Ashes to Ashes: The Church as Participatory Democracy

The Catholic Church has traditionally thought of itself as having been constructed hierarchically. Jesus Christ, for example, is the head of this Church: He is not the chairperson of any revolving ad hoc caucus of the whole. He picked twelve men and endowed them with the unction to carry on His ministry in His Church with His teaching and ruling authority. This is not a question to be canvassed by endless symposia, colloquia, and dialogues. Otherwise, we would have to agree that a sea-change has overwhelmed the Church since the days of Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Clement, Justin, & Co.

Back at square one, some questions of conscience arose over what you could eat, your purveyors of meat possibly having purchased some of their wares from heathen temples. The matter at hand would most certainly have promised a vigorous agenda for any lay caucuses that anyone wanted to float. My word—fancy the exchanges! “This kind of meat is nothing, since those gods don’t exist anyway, and we Christians don’t for a moment grant that any noisome effluvium lingers over the chops and filets, infusing them with hell’s own gangrene. Eat what you want, and celebrate your Christian freedom.”

But then the cautious souls venture to wonder whether the whole matter does not bring with it a certain blur: Are we sending out the message that pagan sacrifices are a neutral matter from our point of view? Should we not put as much distance as we can between the Christian assembly and the cult of Diana or Cybele, even in so apparently an insignificant a matter as our diet?

The sketch is, of course, a 20th- century scenario. When the question arose in the early Church, the apostles met, talked, reached a decision, and handed out the word. End of discussion, as we say now. You were Catholic (the word came into play early on to designate which Christians were in organic, obedient, and visible union with their bishops), and so you welcomed the manifesto from the apostolic council and went on your Catholic way.

Jump 2,000 years. We have, in the archdiocese where I live, a number of high-decibel dissident caucuses (one claims to be the Voice of the Faithful, forsooth). The people active in these purlieus are most earnest in wishing to bring things up to date, but certainly not merely to “streamline” the poor, clanking old Church. The idea is to bring the insights and dispositions of contemporaneity to bear on what looks like a very dismal situation. Their fervent recommendations are certainly plausible: There’s a shortage of clergy? Ordain women, for heaven’s sake. Divorce and remarriage present obstacles? All you have to do is scratch the antediluvian rules. Sexual fashions? That topic needs some hard scrutiny, and the first thing to do is to jettison clerical celibacy now. The hierarchy is bogged down? Let’s take our cues from some sensible citizens like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson: Spread out the powers. Or again, traditional English-language usage was full of clever, scarcely noticeable pronouns that carried an immense freight of gender (so to speak) with it: Change the whole vocabulary. And God? Well, s/he certainly would be the first to encourage this grammatical leap forward.

Meanwhile, back at the apostolic ranch, the voice of Peter still speaks. Clearly. Authoritatively. Charitably (yes, charitably, believe it or not). In Dives in Misericordia , Dominum et Vivificantem, Veritatis Splendor, Evangelium Vitae, Fides et Ratio, and scores of other utterances, we have the faithful “handing on” (traditio) of the Faith.

And, just by the by, the updated church so sedulously sought by these caucuses is already here and in place. It is called Protestant.


  • Tom Howard

    Tom Howard is retired from 40 years of teaching English in private schools, college, and seminary in England and America.

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