Democracy: America’s Unopened Gift to the Church

We have a mission and a mandate, in independence and baptism, that will not allow slavery again in this nation, this time under the guise of religious tyranny. For we have been called to freedom by something even more awesome than the Declaration of Independence. We have been called to freedom by Christ. [emphasis added]

Anthony T. Padovano

That’s the closing paragraph of Chapter 2 in Anthony T. Padovano’s book, A Path to Freedom. The chapter’s title, The American Catholic Church: Assessing the Past, Discerning the Future, gives a sense of what it’s about. Padovano argues convincingly that we are in a unique moment in history where the ideals of American democracy can and must continue to push for reform within the Catholic Church.

Padovano is not naive. He notes:

The fact that Americans cannot bring democracy … to the Catholic Church at large is the single greatest failure of American Catholicism. The fact that American bishops repeat enthusiastically that the Church must not be a democracy is anti-American and anti-Christian. … Loyalty to Christ, after all, is not essentially connected with monarchy and ecclesial feudalism.

Democracy is without doubt the greatest gift that America has given to the world. Our system is not perfect, to be sure, but the ideals enshrined in our founding political documents envision a world very different from the world in which they were written. Those of us who’ve been both raised and long-educated in the the spirit and practice of Catholicism will agree that the values of democracy are not only consistent with but are natural sisters to the ideals of Catholicism’s world-view where charity, justice, and all God’s People live in freedom. Let me be clear: by Catholicism I mean the Catholicism of the broad universal Church with its rich tradition of intellectual rigor and pastoral sense of mission, and not the “Catholicism” that is increasingly characterized by anachronistic liturgical practice and a childish adherence to rules meant to form and guide and lead to freedom, not to squelch and imprison and lead to a slavery of the soul.

When and how will this gift of democracy be received by the institutional Church? Padovano notes some movement toward this over the past century, though that movement has been marked both by periods of great progress, as well as periods of retrenchment. It seem that this is where we are now, in a period where forces within the papacy, the episcopacy, the clergy and even among the laity are hearkening back to a fantasy vision of the Church they think once existed, but never really did. In noting a list of pressing pastoral issues that a small group of US bishops identified in 1995, this one seems to be the most overarching and is behind so much of what we see today: it’s the practice of Presenting the minority position of Vatican II as though it were the majority.

As American Catholics try to find a way forward during these challenging times, Padovano’s words are worth remembering … again, and again, and again.

We have come this far with broken hearts and bruised spirits, betrayed too often by shepherds who became predators and preyed on our trust. But no more. We ourselves were not always sinless. But the crimes of democracy are always less than those of tyranny. We are free of that now.

Amen!


These are some of my thoughts; what are yours? Would love to read your comments and feedback.

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