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Selections from ARCC LIGHT
the ARCC Newsletter 
edited by James E. Biechler, Ph.D.

A Question of Rights
The Laity's "Vote": The Doctrine of Reception

By James E. Biechler

A recent headline in our local Catholic paper, describing the summer meeting of America's bishops, stated that "the bishops voted on many issues." It made me wonder when we laypeople are ever going to be able to vote on matters which affect us. "How long, O Lord?!
--H. B., Nashville, TN

A similar headline appeared in my diocesan paper. The bishops voted on details of the reorganization of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, and on several liturgical matters. I guessed the story drew a yawn from most Catholics who even bothered to read it.

Your question makes me wonder just what issues Catholic laypeople would want to vote on. From my perspective--and I hope I'm not being cynical--the ordinary "good" Catholic could not care less about having a vote on ecclesiastical affairs. Several authors have spoken of a kind of "schism" in today's church. Morris West calls it a "schism of indifference" and Fr. Owen O'Sullivan refers to a "silent schism" which has believers slipping away because they have lost any hope for church reform. 

In one sense, these "schismatics" are exercising their right to vote. As the saying has it, they are "voting with their feet." The major problem with this kind of "vote" is that it is not counted. The number of Catholics in America continues to rise and those who have quietly walked away are never subtracted from the total until they are included in the annual number of Catholic burials. And not all of these "schismatics" have walked away. Some are still in the pews on weekends but their commitment is not strong enough to make them join you in your concern about having a vote.

And then again, things might not be as bad as you seem to think. In many parishes Catholics do vote for the members of their parish council which should represent them in making recommendations to the pastor. Though not bound by the council's decisions, many pastors take them seriously. And there have been a handful of diocesan synods since the Second Vatican Council; laypeople have had a voice in some of these.

The main idea your question suggested to me, however, is one which is probably not even known to the ordinary "good enough" Catholic. In fact, not many priests (and I guess we could even add bishops) know much about the canonical/theological doctrine of "reception." In the present post conciliar church the heavy emphasis on central authority and papal overlordship gives the notion of reception particular importance.

Scripture and the experience of the early church gave prominence to the need for local churches and even for individuals to give free assent to that which God has revealed. Belief cannot be coerced. Vatican II recognized this in its beautiful statement: "The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it makes its entrance into the mind at once quietly and with power" (Religious Freedom, #1). Reception is thus the act by which the Christian recognizes and freely accepts God's word and its truth. It is apparent that reception, at its profoundest level, is an essentially moral act of the human conscience. It is the highest exercise of personal responsibility.

Reception applies not only to matters of faith but also to demands for obedience to law. Clear canonical doctrine holds that if a law is enacted which, in fact, the faithful never recognize as conducive to their Christian well-being or to the welfare of the Christian community, the law simply fails to achieve its binding power and lacks validity. It never rises to the status of true law because the essential ingredient of reception is lacking.

Thus, there is a profound sense in which Christians do have a kind of "vote." Indeed, it is more than a mere vote because it carries with it a moral note that indicates the law or doctrine in question is in conflict with Christian faith. It is not the pope or bishops alone who are bearers of the divine presence in the church. The Holy Spirit manifests itself in the entire body of the faithful and indeed in the "lowliest" member, as St. Benedict suggested in his rule.

Individuals, including pope and bishop, make mistakes and the only way to correct these and prevent them from doing serious harm to the church is the exercise of personal responsibility on the part of each member of the faithful. By refusing to assent to or obey what is not in accord with the Gospel, the lay person is performing a most important service to the body of Christ.

If theology is a science, as Aquinas asserted, it is, like the natural sciences, a self-correcting discipline. When a scientist makes an assertion which other scientists find problematic, there is no need for some authority to intervene. The discipline itself, in its fidelity to the pursuit of truth, will soon enough arrive at a corrective. So it is with theology and church discipline. Should the guardians of orthodoxy fail to consult the faithful, their decrees must still be weighed in the light of conscience. If found wanting they will not be given the benefit of reception. It is a corrective which may require time. But no vote is more effective.


Dr. Biechler, an emeritus professor of religion, is a member of ARCC's board of directors. He also holds a licentiate in canon law and is a longtime member of the Canon Law Society of America. 

E-mail Comments to Dr. Biechler

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Ingrid H. Shafer, Ph.D.
e-mail address: ihs@ionet.net
Posted 18 July 1999
Last updated 18 July 1999
Copyright © 1999 Ingrid H. Shafer
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