Helpful Texts

Link to the mandala of Brother Nicholas of the Flueli
Hans Maier

Church in Democracy

German Version


From: Stimmen der Zeit, 2006/9, p. 579-586
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


"I look around and see everywhere democracy. I see the Deluge rising more and more. As human being I would probably be afraid but not as Christian, for at the same time I see also the ark." This passage of a speech delivered by the French Catholic leader Charles de Montalembert (1810-1870) in the year 1863 in the Belgian Mecheln reflects the fear and hope in view of an epochal turn which many people recognized already then as final and irrevocable, but in which they saw also dangers and risks. The "new time" was considered as incalculable, as a step into the unknown. What would it bring for state and church? Ruin, anarchy, the decline of religion, the end of an aged Christianity? Or conversely, the rebirth of the church out of the spirit of liberty, the respect for man's dignity and rights which - although sometimes in distorted form - had come to light in the modern revolutions?

Almost exactly 100 years after Montalembert, on 11 October 1962 in his speech delivered on the occasion of the opening of the Second Vatican Council Pope John XXIII urgently warned of those anxious people who wanted to see only misfortune and ruin in today's conditions:

"We however are of a completely different opinion than those prophets of bad tidings who always forecast mischief, as if the world stood before the fall. In the present development of the human events, through which mankind seems to enter into a new order, one must rather recognize a hidden plan of Providence. In the course of time, by the work of human beings and this mostly beyond their expectations it pursues its own aim; and everything, also the opposite human interests, it wisely directs for the welfare of the church."

A further comparison is informative: On 10 March 1791, in the third year of the French Revolution, Pope Pius VI characterized in his Breve "Quod aliquantum" the statement of an innate liberty and equality of man (mind you! under terrestrial, not paradisiacal conditions!) as "absurd" and "senseless" (inanis). Almost 200 years later, on 1 June 1980, Pope John Paul II said on occasion of his first visit of France on the airport Le Bourget:

"Everyone knows the rank that is given in your culture and in your history to the idea of liberty, equality, fraternity. Strictly speaking, these are Christian ideas. ...



I say this although I am aware of the fact that those who as the first formulated this idea did not refer with it to the alliance between man and Eternal Wisdom, but they nevertheless wanted to work in favour of their fellow men."


A Relationship Develops

In the meantime the church has been living already for many decades "in democracy" - in Europe since the end of the First World War (although with important breaks through authoritarian and totalitarian regimes), and in the whole world since the victory of the allied over the Axis powers 1945, the UN Declaration on Human Rights 1948, the decolonization in the forties, fifties and sixties, and the collapse of the communist world empire 1989/90. What does it mean to live in democracy, under democratic conditions? What does it mean particularly for the church? How did it react to the new conditions? Which conclusions did it draw from the changed historical conditions?

1. In the democratic age - there the mischief prophets were not completely wrong - many old certainties disappeared. Suddenly one could no longer settle down in the given reality as in former times. Many railings were broken off; many traditions had lost their power. Many things which seemed to have eternal existence, disappeared in the nineteenth and twentieth century or lost their old validity: holy empires, anointed rulers, sacred customs, state churches and state religions - at the end also the Papal States as religious-lay power. The Catholics had to fight almost for everything which so far had been a matter of course. Where in former times one could simply refer to rights and customs, one had to develop now own initiatives. Democracy as obligation to initiative - that was at the beginning more than unusual; it worked like a shock therapy. But has the shock not been beneficial to the whole church?

Through more than 100 years the German Catholics experienced those changes in all phases for themselves: from the Old Reich to a national state, later to a republic and to a democracy. When the Old Reich ended in 1806 they had still the majority of the population. In 1866, after the exclusion of Austria, and in 1871, after the foundation of the Kleindeutsches Reich, they became the minority in their own country and had on many occasions to fight for their rights. With the fight for the national state it was also about the numerical proportion of the denominations: How many Protestants, how many Catholics should there be in the future Reich? And it was also about the mental leadership. As the secularization had already fatally weakened the Catholic part of the population - by closing many schools and universities, and by destroying to a large extent architecture, sculpture, painting and music made possible by donations, so in the "Kulturkampf" the dominance of the "Others" should be finally fixed: The Catholic world should no longer be a part of the national culture.



