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Brian P. FlanaganOctober 02, 2023
Composite image (iStock)

This essay is a Cover Story selection, a weekly feature highlighting the top picks from the editors of America Media.

Almost anyone who has ever suggested forms of increased lay participation in the governance of the church, particularly in a public forum, has been challenged with a true, if perhaps misleading, slogan in response: “The church is not a democracy.” This is true, in that the church’s governance is determined by its hierarchical, sacramental order, and so decision-making differs from the methods used in modern democratic entities. If anything, the church’s decision-making more often resembles that of a corporation or nonprofit organization, and is increasingly in dialogue with and responsive to its membership and stakeholders.

And yet to say the church is not a democracy is also misleading, for two reasons. First, as ecclesiologists have often pointed out, the church is not a monarchy, nor an autocracy nor an oligarchy—nor is it supposed to be (see Mt 25-27). And second, the church has historically often used methods to consult the entire community of the faithful that it shares with modern democracies; that includes, perhaps especially, voting.

The church has historically often used methods to consult the entire community of the faithful that it shares with modern democracies, including voting.

In a recent perceptive essay in the National Catholic Reporter, the Rev. Louis Cameli highlights the danger that the Synod on Synodality might devolve into the forms of conflict and polarization that we often find in parliamentary democracies. In this he conveys, rightly, Pope Francis’ concern that the dominance of winner-takes-all parliamentary habits in our world might prevent the flourishing of truly synodal forms of shared discernment and decision-making rooted in dialogue, shared identity and consensus. Father Cameli’s own experience of a consensus-based dialogue in Chicago among multiple stakeholders in the hospitality industry provides an admirable model for the kinds of synodal habits we ought to cultivate at all levels in our church, not only at the upcoming synod.

The notion that we should eliminate voting entirely from the synod undervalues how voting has been—and in some cases must be—part of synodal procedures. Rather than eliminate voting entirely, I would advise that we need to relearn and re-imagine the purpose, mechanisms and goals of voting in a synodal church. The question is therefore not whether there should be voting at the upcoming synod, but how such voting should take place in such a way as to avoid the parliamentary pitfalls that Father Cameli rightly identifies.

Voting in church history

One problem that arises is the question of what we mean by voting. We find very little evidence of voting in the early history of the church, if we limit the definition to the kind of systematic use of ballots and simple majority victory that we find in modern democracies. But if we take a wider view and think of voting as the act of a body of decision-makers expressing their opinion, voting goes back to the earliest days of the church, including the Synod of Jerusalem in Acts 15 and the election of Matthias to replace Judas in Acts 2, where the gathered assembly chose two possible candidates and then gave God the final “vote” through the casting of lots.

What most distinguishes the kind of voting we find in these and subsequent church councils from much modern voting is the shared goal of consensus. Unanimity was seen as a nearly literally miraculous sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the decisions of these assemblies, and consensus remains the ideal for synods and councils today. And yet despite this ideal and the rhetorical attribution of unanimity in the records of early church councils, we know that disputes and disagreements, often as vehement or even more vehement than those we find on Twitter (the media platform now known as X) today, continued before, during and after even the great councils of the church.

We see the church's concern for consensus in the requirement for a two-thirds-plus-one vote in papal elections, rather than a simple majority.

Some delegates who dissented from conciliar decisions “voted with their feet,” literally leaving the council without signing its final decrees. Others who entered the meetings in disagreement with a position or decision submitted in the end to its decisions. This evidence begins to help us distinguish a “consensus” of a majority or supermajority from absolute “unanimity.” In all of these cases, however, the ideal of consensus remained—that if the church gathered together to discern and debate the issues at hand, a shared understanding acceptable to all would signify the presence of the Holy Spirit in the decisions of the assembly. Those times and places in which decisions were taken without such consensus mark, not coincidentally, the beginnings of some of the deepest remaining divisions between the Christian churches.

In later centuries, forms of voting that we would recognize grew in importance in the life of the church. But there always remained an allergy to simple one-person, one-vote process, and a concern that voting should demonstrate something closer to consensus (if not unanimity) or to “virtual” unanimity. Medieval canonists often distinguished the maior pars, or “larger part,” from the sanior pars, or “sounder part,” to indicate the views of a potentially smaller yet more authoritative bloc of members. And we see the concern for consensus in the requirement for a two-thirds-plus-one vote in papal elections, rather than a simple majority; in bishops “voting with their feet” as late as the First Vatican Council, leaving Rome before the vote on “Pastor Aeternus” rather than casting a ballot against the majority (and the pope’s intentions); and in Paul VI’s sometimes intrusive interventions at the Second Vatican Council, made in an attempt to retain not just a simple majority but broad consensus.

We also find some fascinating problems over the years. Voting, as Father Cameli suggests—especially votes taken in the absence of the shared identity and consensus that are necessary for synodality—can itself be a cause of division. There are plenty of examples of contested, sometimes violently contested, elections of popes and bishops, including the Western Schism in the late 14th and early 15th century. The history of popes and antipopes, of contested episcopal elections and of schisms major and minor all suggest some of the dangers to which Father Cameli adverts.

While identity formation is a crucial preliminary to any form of voting, at some point synodal assemblies need to move beyond statements of shared identity to decision-making.

Voting as information-gathering

Despite all of this, why might voting still be worth the risks for the Synod on Synodality? While identity formation is a crucial preliminary to any form of voting, at some point synodal assemblies need to move beyond statements of shared identity to decision-making. In the reign of God, there will be no need for synodal assemblies. But on our current pilgrimage, synodal assemblies are required precisely when the church needs to address divisions, give voice to and respond to conflicts within the community and take decisions on which path forward the church will follow.

