Democracy in the Catholic Church

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Just a moment. We’re not there, yet. Pope Francis has asked that every parish, meaning every practicing Catholic, weigh in on significant issues of faith—same-sex marriage, birth control, divorce, to name just three. He’s taking a poll. But what does this mean?

First of all, it signifies that all the people have a voice in church teaching. Now before conservatives get too worked up, this is not really radical. Merely unusual. For too long, there has been a tendency to confuse the “Church” with the Vatican, or its institutional structure; a tendency to confuse the authority of the pope and bishops with the “faith” of the church. As the Second Vatican Council emphasized, the church is the people of God. Underlying every Catholic doctrine is the “sensus fidelium”, the sense of the people. In the simplest of terms, this means that the entire people cannot err in faith—they cannot believe something contrary to the truth. An individual, a parish, a diocese, even an entire country can be in error, but not the whole people. Collectively they have been given the deposit of faith.

Although possibly only an academic distinction, it should be noted that not even the pope can declare something infallible that the people themselves do not believe.

It is true that in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus declares that the keys of the kingdom belong to Peter. But in context, Jesus places Peter in charge as “first among equals”. It was not a power play. Peter was to be the source of unity, who would exercise authority in order to hold the church together. Scholars note that in all the Gospels, when any list of apostles is given, Peter is always mentioned first and only Peter speaks for the entire group. That indicates the position Peter enjoyed among the twelve. But even then, it was not absolute.

In the Acts of the Apostles we see that Paul, also an Apostle—though not one of the twelve—challenges Peter. He does so not to usurp the authority of Peter. He does not even attempt to. Rather, Paul makes sure that Peter exercises his authority correctly. That he embraces the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in the non-Jewish followers of Jesus.

In Catholic theology, the pope is the successor of Peter. So he possesses that same role of authority and unity. But there has been a tendency to over-emphasize the authority. A good example is the church’s teaching on birth control. Pope John XXIII established a commission to examine whether or not artificial contraception was intrinsically evil. Following his election, Pope Paul VI expanded the commission to 72.

It remains a sad historical reality that at the conclusion of the study two reports were presented to Paul VI. The official report was signed by 65 members—including every lay person on the commission, hence anyone who had received the Sacrament of Marriage. Their conclusion was artificial contraception is not intrinsically evil. But there was a minority report (isn’t there always?). The minority report was signed by 7 clerics (4 priests, 1 cardinal and 2 bishops), none of whom was married. Paul VI promulgated the minority report. Where was the sensus fidelium in 1967? By the way, for any Americans reading this blog, we have additional reason for shame. Two American priests drafted the minority report!

I suppose we can take comfort in the fact that Paul VI was wise enough not to claim infallibility! That would have been a mess, for the best studies indicate that the number of married Catholics who practice artificial birth control may be as high as 80%. Pope Francis has decided to give proper weight to the sensus fidelium.

Does this mean the Catholic Church will become a democracy? Perhaps not. But for the long suffering, this is the same excitement that stirred in people from the American Revolution to the Arab Spring. Pope Francis has welcomed the Holy Spirit back to Rome after far too long a vacation!

The Electoral College at 205 Years of Age

When the Constitution was adopted in 1787, one of the key concerns was the election of the President and Vice-President. Contrary to popular belief, the current electoral system was not established to provide equal representation among sparsely and densely populated states. There were only about 4 million people in the U.S. in 1787. Today the United States of America is the third largest population in the world with over 314 million.

The Electoral College, or “Electors” as it is referred to in the Constitution, was itself a compromise system. The Electoral College is an example of federalism as much by accident as by intent. One suggestion under consideration at the time was that Congress should elect the President. The risk there, of course, is that the President would be beholden to Congress, not to the people. James Madison, among others, favored a direct election by total popular vote. However, as he himself wrote, that was an equally unworkable construct due to the restricted voting rights in slave states. Thus was born a compromise known as the Electoral College.

Query: Is this electoral system relevant in today’s world? Unfortunately, it seems that this question is only raised in earnest every four years, during a presidential election. Yes, this is 2012, an election year. Yes, I am adding my voice to this issue, even though it cannot be resolved at this time.

Therein lies the paradox. It is precisely because we are in the midst of an election that the issue is of concern, and the issue will fade from view once the election is over—unless we have a repeat of the 2000 presidential election. Democrats cried foul when Al Gore won a substantial majority of popular votes, but George W. Bush was elected by a single electoral vote. Would the Republicans not have been just as vociferous had the tables been turned? Of course they would. Such is the disingenuous nature of politics. Nobody wants a repeat of that election. Now, then, is the time to seize upon a public interest, and lay the groundwork for a post-election debate.

Everyone in America is well aware of a troubling fact: There are only a handful of states that will determine the outcome of this election. In principle, every vote counts. In reality, every vote does not count equally.

The all-important swing states are created because states like California and Texas are solidly Democratic and Republican, respectively. At least for now. These two most populous states in the nation, together representing 89 electoral votes, are not “in play”. All the attention of the Obama and Romney campaigns is on nine states, each with only a handful of electoral votes: one with only four, and two with only six.

