The music player up at the top right is set up to play “Ave Generosa” composed by Hildegard of Bingen, who is talked about in this post.
When my friend Vincent heard about my new blog project his first question was: Do you think the Catholic Church should become a democratic organization?
I think my friend wants to get me in trouble.
First and foremost, that pesky word “should” needs to be taken out of the question and all questions. It doesn’t say much, and it creates a judgmental overtone the question asker may or may not want and projects expectations.
Next, I need to admit I am not a Catholic. Both Protestants and Catholics are trying to follow that guy named Jesus, but I understand there are significant differences between Catholics and Protestants. I have worshiped on occasions at Catholic churches and have family and friends who are Catholics. I have studied the history of the church (which includes all varieties of Jesus followers) and theology from many traditions. So I’ve got a bit of a background to think about this question.
I think the heart of Vincent’s question is whether it would benefit the Catholic church to smooth out their hierarchy in to a more democratic structure.
My knowledge of the Catholic church’s government is limited. There are the local priests who serve a church, bishops who oversee a bunch of priests, cardinals who choose the Pope, and the Pope. Monks and nuns are not clergy (unless a monk gets ordained as a priest); they are lay (not ordained) people who dedicate themselves to a monastic lifestyle. Deacons are ordained men who can be married or single and can perform a limited number of sacraments. I know it is a strict hierarchy and that priests, bishops, etc. are expected to be celibate. In my line of work (specifically when I worked as a hospital chaplain) I have met many Catholic women who serve the church as best they can within the limits set by the church and who would drop everything to attend seminary if the Pope announced tomorrow women could be ordained as priests once they meet the standard requirements. I also know there is a shortage of local priests in America.I know that the Catholic church has many members and churches in Latin and South America as well as Africa, but those populations are not well represented in the highest levels of church government.
I greatly admire the process the Catholic church has reclaimed from ancient traditions to help adults join the Catholic church (the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults). But I have multiple friends who grew up Catholic and no longer attend regular services for multiple reasons but especially because they felt like their beliefs were being dictated to them and there was no room for questioning or uncertainty. The government hierarchy doesn’t help this feeling. The Pope and Vatican feel very distant, and the things my friends were taught before they were Confirmed seem very distant from their everyday lives. (In fairness, I have heard the same things about various Protestant and Orthodox churches as well as some other religions–except for the thing about the Pope. That’s just a Catholic thing.)
One of my aunts converted to the Roman Catholic church when she was 18. We never really talked about it, but when she visited me last May she went with me to the church where I’m a member (Plainsboro Presbyterian Church). I didn’t think my aunt would like it very much, but she did. She enjoyed the sermon and the music, and afterwards she told me that she converted to the Catholic church because there was a spirituality there that didn’t exist in other places. The things which I usually thought separated Catholics and Protestants were not a big deal to her. (Praying to saints, understanding of communion/Lord’s Supper/Eucharist, etc.) What’s fascinating to me, though, is the spirituality she talked about did not seem to be rooted in the hierarchy of the Catholic church. Instead, the spirituality was in groups of people (in my aunt’s case mostly women’s groups) who functioned more or less independently from the “official” sources of power.
Looking back in history, there have been a lot of people (especially women) who have connected to God outside of the official powers, sometimes to undermine the official powers. Look at Hildegard of Bingen–one of my favorite mystics of all time. Whether or not you personally believe it’s possible for people to receive personal messages from God, Hildegard of Bingen was the most influential woman of her time. Her authority came directly from her connection to God, outside of the church’s hierarchy. She was one of the first women acknowledged by the Pope as someone who could teach theology. She spoke to the issues of her day, condemning simony (making people pay for sacraments) and chiding the Pope for being weak. She composed unearthly beautiful music (see her Amazon store). She interpreted Scripture (breaking lots of traditions and probably some laws about women interpreting Scripture). She preached and wrote down her visions. Look up Scivias to read some of her visions. I probably shouldn’t be saying this since Hildegard is considered a saint… but… she was pretty badass.
So what do Hildegard’s life and my aunt’s experiences have to do with the Catholic church changing its government? Maybe nothing. Maybe… they show how different the on-the-ground experience of being a Catholic is compared to how the church runs officially. Monastics and the like (Hildegard and my aunt included) have always gone around the official structures and gotten their authority directly from a relationship with God. It’s true with many non-monastics as well. I think this is a way people have tried to solve their own problems. Instead of going about the proper ways they took matters into their own hands… or, they looked directly to God. (Or both.) Many of the Catholic women I know who visit people in the hospital do it because they know how thin their priests are stretched and how important it is for people in the hospital to be cared for spiritually.
The problem with any change in a large institution is that the institution fights change. This is true with most institutions, not just with churches. Institutions often see themselves as being effective and don’t see a need to change. Especially in churches people feel the need to pass on the historic faith, the wisdom of the past, and those now in power’s understanding. So while I could easily say “Yes, I think the Catholic church should change their government and ordain women and allow priests to marry” I am very aware of how that sounds to people within the Catholic church hierarchy. In the next 100 years we will see great change in all types of spiritual communities, the Catholic church included. I bet within 30 years priests will be allowed to get married. (There’s plenty of precedent in the ancient church.) But when I say that to both practicing and non-practicing Catholics they roll their eyes at me. And, quiet honestly, they have written me off as an idealistic Protestant who doesn’t really understand their faith. Well, maybe I am just an idealist. (But I’m also 24. If I can’t be an idealist now, when can I be?) Also, I’m not a part of the Catholic church system; so my chances of bringing change are nil. Change can only come from within… The problem is that many people’s voices are left out of the Catholic church’s government. That doesn’t mean that change will never happen. It only means that change will happen more slowly. We can look at movements such as the WomenPriests as trying to bring change to the Catholic church from within. How successful they have been or will be is another issue.
It’s easy to look at a spiritual community that’s not your own and pick out parts you like, don’t like, or think ‘should’ change. I know I’ve been a bit critical of the Catholic church’s governmental system in this article, and I want to reaffirm the faith of my Catholic siblings. There’s a lot of great history involved in the Catholic church’s government. Even when the government structure changes, even when innovation comes, its rooted in the history and faith of the church. Also, I would be happy to sit down and talk with any one about my denomination’s government and its strengths and weaknesses (preferably over a beer).
Good biography on Hilde: Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age by Fiona Maddocks (Doubleday, 2001)