From there it was not far to the statement that Catholics could not be loyal citizens, because they felt more closely connected with the Roman and Slav neighbours in Europe than with the Protestant compatriots, and because they obeyed a "foreign sovereign", the pope.

But the same democratic movement that dissolved the old legal foundations of the Reich and shifted the Catholics into the minority, placed also to their disposal suitable means for the defence of their interests: the principle of equality and liberty as central element of the new developing constitutions, the law on societies, the way of petitions, the public opinion. So the years since 1837 - the year of the "Cologne Event", and since 1844 - the year of the pilgrimage to Trier, up to the year 1919 - the end of the First World War and the proclamation of the 'Weimar Constitution', were a time of comprehensive gathering: Catholics organized into associations and federations, into social and political organizations, into the 'Zentrum party', into general assemblies (so the original title of the 'Katholikentag'), into associations of the different social classes (estates), into scientific and educational societies - into an abundance of groupings that made the German Catholicism the pacesetter of a "citizen society" anticipating the future democracy. The 'Central Committee of the German Catholics' too has here its origin. And on this occasion one may remind of the fact that it is not only older than some of the also in the nineteenth century developed liberal and socialist local and central committees but that it survived them all in the course of time.

2. Such a gathering by means of the free formation of associations was only possible by the initiative of the Catholic laity - and so the modern democracy certainly contributed to the fact that the lay element gained in strength and weight in the last two centuries in the Catholic Church. The picture of the church would be unthinkable without it. The laity substantially contributed to the fact that the church found its place in the modern society, that place for which the advocates of the "Kulturkampf" wanted to contend with the church. Hence the laity helped to re-establish the public representation of the church, and this not by intergovernmental diplomatic actions but by the development of political strength from the inside, by their democratic commitment.

There is a speaking procedure also for this: From the third until the sixth October 1848 the first general assembly of the representatives of the Catholic associations - the first Katholikentag - met in Mainz: a meeting of the laity under a elected lay president, although also priests who were delegated by associations cooperated without church order. From 22 October to 16 November then the first German Bishops' Conference followed in Würzburg - under the presidency of the Salzburg Cardinal and Primas Germaniae Friedrich Schwarzenberg (1809-1885). But while the Bishops' Conference was not continued because of Roman fears of national church tendencies



- only since 1867 the bishops met again regularly in different intervals, the Katholikentage went on after 1848 in incessant succession; up to the First World War there were 60 of them. In other words: In the crucial decades of the formation of the national state the church was -above all visible all-German by the Catholics' Days as a manifestation of the laity, where the Catholic demands on society were formulated and where (particularly after the Kulturkampf) the grown self-confidence of the denominational minority came to the fore in the Protestant empire.

Of course, the German Catholic laity did not stand alone in their fight for the rights of the church. In whole Europe, particularly in France, Italy, Belgium and Ireland, lay forces took similar positions. They as first had understood the new situation: Since the church was no longer supported by the secularized state, the Catholics themselves had to seize the initiative. And since the public authorities respected only those who were organized, they had to become strong, in order to be able to get their way. In post-revolutionary time the church had with good reason the right to reclaim from the state the right to self-government. It needed no longer to content itself to be simply controlled and administered "like duties and taxes". But with it new questions arose. Who is the church? By whom is it made up? Who does act in its name? Are there - as matters stand - different competencies and courses of action, and controversial commitments of the faithful? Or has everything to remain in one hand, in the hand of the office, of the bishops? Who has the responsibility for the whole? Could the laity become politically active only under certain conditions: in France for instance under a general reservation in relation to a republic that had since 1905 finally become lay - in Italy on national level only with saving clauses and restrictions, as long as the problem of the Papal States was open?

To the anger of the lay leader Ludwig Windthorst (1812-1891) in Germany the Kulturkampf had been smoothed a last time by church-diplomatic means: by direct negotiations between Bismarck and the Pope. The result was not favourable for the church interests. In France however the "ralliement" failed, that reconciliation with the republic for which Leo XIII had striven. One can generally say that the means of church diplomacy and the handed down concordat policy petered out more and more in the "long century" before the First World War. There were needed new and different forces, in order to arrange the relations between state and church in the democratic age.

