Is the Church a Divine Monarchy?

Tuesday, May 06, 2003


As Catholics, do we believe the Church is a divine monarchy?

In The Apostolic Constitutions dating to the fifth century, Book 8.4, it is indicated that Bishops were once elected by the people and then approved by existing Bishops through the ordination ceremony. Indeed, this is how Saint Augustine was elevated to the office of Bishop.

In the middle ages, because secular kings often tried to appoint Bishops against the will of the people, the Popes fought a battle that became known in history as the "lay investiture controversy", and power was removed from civil leaders to appoint Church officials.

Nevertheless, the democratic structures were preserved in the Church, primarily through religious orders, where abbots and generals were elected by the communities. The teachings of the New Testament have also served a political function throughout history to correct the abuses of monarchial civil power, and to promote democratic governments. Indeed, most of the American revolutionaries were Bible believing Christians.

The Second Vatican Council and the 1983 Code of Canon Law attempted to retrieve some of the democratic process of Church governance. It is now recognized that disagreement in religious matters actually can be inspired by the Holy Spirit in order to help advance the development of doctrine. A loyal opposition within the Catholic Church is necessary to discerning the signs of the times and the movement of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

Conservatives love to say: "The Church is not a democracy." This may be true, since no political structure can adequately describe the fullness of the mystery of the Church. Yet, below are some of the Church teachings on the subject to help us see that the Church is not a divine monarchy either.

"The holy people of God shares also in Christ's prophetic office; it spreads abroad a living witness to him, especially by means of a life of faith and charity and by offering to God a sacrifice of praise, the tribute of lips which give praise to his name. The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief." -- Lumen Gentium, no. 12.
Eeegads! An ecumenical council seems to be saying the laity are infallible when they form a consensus. Maybe the Church isn't a democracy, but how can we call it a monarchy with theology like that!?!

Ok, ok - I know what the conservatives are saying. This means those laity in union with Rome. Right? Wrong:
"All the faithful, both clerical and lay, should be accorded a lawful freedom of inquiry, freedom of thought and freedom of expression." -- Gaudium et Spes, no. 62.
But wait a minute,...I hear the conservative saying that while maybe a dissenter has a right to express his opinion to his pastor or bishop, that doesn't mean he should go sharing it with everyone. The magisterium has sole teaching authority in the church! Right?

I don't think so. Here's why:
Until the full manifestation of his glory, he fulfills this prophetic office, not only through the hierarchy who teach in his name and with his authority, but also through the laity whom he made his witnesses and to whom he gave understanding of the faith (sensus fidei) and the grace of the word so that the power of the Gospel might shine forth in their daily social and family life. Lumen gentium, n. 35; cf. CCC, n. 904
Can. 212 §1 Christ's faithful, conscious of their own responsibility, are bound to show Christian obedience to what the sacred Pastors, who represent Christ, declare as teachers of the faith and prescribe as rulers of the Church.
§2 Christ's faithful are at liberty to make known their needs, especially their spiritual needs, and their wishes to the Pastors of the Church.
§3 They have the right, indeed at times the duty, in keeping with their knowledge, competence and position, to manifest to the sacred Pastors their views on matters which concern the good of the Church. They have the right also to make their views known to others of Christ's faithful, but in doing so they must always respect the integrity of faith and morals, show due reverence to the Pastors and take into account both the common good and the dignity of individuals.
How is anyone going to shut up dissenters with laws like that?

On the other hand, think how much better the Catholic witness in history would have been if people who questioned slavery, anti-semiticism, the crusades, or the inquisitions would have spoke up more forcefully.