Proponents of the current system suggest that this balances the influence of smaller states; the presidential campaigns must visit these states regularly to court their votes. These states cannot be treated as “fly over” states during the election process. That suggestion does not hold up to scrutiny. There are several other sparsely populated that also possess only a handful of votes each. Yet, these are not swing states. New York and Florida each have 29 votes. Florida is a swing state. New York is not.

What would be the advantage of a popular election? Actually, it would balance the needs and interests of the entire electorate much more than the current system. Each candidate would obviously need to campaign in the large states. To begin with, even though these safe states lean predominantly one way or the other, their votes would be tallied collectively with every other state.

It is conceivable that Republican votes in a Democratic-leaning state might “swing” the election as much as the nine states do under the current system. The same holds true in reverse. The smaller states could not be ignored, because the total of their votes also might alter the outcome of the election. That evens the importance and power of every voter in every state.

I live in California. I am grateful everyday. For one thing, I am not subjected to the barrage of campaign ads that citizens in swing states must bear. And yet, whether my candidate wins or not, I want to know that my vote counts in this presidential election. I suspect that many citizens in Texas, New York, Massachusetts, Alaska, etc. think the same.

The Electoral College system may have been historically necessary, even if only to secure passage of the Constitution. This process of indirect election of the president is no longer viable. Regardless of how politically divided the country may be today, whoever is elected President of the United States must represent all the people. Maybe all the people should have a voice in who wins.

Voting Rights and Election Monitors

Throughout the world, mostly in emerging democracies and dictatorships, there has long been a need for independent, international election observers. It is a common occurrence to see vote manipulation and downright fraud in many third world countries. In the western world, one expects a different situation. Voting should be free and universal, honest and accurate.

Maybe it is the ease with which corruption embeds itself in the exercise of power; maybe it is insecurity after an opponent has unmasked one’s vacuous concepts; maybe it is the fear of losing control; maybe it is the dread of a rising and empowered populace; maybe it is merely the fact of human weakness. Whatever the cause, the electoral process as practiced in the Western world is not as elevated as we want to claim. This is one reason that the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) is called upon to monitor elections around the globe, including longstanding democracies such as France, the United Kingdom, and even the United States of America.

It is a necessary and daunting task. Take for example, the United States, the root of modern democracy. In the current election cycle, fraud rules the day. Not the fraud of unregistered, illegal, or even dead people voting. The real voter fraud is far more pernicious. It is not merely an effort to influence the outcome of an election. It is an attempt to prevent a large portion of the electorate from participating in the first place.

Not surprisingly, this fraud is exercised primarily by elected state officials, specifically Republicans, striving to cement their uncertain grasp on power. In a manner most deceitful, they espouse lofty principles even while they seek to undermine those principles. They use simple sounding words and frame their policies as “Voter ID laws.” That seems reasonable. Everyone would agree that there must be some regulations around the act of voting. Sadly, it’s just not that simple.

These Republicans know it is only a matter of time before their true intentions and their policies come to light. Unable to win by the force of their arguments, they seek to solidify their grip on power through oppression. Will these legions of darkness be allowed to prevail? That depends on whether or not people will see the truth, expose it to the light, and fearlessly condemn it in speech.

Many commentators, I presume unintentionally, play into the hands of corrupt Republican legislators by describing these machinations as disenfranchisement. That sounds almost harmless. Such language, however, is many degrees removed from the very real and deleterious effects of these laws, enabling politicians to disguise their true motives.

This is not the only corruption. Employers such as David Siegel, the Koch brothers and Richard Lacks are pressuring their employees to vote for Romney. Robert Murray forced coal miners in Ohio to attend--without pay--a Romney rally during the summer. The miners were even used a backdrop behind Romney during his speech.

This is where international election observers come in. They cannot affect the outcome of an election, but they can help reveal the truth of corruption. They can expose the real American election fraud to the entire world—on election day when people are turned away from polling places, and before elections begin when minorities are deliberately shut out of voting procedures or when voters’ freedoms are stripped through employer coercion.

The surface question is whether or not the people of America care what others think—does America’s standing in the world matter anymore? The deeper question is whether or not America’s founding values still matter to Americans, themselves.

I don’t know if Americans are gullible, ignorant, or if they just don’t care. This country used to stand for great things: for equality and equal opportunity. The American Revolution started something new in the world. The U.S. Constitution laid the groundwork for modern democracy, and the United States stood as a beacon of hope and progress in a changing world. These new “Voter ID” laws, coupled with employee coercion, crumble the very foundations of democracy.

Every person running for President is required to declare: “The United States is the greatest country on earth.” That kind of hyperbole was never really true, but it soothes the anxiety of a people who are insecure and need to feel important. It should be said, that citizens of most countries share that angst. In the United States it is amplified by this question: Are we as good as the generations who came before us?

At least when it comes to voting rights, the answer is clear. No. We are not.