“How shall a man judge what to do in such times?’
‘As he ever has judged,’ said Aragorn. ‘Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear…It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.”J.R.R Tolkien
As Ecumenical Catholics we aim to use consensus decision-making at all levels of community life, from the parish level, to diocesan, to the level of our synodal Communion. At the level of our Communion, however, we often give in to voting. We do this because people in the USA expect to vote and decide by majority rule. I find this an unhappy situation, but understand the practical reasons behind setting up our ECC constitution in this way. After all we are influenced by the country in which we live.
We are called to be a people that discern our way through a dependence on the Holy Spirit, but unlike the Quakers, who know how to do this, we are less skilled. We tend to give in to the ways of our country, and let the majority rule. This does not always result in following the Holy Spirit.
At our diocesan level, however, we have been careful to structure our constitution to include decision-making by consensus. This means that our decisions take longer to make as we need to stop and pray as we all attempt to discern what the Holy Spirit is saying to us today.
I mention the above as a preface to my comments on democracy. As we watch the decision-making process around President Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan it is easy to see how trying to wrangle 50 people to agree on something takes time and may involve many compromises. Sadly, it is not as if most believe they are discerning what is best for our country, but what is politically astute. The final product will not be what anyone wants, but only what is possible.
When I look at the Democratic party I see that there is a lot of diversity and that the party is open to listening to all the voices as they struggle to come up with the final bill. As I look at the Republican party I see that they are led by one man and that his one man determines the decision. for their party. All the republicans merely fall into place behind this one man.
Here we have a picture of democracy vs dictatorship. The Democratic party still makes decisions through a democratic process while the Republican party has a dictator who makes decisions for the party. A dictatorship is a simple way of governing and decisions can be made quickly, and most people are left off the hook for any serious thought about the decision being made. It is a great way to accept the accolades of being a representative or senator, without having to work very hard. Just fall in line.
It is as people get frustrated with the messiness of democracy versus the simplicity of a dictatorship that whole governments can shift. This happened in the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic Church began as a consensus making body that gathered in synods to make decisions. They attempted to listen to and follow the Holy Spirit. When agreement was reached, they promulgated their decisions to the local churches, and if the pronouncements were received with grace and even joy, that demonstrated that the Holy Spirit had been with them. If the pronouncements were not received by the people, they were deemed to be only the work of men.
However, calling for councils, taking the time to discern their decisions, became more and more complicated as the churches spread throughout the world. It was much easier to assign one man with decision-making power for all the churches — a pope — and then everyone else could just relax and let that man have the task and responsibility for all. This move did simplify the governance of the churches. The Roman Catholic Church adopted the Roman empire pattern of governance. The Catholics who disagreed with this new way of being church became a small remnant, almost invisible, but they still exist today.
I have noticed in my work as a bishop how hard it is to get people to be involved in decision-making in our diocese. On the one hand we have a laity that demands full participation in the decision-making of our church, on the other hand, they don’t show up at the meetings where decisions are made. This becomes frustrating and I for one begin to understand how a bishop can be tempted to just make the decisions and get on with things. Nevertheless, I am determined that our diocese will make decisions by consensus and collaboration even when I have to twist arms to get people to get involved in those decisions.
So, here we are as a country, witnessing the way the democrats can’t come to a decision about the “Build Back Better” plan, while the republicans don’t need to come to any decision. All they need to do is listen to the dictator.
Dictators in other countries are pointing to us and saying, “See, democracies do not work. Nothing can get done. Putting governing in the hands of one person is better for you can act quickly and get things done.” People become dissatisfied with democracies that do not deliver on what they need to better their lives. The Pew Research Center says that 58% of the people in the USA are dissatisfied with our democracy. (See this article).
If the “Build Back Better” plan of President Biden fails to produce the benefits to the people of our country, this dissatisfaction is going to grow. The urge to move toward a dictatorship, as illustrated by the republicans, will grow. We could easily morph into a country that is more like Russia and democracy will be a thing of the past.
Corruption contributes to the dissatisfaction people have toward their democracies. Only those countries that have found a way to limit corruption while at the same time managing to value the common good of their citizens have a citizenry that values democracy.
Pope Francis is trying to move the Roman Catholic Church back toward a time when the people were able to participate in the decisions of their churches with his call for a Synod of Bishops in 2023. He is inviting the participation of everyone prior to the meeting of the bishops. The theme of the upcoming 16th Synod of Bishops is: “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, and Mission”. (See Vatican news HERE). The response has been half-hearted thus far.
So, my beloved ones in Christ, let us pray both for the United States and for the Roman Catholic Church that they will value the full, active participation of everyone as they discern the common good.