After the year 1918 the situation had fundamentally changed. In order to secure the rights of the church in the new democratic constitutions of Europe, treaties were no longer sufficient, there was necessary the united co-operation of the laity and a persistent influence on politics supported by group power. At that time at the latest one could no longer fail to notice that the problem 'church in democracy' had also an intra-church side.



The angry question of Cardinal Henry Edward Mannings (1808-1892), "Who are these laymen?" required an answer appropriate to the church, that is a theological one. For the simple information given by the Roman Monsignore George Talbot de Malahide (1816-1886) was no longer enough. He had written to the archbishop: "What is the field of the laymen? To hunt, to shoot, to converse. These things they understand; but they have not any right to interfere with church affairs."


Church and Laity

So in the time between the wars not only a broad lay commitment developed in the Catholic church, but also a theology on the status of laity - in close connection with new approaches in the theological view on the church. The church as People of God, the common priesthood of all faithful, the lay apostolate originating in baptism and confirmation shifted now in the centre of reflection. One took notice of and examined the political, economic, social and cultural reality within which the Christians lived. All these fields should in the future be developed from the inside, and not simply be adopted and used outwardly. Liturgy movement and lay apostolate joined their spiritual energies. It is sufficient to remind of names such as Romano Guardini, Yves Congar, John Courtney Murray, Karl Rahner and Ferdinand Klostermann. That new view on world and church brought its fruits, it lead to a deepened view of the church during the Second Vatican Council.

In its documents the laity are mentioned in detail in three places: In the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), in the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem), and in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church (Gaudium et Spes). While Lumen Gentium outlines the place of the laity in the total church structure, Apostolicam actuositatem refers to the lay activities as they developed particularly in Europe and in America since the modern revolutions, and Gaudium et Spes finally develops a differentiated view of the Christians' doings in a pluralistic society by differentiating between activities "done by individual Christians or groups in their own name as citizens who are led by their Christian conscience" and actions "done in the name of the church together with their shepherds" (GS 76).

For the first time in Church history the laity are in LG 30 designated as "rank". In the church ranks were the bishops - since Emperor Constantine on equal footing with the Roman senators, then in the Middle Ages the priests and members of religious orders. But laymen were not persons of rank - they were simply non-clerics: so still the Codex Iuris Canonici of 1917. In his in 2004 published commentary on Lumen Gentium Peter Hünermann says about that place:



"Laity, members of religious orders and clerics equally belong to the People of God. In the framework of the People of God the laity is entitled to an own position and an own mission. By contrasting the position and mission of the laity with that of the clergy and members of religious orders is clarified that it is with the vocation of the laity about a characteristic that lies on the level of the constitutional church, resp. of the church as institution. Here a substantial moment of the "compago ecclesiae" is at stake" - i.e. of the church's structure and unity.

The public elbow-room of the laity - so the Council sees it - is large and wide. Their role is by no means limited to acting as the "extended arm" of the clergy, like in the conception of the Catholic Action. It took up old-church structures, a former impartiality and liberty of Christians with regard to their life and acting in the world. In the church the laity was always allowed to do many things forbidden to clergymen: to trade, to make politics, to marry and settle down, to bring up children. Conversely the laity cannot hear somebody's confession, celebrate Mass, administer confirmation and the last unction - it is true though that they got a larger part in church services than in former times (particularly in times of lack of priests), but they are not entitled to anything that is bound to the ordination.