Absent the miracle of spontaneous unanimity, voting provides a privileged, even unique way of assessing the presence or absence of consensus. As Gerard O'Connell said in the America podcast “Inside the Vatican” on Sept. 14 in relation to voting in the papal conclave, “a vote can be a real asset to discernment at a certain point.”

And, unlike our polarized politics, a close vote in the context of an assembly seeking consensus need not indicate the end of the discussion, but rather the beginning of a deeper conversation. One such example is the crisis over the role of women in the church that occurred during the recent Australian Plenary Council. The failure of a vote on the possible ordination of women to diaconate, and some delegates’ expressions of grief and anger in response, prompted the assembly to return to the question of the dignity of women in the church in a way that achieved a hoped-for consensus. Without some form of voting, would there have been a way of discerning the earlier absence of agreement, or of demonstrating the breadth of support for the final document?

This is particularly the case in situations where power dynamics like those of ecclesial status or gender might dampen some voices in a large forum despite good-faith efforts to provide spaces of dialogue and mutual listening. Voting provides another way of receiving the wisdom and judgment of those who might otherwise remain silent or silenced.

Absent the miracle of spontaneous unanimity, voting provides a privileged, even unique way of assessing the presence or absence of consensus.

Who should vote?

Father Cameli’s concerns about how voting itself can lead to division suggest two additional ways in which ecclesial synodality and voting are different from what we find in a parliamentary democracy. The first is the question of who should vote. At base, the election of a bishop or the promulgation of a doctrine has always required reception, sometimes expressed in the particular liturgical action of the assent of the entire assembly to the decisions of the explicitly choosing members. As the International Theological Commission makes clear in its document on synodality, while there have always been distinctive authoritative roles in the church’s decision-making, beginning with the Synod of Jerusalem reported in Acts 15, the proper location of ecclesial discernment is with and among the entire assembly of the church, and never without their assent.

Further, while most Catholics in the wake of Vatican II are used to the idea that bishops, and only bishops, have the authority to vote in the church, the history of voting in ecumenical and general councils has in fact been far more varied. Abbots and male heads of religious communities and non-episcopal clerical delegates, as well as theologians, all voted in general councils in various periods. Lay people have also often had roles in ecclesial decision-making, starting with the Emperor Constantine’s presence at the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century and continuing through the influence of secular princes and kings throughout Western history—sometimes directly and sometimes through their authority over their clergy, even up through Catholic monarchs’ claims to a veto power in papal elections.

This is not to suggest that such involvement in the internal affairs of the church would be or was a good thing; it is simply to note that even in past situations where lay leaders had what we might call “voice and not vote,” the actual power of those voices could be quite strong indeed.

From this perspective, the upcoming synod’s extension of voting rights to its non-episcopal members is a starting point for imagining new forms of lay participation in the governance of the church in a post-monarchical world. As the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” (“Lumen Gentium”) and the International Theological Commission both teach, the sacramental constitution of the hierarchical structure of the church constitutes its synodal practice and calls for difference between the “one,” the “some” and the “many” in our various roles in the church.

The church is not a democracy, and the authority of the pope as primate and of the bishops as the successors of the apostles means that they bear distinctive responsibilities and enjoy distinctive charisms, based not on personal expertise or qualifications but upon their sacramental status and office. That distinctiveness is guaranteed in the upcoming synod through the numerical supermajority of episcopal delegates. But one can imagine other mechanisms, like those employed at the Australian Plenary Council, in which the requirement for episcopal affirmation functioned as a check upon simple majority rule, that would allow greater and wider participation without undermining the distinctive episcopal charism.

Nevertheless, the upcoming assembly in Rome is the highest level at which the church has attempted to institutionalize the participation of all of the baptized faithful in accord with the “kingly,” governing munus into which they were baptized, and one can hope that this will open the doors to greater experimentation at the local, regional and national levels in this direction.

In past situations where lay leaders had what we might call “voice and not vote,” the actual power of those voices could be quite strong indeed.

When to vote

A final question about voting in the church also provides a pathway to avoiding some of the pitfalls that Father Cameli identifies: not the question of who should vote, or how they should vote or even why they should vote, but when they should vote. Pope Francis has repeatedly warned against premature decision-making and rushing a decision without consensus, raising the same concern about synodality slipping into parliamentary-style, winner-takes-all debates. In response to the question of ordaining married men to the priesthood raised at the 2019 Synod on the Amazon, Pope Francis wrote: “We must understand that the synod is more than a parliament; and in this specific case it could not escape that [parliamentary] dynamic. On this issue it was a rich, productive and even necessary parliament; but no more than that.”

In such cases, including and perhaps especially where voting helps to unveil the presence or absence of consensus, synodality aims for the long-term achievement of consensus, and, as Pope Francis suggests, counsels patience over premature decisions.

Where does this leave the church, in terms of practical ways forward? First, Father Cameli’s call for robust, thoughtful space for dialogue and identity-formation is, and must be, at the heart of our synodal practice. This is true not only at the upcoming synod on synodality, but at all levels of the church’s life—in our parishes, our dioceses, our universities, our hospitals and other institutions. In doing so, we are exploring possibilities that are deep in our church’s spiritual DNA, but, like someone getting back into shape or recovering after an injury, we are going to need time, effort and patience with our limitations as we get our synodal muscles back into shape.

Voting is a crucial part of this, but how we vote, especially how we protect the distinctive, consensus-based goals of synodal voting from the worst aspects of today’s parliamentary polarizations and conflict, is a crucial task for our synodal structures. As the church opens a space for all the people of God to exercise their sacramentally-ordered participation in the governance of the church, we may even find a way not only to avoid the pitfalls of our politics, but also to foster new forms of dialogue and participation that reimagine what our politics, and our voting, can be.

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