorum communi consilia ponderare.

[12] Ibid., 3, 796-797.

[13] Cyprian, Epistle, 67, 3, Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum Latinorum (CSEL), 3.2.737.

[14] Optatus, CSEL, 34.2.407. “Tunc suffragio totius populi Caecilianus elegitur et manum imponente Felice Autumnitano episcopus ordinatur.”

[15] Canon 18. Cf. C. J. von Hefele, Conciliengeschichte, I (Freiburg, 1873), p. 237.

[16] Celestine, Epistle, iv, 5; PL, 50, 431. “Nullus invitis detur episcopus. Cleri, plebis, et ordinis, consensus ac desiderium requiratur.”

[17] Leo, Epistle, x, 4; PL, 54, 634. “Qui praefuturus est omnibus ab omnibus eligatur.”

[18] Cf. Jean Harduin, Acta Conciliorum et Epistolae Decretales ac Constitutiones Summorum Pontificum, IV, 1289 ff.

[19] Cf. Leonard Swidler, “People, Priests, and Bishops in U.S. Catholic History,” in Leonard Swidler and Arlene Swidler, eds., Bishops and People (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970), pp. 113-135.

[20] English translation, Swidler, Bishops and People.

[21] James Coriden, The Canonical Doctrine of Reception; see:

[22] See Leonard Swidler, Freedom in the Church (Dayton, OH: Pflaum Press, 1969), ch. IV.

[23] Apostolic Tradition (Hippolytus), XIX.

[24] Jean Daniélou, Origen (New York: 1955), p. 50.

[25] Roger Gryson, "The Authority of the Teacher in the Ancient and Medieval Church," in Leonard Swidler and Piet Fransen, eds. Authority in the Church and the Schillebeeckx Case (New York: Crossroad, 1982), p. 184.

[26] Thomas Aquinas, Quodlibitales, III,a. 9. Doctores sacrae scripturae adhibentur ministerio verbi Dei, sicut et praelati.

[27] References and fuller discussion in Gryson,"The Authority of the Teacher," pp. 176-87.

[28] Ibid., p. 186.

[29] Citation found in ibid., pp. 186f.  The original reads: Cum Dominus dixit: Qui vos audit me audit, et qui vos spernit me spernit, non modo ad primos theologos, i.e. apostolos verba illa referebat, sed ad doctores etiam in Ecclesia futuros, quamdiu pascendae essent oves in scientia et doctrina.

[30] Reprinted in Leonard Swidler, Küng in Conflict (New York: Doubleday, 1981), pp. 516f.


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