While canon 212 does ask for obedience and respect for the magisterium, it also provides a right, and a moral obligation (duty), to laity to speak up when things seem wrong. Most progressives feel that there are some non-infallible teachings and practices in the Church that are very wrong. Rather than abandon the Church, we feel protected and even obligated under canon 212 to speak up and lovingly work for change!
Can. 213 Christ's faithful have the right to be assisted by their Pastors from the spiritual riches of the Church, especially by the word of God and the sacraments.
Canon 213 raises the question of whether it is canonically legal and theologically moral for the Vatican to withhold married priests (and perhaps women priests) during a priesthood shortage!
Can. 214 Christ's faithful have the right to worship God according to the provisions of their own rite approved by the lawful Pastors of the Church; they also have the right to follow their own form of spiritual life, provided it is in accord with Church teaching.
Canon 214 permits some freedom in liturgical worship so that the Rites may be adopted to local churches, cultures, and customs. For example, a "Gospel Mass" may be appropriate in a largely African American community.
Can. 215 Christ's faithful may freely establish and direct associations which serve charitable or pious purposes or which foster the Christian vocation in the world, and they may hold meetings to pursue these purposes by common effort.
Canon 215 is particularly important in light of the formation of groups like "Voice of the Faithful", "Catholics Speak Out", or the AARC. I suppose that even "Catholics United for the Faith" and the various sodalities of Mary have rights under this canon too.
Can. 217 Since Christ's faithful are called by baptism to lead a life in harmony with the gospel teaching, they have the right to a Christian education, which genuinely teaches them to strive for the maturity of the human person and at the same time to know and live the mystery of salvation.
Progressives belive that canon 217 forbids the hierarchy from placing restrictions on theologians who engage in exploring the significance of historical facts.

For example, if Paul called a woman an apostle, it is wrong for Rome to forbid the theologian from raising this question in a classroom or a position paper or journal article.

If a majority consensus of Biblical scholars comes to the conclusion that the Bible does not specifically condemn homosexuality as we mean it today, that majority consensus and its argumentation should not be hidden from the public. The list could go on, but the point is that theologians must be free to pursue truth wherever it leads, rather than directed to reason to preconcieved answers.
Can. 220 No one may unlawfully harm the good reputation which a person enjoys, or violate the right of every person to protect his or her privacy.
Many progressive and liberal theologians complain that after publishing a controversial paper, rather than responding to the arguments of the paper, Rome has set out to smear the person's reputation in academia or the public. Whether these reports are true or not, canon 220 would forbid such actions.
Can. 221 §1 Christ's faithful may lawfully vindicate and defend the rights they enjoy in the Church, before the competent ecclesiastical forum in accordance with the law.
§2 If any members of Christ's faithful are summoned to trial by the competent authority, they have the right to be judged according to the provisions of the law, to be applied with equity.
§3 Christ's faithful have the right that no canonical penalties be inflicted upon them except in accordance with the law.
Canon 221 should be a reminder to conservatives to not too quickly label someone you disagree with a heretic. Even when an idea does have a tendency to a known heresy, the idea should be separated from the person, and critiqued accordingly with gentleness and respect. The desire some conservatives express to see massive excommunications from Rome is not permitted under this canon.
Can. 229 §1 Lay people have the duty and the right to acquire the knowledge of Christian teaching which is appropriate to each one's capacity and condition, so that they may be able to live according to this teaching, to proclaim it and if necessary to defend it, and may be capable of playing their part in the exercise of the apostolate.
§2 They also have the right to acquire that fuller knowledge of the sacred sciences which is taught in ecclesiastical universities or faculties or in institutes of religious sciences, attending lectures there and acquiring academic degrees.
§3 Likewise, assuming that the provisions concerning the requisite suitability have been observed, they are capable of receiving from the lawful ecclesiastical authority a mandate to teach the sacred sciences.
Conservatives sometimes interpret canon 229 as referring to the right to hear the Catechism of the Catholic Church without progressive interpretation. However, the progressive is pointing out that the Catechism itself is a distillation of prior Tradition - and even in its own introduction, it does not claim to be the final word, so much as the starting point for reflection. The Catechism is itself a sort of interpretation.

Progressives believe that lay Catholics who have a desire and capacity for it should be permitted to study Scripture in its original languages, read the counciliar documents for themselves, study the saints, and formulate and express questions and opinions of their own. Sometimes, those questions and opinions will strike out in directions not envisioned by prior saints or magisterial authority. This is how the dogmas and doctrines of the Church have historically developed.

For example, Mary Daly has 3 doctorates in theology, including one in Thomistic theology. Yet, because conservatives won't take her seriously as a woman, she has felt compelled at times to express herself in extreme language. Perhaps she would have become extreme even if she were listened to early on, but the point is that she was never taken seriously.

Why did the Church encourage her and many women to study theology after the Second Vatican Council if there was no intention to take women theologians seriously? If you treat people as though they have nothing serious to say, why would it surprise you that what they have to say takes a progressively more combative tone?

