I'm a subscriber to First Things, an almost-monthly American magazine which contains articles from Catholic, Protestant and Jewish believers on a whole range of subjects (with a focus on religion, of course). (I wonder if there is any pleasure like unto the pleasure of receiving a looked-for magazine in the post? Articles that go on for whole pages, that are about topics that actually interest me, and that I don't have to scroll down a screen to read!)
There is one article in the March edition which is especially interesting, given recent controversies in the Irish Catholic Church. "Presbyterianism's Democratic Captivity" is written by Joseph D. Small, a member of the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America.
Small wries: "Perhaps the most harmful transformation, though, has been the PCUSA's adoption of decision -making procedures that mimic American-style liberal democracy rather than expressing the character and quality of ecclesical community."
Small describes general assemblies of the PCUSA that resemble political conventions; matters of deep doctrinal concern are decided in a matter of hours by people who mostly do not know each other, and who need not have any special scholarship:
They are little more than biennial gatherings of strangers. PCUSA general assemblies consist of more than seven hundred "commissioners", half of whom are ministers and half are elders (ordered ministers that most churches would consider laity), and 90 per cent of whom have never before been to a general assembly...The assembly meets for one week, spending two days on preliminary procedural matters, two and a half days on committee meetings...and two and a half days on plenary voting on hundreds of proposals, only a fraction of which commissioners have read, let alone studied. Commissioners vote, adopt legislation, make rules, and then return home with no continuing responsibility for the decisions they have taken.
The results are predictable. Instead of the Catholic approach whereby the definitive ruling of the Magisterium is infallible, the PCUSA gets revision and perpetual schism.
The 2010-2011 vote on the status of gay and lesbian persons in the ministries of the church was the fifth vote on ordination standards in the last fifteen years. The 55-45 percent margin removing the prohibition on ordination amended the church's constitution, but it did not resolve the issue. For many in the minority, the action exacerbated dissatisfaction with the church's perceived theological and moral direction. The result has been the departure of congregations and ministers...
Small himself, being a Presbyterian, does not attribute these ills to ecclesial democracy itself, but rather to the excessive haste and lack of caution with which doctrinal rulings are made. I mean no disrespect at all to his beliefs, but it seems to me as if this doctrinal instability is innate to all democratic churches, by their very nature.
Is this really what our Catholic democrats aspire to? I hope not.