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The church once looked suspiciously democratic.

Most Catholics agree with the church's teachings (on birth control), however the Catholic church is not a democracy," Gail Quinn recently told The Washington Post.

Quinn, director of the pro-life secretariat of the Catholic bishops, displays appalling ignorance. I defy her to find data from a single country that demonstrate lay support for the official church teachings on sexual ethics.

If she had said that moral precepts are not arrived at by social surveys, she would have been absolutely right. However, her claim that the church is not a democracy will convince only those who - like her bosses - are ignorant of history.

The church's structure today is surely that of an absolutist renaissance monarchy. But it was not always so and need not be always so.

Does Quinn realize that in the early Middle Ages popes were elected by a direct - not to say crude - popular democracy? The parish priests of Rome gathered in St. Peter's, a couple of versions ago, and chose a bishop of Rome. They then brought him out on the balcony. If the crowd cheered, the man was installed. If booed, the cardinals went back and tried again. Maybe it was not the best way to elect a pope, but it's better than the present procedure.

Does Quinn know that Pope St. Leo the Great said it was grievously sinful for a bishop to be elected in any other fashion than by the vote of priests and people? "Qui praesidet super omnes,' he wrote. "Ab omnibus eligatur." Since Quinn may not know Latin, what the pope said was, "He who presides over all must be chosen by all."

Has anyone told Quinn that for the first thousand years of Catholic history most Roman pronouncements contained the phrase, "with the consent of the whole Christian people" and that that phrase was considered essential for validity?

Has she heard that "reception" by the clergy and laity in every region of the Catholic world was deemed necessary before a teaching could be considered final and official?

The hired-gun theologians of the Vatican will argue today that the "consent," or "sense," of the faithful means only the consent of those who already agree with the Vatican. In fact, however, it did not mean that at all in the past.

Does Quinn comprehend that the Holy Spirit blows wither she will and that he speaks to the laity indeed not only through the institutional leadership but also to the leadership through the laity?

Has anyone told her that the present pope himself has said, in his allocution Familiaris Consortio, that the laity have, in virtue of the charism of the sacrament of matrimony, a "unique and indispensable" contribution to make to the church's self-understanding of sexual matters?

If Quinn knows these historical truths and still babbles that the church is not a democracy, she is intellectually dishonest. If she does not know them, she has no right to be speaking for the church to The Washington Post.

The church, like any institution, can organize its structure in many different ways. However, the democratic style of the early Middle Ages and preceding eras is both more traditional and more consonant with the unarguable Catholic doctrine of the "sense of the faithful." Theologically, the church is a democracy in the sense that its leadership is bound to listen to the lower clergy and laity.

It does not follow that decisions on the morality of birth control (or the ordination of women) should be arrived at by referendum. But it does follow that church leaders should listen to the insights and experiences of the laity.

It is all well and good to say that the married laypeople have a unique contribution to make on sexual teaching, but in fact there has been only one time in this century when they have been permitted to make such a contribution: on Paul VI's birth control commission. They were slapped down by a backstairs cabal of cardinals and treated for the rest of their lives like pariahs.

When Catholic "traditionalists" prattle about returning to the Catholic "tradition," they usually mean the tradition of the 1950s - and badly remembered, at that.

It is time for the church to return to its real tradition, the medieval one, when, precisely because the institution was far more democratic, leadership had to listen.
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Author:Greeley, Andrew M.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Aug 26, 1994
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