Progressives believe that canon 229 safeguards the process of developing progressive tradition in continuity with the past, without necessarily maintaining blind imitation of the past.
Can. 748 §1 All are bound to seek the truth in the matters which concern God and his Church; when they have found it, then by divine law they are bound, and they have the right, to embrace and keep it.
§2 It is never lawful for anyone to force others to embrace the catholic faith against their conscience.
Canon 748 is a very important canon. As long as this canon is in force, actions such as the crusades or the inquisitions cannot be repeated according to the law of the Church. The canon also highlights the Churches teaching on the primacy of conscious over blind obedience.
Can. 749 §1 In virtue of his office the Supreme Pontiff is infallible in his teaching when, as chief Shepherd and Teacher of all Christ's faithful, with the duty of strengthening his brethren in the faith, he proclaims by definitive act a doctrine to be held concerning faith or morals.
§2 The College of Bishops also possesses infallibility in its teaching when the Bishops, gathered together in an Ecumenical Council and exercising their Magisterium as teachers and judges of faith and morals, definitively declare for the universal Church a doctrine to be held concerning faith or morals; likewise, when the Bishops, dispersed throughout the world but maintaining the bond of union among themselves and with the successor of Peter, together with the same Roman Pontiff authentically teach matters of faith or morals, and are agreed that a particular teaching is definitively to be held.
§3 No doctrine is understood to be infallibly defined unless this is manifestly demonstrated.
Canon 749.3 is extremely important.

Conservatives love to quote 749.1 to add authority to papal teaching.

However, far too often they want to elevate ,i>everything the current pope says to the level of infallibility. If the current pope is also saying what the last pope said while they were children, all the more reason to consider it infallible in the conservative mind.

Yet, canon 749.3 points out that even if the bishops seem to be in consensus and/or the Pope has made a declaration, the teaching must be tested according to strict requirements of infallibility laid out most clearly at Vatican I and Vatican II.

Under these criterion, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis and Humanae Vitae are perfect examples of papal statements that do not meet criteria for infallibility. The definition of the Assumption does meet the criteria.

Another important point to keep in mind is that Saint Thomas Aquinas considered the argument from authority the weakest form of argument. Authority should be used for two purposes:

1) Giving voice to the concensus of the people. This is what Pius XXII was doing with the Assumption. This exercise of athority can be particulary powerful when being the voice of the people against another authority such as the Pope condemning a dictator's actions. If most papal teachings were expressions of the majority consensus of the People of God, there would not be dissention in the Church right now!

2) Deciding between two equally acceptable courses of action when a decision is demanded, yet either option is acceptable to the masses. For example, should a government be a democratic republic, or a parlimentary democracy. Someone has to stand up and say, "We're taking this course."
Can. 753 Whether they teach individually, or in Episcopal Conferences, or gathered together in particular councils, Bishops in communion with the head and the members of the College, while not infallible in their teaching, are the authentic instructors and teachers of the faith for Christ's faithful entrusted to their care. The faithful are bound to adhere, with a religious submission of mind, to this authentic Magisterium of their Bishops.
Why is jcecil3 quoting this canon on the authority of bishops if he's such a democratic guy?

Progressive Catholics believe that conservatives do not usually take seriously enough the authority of the local bishop. If a bishop is liberal, and the Pope hasn't criticized his position, many conservatives will still refuse to follow the liberal bishop. This was the case with Hunthausen, Weakland, and Bernadine at one time or another.

Many conservatives refused to listen to the American bishops in their condemnation of the death penalty or their pastoral letters on economic justice until the Pope spoke up. Many conservatives also have fought the Novus Ordo for 40 years in contradiction to this canon. Many conservatives still resist the USCCB's "Art and Environment in Worship", which is the bishops' interpretation fo the "General Instruction on the Roman Missal".

Most recently, conservative many Catholics refused to pay any attention to both the Pope and the USCCB in their questioning of the U.S. war with Iraq, which clearly did not meet the criterion of our just war tradition.

All this points to the fact that conservative American Catholics tend to be "cafeteria Catholics" in the way they apply rules of obedience to Church authority. Progressives may also be "cafeteria Catholics", but we're up front anout it!
Can. 774 §1 The care for catechesis, under the direction of lawful ecclesiastical authority, extends to all members of the Church, to each according to his or her role.
§2 Before all others, parents are bound to form their children, by word and example, in faith and in christian living. The same obligation binds godparents and those who take the place of parents.
According to canon 774, lay people are called to catechesis - and not just some of the laity, but every single one of us!

