Recently, O’Leary posted on his homepage an insightful reflection on “Governance and Freedom in Church and State.” I particularly appreciate his thoughts on the idea of a “participatory church,” especially as I’ve just started reading Robert McClory’s latest book, As It Was In the Beginning: The Coming Democratization of the Catholic Church.
Following is an excerpt from O’Leary’s reflection.
The Church, as a community in history, with a mission not only for its own flourishing but also for challenging and changing the world, cannot be a mere “ism” vaguely shared by subscribers here and there. It has to give itself body and organize itself as a community. If this community lacks vital bonds and becomes merely an assemblage of isolated individuals regulated by an impersonal and inaccessible governing body, then it is dysfunctional and on its way to being dead. Full, adult participation is of the essence of church membership – participation in the inner life of the Church as a community, and participation in the Church’s mission to the world. When one reads of the Church’s “freedom of action” in Dignitatis Humanae (par. 13) one should think not of the freedom of hierarchs to intervene in politics, but of the freedom of the people of God to make their creative contribution to building up a just and peaceful human community.
People fear calls for the freedom of the Church because they see church action on society as uniquely focused on private morality, and they are not happy with the practical effects of this. In Italy, over the Christmas season, I heard the word ingerenze many times, referring to the constant interference of the Church, in the person of the Pope and of Cardinals Bertone, Ruini and Bagnasco, backed up by vocal politicians such as Senator Paola Binetti, in the running of the country. A quite powerfully argued book by a biologist and a philosopher (Castellacci and Pievani) warned of the peril this posed to Italian democracy. To a list of successes which include the shelving of the proposed civilian partnership law, the Church can now add the fall of the Prodi government and the likely return of Berlusconi, who seems to have a hot line to the Vatican and whose right-hand man, Gianni Letta, received the title of Gentleman of His Holiness on February 16, 2008. The threatened protests that prompted the cancellation of the papal visit to La Sapienza University were probably a response to this church activism.
A participative church could change this negative image, by its production of manifest good works. Every time bishops make statements that have no basis in representing a participative community they either sound ineffectually preachy or simply out of touch, as in the case of a recent statement from the Catholic communications office in Ireland deploring as “contrary to the common good” the reduction of Value Added Tax on condoms (more expensive in Ireland than anywhere else in Europe). Ad hoc reactions without proper reflection on the concrete context are not a responsible exercise of authority. Being seen to be “doing something,” to be “standing for something,” is not what authority is about.
To read Joseph O’Leary’s “Governance and Freedom in Church and State” in its entirety, click here.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Catholic Church and Gays: An Excellent Historical Overview
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
Casanova-inspired Reflections on Papal Power - at 30,000 Ft.