Vatican Resists Attempts to Democratize Church Hierarchy – The American Spectator
The Vatican recently rejected an attempt by wayward German Catholics to turn the Church’s hierarchical structure into just another democracy. The Archdiocese of Paderborn announced 14 lay Catholics would join a clerical committee voting to select a new archbishop — a move Rome unequivocally nixed. The Apostolic Nuncio to Germany, Archbishop Nikola Eterović, explained that permitting laity to vote alongside cathedral clerics would actually be illegal, according to both the Vatican’s own internal standards and concordats agreed to by both the Holy See and individual German states.
This isn’t the first or even only attempt in Germany at granting laity an equal say to veteran priests, bishops, and Vatican officials. Osnabrück’s controversial bishop Franz-Josef Bode recently resigned amid concerns over his handling of clerical sex abuse cases. Bode’s interim administrative successor promised the laity of the diocese that they would have a say in choosing a new bishop.
Last month, Eterović used the full force of his office to reiterate a Vatican ban on the dissident German Synodal Path’s proposal for a lay-led “synodal council,” which would effectively supersede bishops in matters of ecclesial administration. The Vatican diplomat stated, “I have therefore been asked ex officio to specify that … not even a diocesan bishop can set up a synodal council at diocesan or parish level.” Curia cardinals had previously demanded an end to “synodal council” plans back in January.
But, as the old saying has it, the Rhine flows into the Tiber, and even modern-minded officials in Rome have teased the possibility of laity participating in the Synod of Bishops’ voting sessions. The synod’s general secretary, Maltese cardinal Mario Grech, noted in February that at least one non-priest would be voting in the universal Synod on Synodality’s final sessions in Rome, left-leaning Sister Nathalie Becquart. Grech’s synodal cohort, openly pro-gay Luxembourg cardinal Jean Claude Hollerich, the synod’s relator general, endorsed voting rights for laity, saying, “The assembly in Rome will be a synod of bishops according to canon law. But there will also be a larger number of lay people, and I could imagine that some of them will also have voting rights.”
In the wake of abuse scandals, declining Mass attendance, and a seemingly alienated laity, it’s only natural that many Catholics may wonder why lay voting rights and input would be so controversial a subject. In simple terms, the Catholic Church is not a democracy, it is inherently hierarchical. Bishops are not senators or congressmen, they are shepherds, specially called and consecrated to lead their respective flocks. If one imagines a handful of sheep casting ballots to pick their next shepherd — or, even more inanely, forming a council to shepherd themselves — one might have some semblance of an idea of why lay voting is verboten.
The Church operates from the top down, not from the bottom up. Unlike most elected governments, the Church does not exist to preserve some kind of peace or even just to pass laws and regulations. Elected governments are, in many senses, fickle, representing the fickle wills of fickle populations, operating regardless of whether or not the people themselves actually will the good. The Church adheres to a higher standard, an immutable standard; its structure is not determined by the will of man because it does not represent the will of man but rather the will of God. Its officials are not there to fight for this right or that right nor to better these conditions; its officials are there to shepherd souls, to provide hope and truth even in the midst of the most brutal conditions.
Of course, some arguments put forward — especially by more devout and observant Catholics — in favor of the laity playing a larger decision-making role in the Church have their merits. For example, eminently qualified laity ought to be involved in examining allegations of clerical sex abuse or cover-up — and so they are. The key distinction is that they have no say in matters of doctrine or dogma or canon law — they are rather defending these codes and institutions as they were established by the Church. Lay judges, lawyers, detectives, psychologists, and others who investigate abuse allegations may be considered sheepdogs: they don’t replace the shepherd, but they help protect the flock from wolves.
The issue is when the wolves wear shepherds’ clothing, as has sadly happened all too often in recent times. When those who are called to shepherd their flocks decide instead to feast on lamb and mutton, lay Catholics should not and indeed cannot, while maintaining faithfulness to the Church, decide to do away with their shepherds altogether. In the present age, councils of sheep are not needed to usurp the role of shepherd, but lay Catholics should strive instead to be sheepdogs, joining the good and devoted shepherds in defending their flocks.