Today, in the age of democracy, the laity are allowed to, yes, must become committed to all public affairs, to the political, social, cultural life: broadly, variously - and in not a few cases certainly also controversially. It can happen that in elections Catholics decide differently to the expectations of their bishops (we saw it recently in Italy!) - After the Second Vaticanum not any pastoral letter will prevent them from doing so. It can happen that Catholic politicians, as it is inevitable in parliamentary life, make compromises in order as well as possible to succeed with their ideas under the given circumstances. But they must take then in the concrete case the personal responsibility for it. It can also occur that laity - after careful self-examination - take over tasks which the church authorities cannot or do not want to continue: An example in Germany is the establishment of "Donum vitae" by the Catholic laity. After the church gave up the legally ordered conflict guidance of pregnant women, it was continued with the help of the law on societies. Here too one has carefully to consider whether one wants - in the name of an alleged purity of principles - to leave the field to secular forces or to make the best out of an unsatisfactory legislation (obligation to consultation), which nevertheless - compared with that of nearly all European countries - is clearly friendlier to life. Or does someone want seriously to state that a law without the obligation to counselling corresponded better to the church view? Besides, I think something that has been done for five years by all German bishops (with one exception) will not become wrong by the fact that it is continued by laymen.



The Councils in the Church

The Second Vaticanum led to a strong revival of synodal forms in the church. Thus in LG 22 the councils - they go up to this day by the name "oecumenica synodus" - are called age-old and exemplary institutions. There is no longer any touch of the old fear of councils, which existed for a long time in the church, particularly with the popes. The most important components for local church synods were already ready in the documents of the Council, i.e. (I quote Karl Lehmann in his introduction for the complete edition of the Synod Resolutions 1976) "The Importance of the Local Churches and the Episcopal Cooperativeness" and "The Participation of the Faithful in the Mission of the Church".

More than thirty years ago the Würzburg Synod has so given a new form to the German Catholicism by introducing synodal elements into important areas: most comprehensively by the structures of joint responsibility in parishes, deaneries and dioceses, and - you may not underrate that - by the creation of a "Common Conference" for the German Bishops' Conference and the Central Committee of the German Catholics. After the end of the Synod, the Central Committee too was shaped anew in the spirit of the Council, by attaching to it synodal elements. Since then not only the representatives of the federations, but also the representatives of the dioceses (beside other personalities) belong to it. By the way, among the 312 participants in the Würzburg Synod were 140 laymen and -women. The statute of the Synod had been approved by Rome.

I took part in the Synod, and I did not hear that the bishops entered a protest against the resolution which regulated the co-operation in parishes, deaneries and dioceses (it had the title: "Responsibility of the Whole People of God for the Church's Mission"), they could easily have done it according to the statute. On the contrary: All bishops realized this resolution (though with local variants!) in their dioceses. Meanwhile the then found structures have stood the practical test for many decades in the church in Germany. That's why fundamentally different forms of living together and co-operation are hardly imaginable after the Second Vaticanum and its doctrine on the church.

So one is taken aback when individual voices - and in recent time even a Roman congregation - hold that the resolutions of the Synod are abolished as "established law" by the new Codex Iuris Canonici of 1983. But the action of the bishops in their dioceses has shown that the Würzburg Resolutions are not 'established law', but (local church) statutory law. Here a clearing up is needed to prevent the spreading of unrest and uncertainty in diocese-, deanery-, and parish councils. The bishops should clearly and decidedly declare themselves to this question - since the Würzburg Synod is not a work of the laity but a common work.



Clarifying is needed after the Regensburg procedures also about the relation between election and appointment of council members. Council members on parish-, deanery-, and diocese level are appointed by elections - a quite natural procedure. Can a bishop remove elected councillors by declaring null and void the committee into which they have been elected? In secular law that would be a completely unacceptable procedure. If it became a habit in the church, good faith would soon be lost and general distrust would spread in view of incalculable conditions and of always possible arbitrariness.

I hope, we all call to mind that the church exists today - already for decades - in a democratic environment. The church is not democracy. But it lives in a democracy. If it wants to be present and to remain in society, it must go democratic ways and use democratic means. The acknowledgment of laws that are valid for everyone belongs to it as well as the respect for others, and - a little restraint with regard to one's own imperfection and fallibility. Let us all - laity, clergy and members of religious orders - not make ourselves larger than we are, rather a bit smaller. Let us come to an agreement and avoid solo attempts. And we should know that the presence of the church in the democratic age does not depend on our "running or striving" but - as always in history - alone on God's mercy. "The church will withstand, despite of us" (Henri de Lubac).


Link to 'Public Con-Spiracy for-with-of the Poor'