Furthermore, we see again that the magisterium has no right to withhold sacraments (even as a condition for producing celibate male vocations!)
Can. 843 §1 Sacred ministers may not deny the sacraments to those who opportunely ask for them, are properly disposed and are not prohibited by law from receiving them.
This is another canon that demonstrates that the Vatican has no right to hold the Eucharist hostage in exchange for celibate male vocations....
§2 According to their respective offices in the Church, both pastors of souls and all other members of Christ's faithful have a duty to ensure that those who ask for the sacraments are prepared for their reception. This should be done through proper evangelization and catechetical instruction, in accordance with the norms laid down by the competent authority.
Canon law is giving the laity the right to participate in things such as CCD, RCIA, and so forth.
Can. 1287 §1 Where ecclesiastical goods of any kind are not lawfully withdrawn from the power of governance of the diocesan Bishop, their administrators, both clerical and lay, are bound to submit each year to the local Ordinary an account of their administration, which he is to pass on to his finance committee for examination. Any contrary custom is reprobated.
§2 Administrators are to render accounts to the faithful concerning the goods they have given to the Church, in accordance with the norms to be laid down by particular law.
This final canon indicates that the bishops are accountable to the People of God. The abuse scandals have made this clear even to staunch conservatives. The accountability of the bishops to laity is primarily financial transparency, but also moral accountability.


The rule of personal conscience is absolute, and overrides obedience to mere human authority:
"1782 Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. "He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters." -- The Catechism of the Catholic Church
Even erroneous conscience must be followed:
"1790 A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed." -- The Catechism of the Catholic Church
The proper formation of conscience requires intellectual questioning and seeking of knowledge:
"1783 Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings." -- The Catechism of the Catholic Church
The educated conscience is free of fear of error:
"1784 The education of the conscience is a lifelong task. From the earliest years, it awakens the child to the knowledge and practice of the interior law recognized by conscience. Prudent education teaches virtue; it prevents or cures fear, selfishness and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency, born of human weakness and faults. The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart." -- The Catechism of the Catholic Church
God judges us more by the sincerity of our efforts to understand and face questions honestly than by getting the right answers:
"1787 Man is sometimes confronted by situations that make moral judgments less assured and decision difficult. But he must always seriously seek what is right and good and discern the will of God expressed in divine law." -- The Catechism of the Catholic Church
Even though obedience is requested of us, when we find ourselves in disagreement or confusion over a teaching of the magisterium, we have both a right, and a duty to advise our bishop and other Christian faithful.

"Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence,..." (1 Peter 3: 15-16)
How can you be ready to give an explanation for your or reason for your hope if you do not understand it yourself?

I honestly do not see how the exclusion of women from ordained ministry can possibly be interpreted as good news and a reason to hope for anything. And when I ask conservatives for an answer, all I get is "the Pope said so".

Blind obedience is forbidden by this passage. Your obedience is to be reasonable!

I do accept the possibility of the non-rational going beyond reason, but I do not accept anything that is irrational as true just 'cause authority says so. Your obedience is to be subject to explanation. If it ain't, you are being disobedient to God!

The Scripture also says:
"Beloved, do not trust every spirit but test the spirits to see whether they belong to God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world." (1 John 1: 1)
I know many conservatives consider progressives to be the false prophets. However, carefully read the Old Testament and the Gospels. The false prophets were almost always those who were in positions of power, had the ears of kings, supported the status quo, etc...

The false prophets were the conservatives of their day who failed to read the signs of the times and ignored the voice of the marginalized!

(ie - women, developing nations, and gays in the case of today's Church).

Even Jesus railed against those who held the seat of Moses in the same breath that he said we are to do what they say (see Matt 23:2). I often wonder what he would say about those who have held the seat of Peter. There is such a thing as responsible dissent: critical obedience, as demonstrated by Paul when he challenged Pope Saint Peter to his face (see Gal 2: 11).

Test all things. Who are the true prophets today?

Are you afraid to think for yourself, because you might get the wrong answer?
"There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love." (1 John 4: 18)
Obedience to the Pope is undermined the very moment it is blind obedience, because the Pope wants you to understand why he holds his positions. If you cannot obey blindly, the Catholic Church's Tradition, canons, and theology support you in prayerful, thoughtful and responsible dissent!

The Church may not be a democracy, but she is not a monarchy either!

If this topic interested you, I have created related blogs at the following links:

What is Infallibility?
Did the Church Support Slavery?
How Does Doctrine Develop?
The Primacy of Conscience
Is the Church Like a Political Party?
Papal Infallibility?

Peace and Blessings!

Readers may contact me at


posted by Jcecil3 6:49 AM

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