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

A Question of Rights
The Catholic Church & Democratic Principles 

By James E. Biechler

"A recent ARCC Light featured a front-page article encouraging democratic elections in our Church. People like myself assume that, as soon as such elections were meaningful, they would be marred by Willie Horton commercials and other negative advertising. Much of the worst of that comes from the "religious right" and, in my parish...a good part of our congregation would respond to such ads. Would you tell people like myself why that doesn't worry you?"
--J.E.C., Strafford, PA 

Your question recalls Churchill's remarks to Commons on democracy: "Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." The political campaigns of recent years are evidence enough that democracy is not salvation. Its inherent idealism and exalted vision of the sacredness of the human person are not complete protection against the abuses of slander and detraction. Even good intentions and noble motives may blur the line between the expression of legitimate differences and unjust caricature of another's position. Democratic processes are inevitably messy because they are free and open to all. Should such freedom and openness develop in the church we should not be surprised to find abuses. Many (most?) people prefer the risks of freedom to the "purity" of totalitarianism which stifles disagreement and so achieves the illusion of consensus. 

Those whom you characterize as the "religious right" also have a right to express their views. To the extent that these views can be shown to be at odds with the spirit of the gospel, with that freedom which belongs to the children of God, they must be shown to be such. Instead of seeing the expression of such views as threats, we should use them as opportunities to clarify and so "to build up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith" (Eph. 4, 12f.). 

Your question recalls the oft-repeated assertion that "the church is not a democracy." One contemporary reply to that is, "Maybe not, but it ought to be." But then, perhaps "democracy" is not really the word we want in speaking of the church. Etymologically that word means "rule by the people," from the Greek demos (people) and kratos (rule). Theologically, the church is not "ruled." Jesus does not speak of God as "ruler." In this light the best contemporary canon law scholarship recognizes that canon law is not true law. Our essential freedom and equality under the gospel requires us to develop a language that takes us "beyond democracy" in our relationships in the church. 


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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