Where is the democracy at the synod on the family?

This article appears in the Synod on the Family feature series. View the full series.

I loved the banner that Catholic Church Reform International carried into St. Peter's Square: "Families must have vote in family synods." A great expression of obvious logic.

That banner hits the nail on the head on two scores: First, it's a bit ridiculous to have a synod on the family when only celibate prelates can engage in formal discussion and vote. Second, it underlines our need for democratic forms of decision-making in the church.

Think about it. What would a synod on the family be like if families -- married women and men -- were actually the vast majority of those present, discussing and voting? If this were the case, I suspect that the ban on artificial contraception would be lifted in about 24 hours. (Just check the polls; the "sense of the faithful" long ago decided this issue.) And I suspect that divorced and remarried Catholics would be able to receive Communion in a few weeks. And who knows what else might change?

Right now, some cardinals are having public debates about Communion for divorced and remarried people, and other prelates are apparently horrified. But the public nature of these debates is healthy for the church if we are to move in a democratic direction at all.

The willingness of the Vatican to take a survey of "Catholics in the pews" was a start, although the questionnaire left a lot to be desired from a social science standpoint. But given the voice that the laity have in many mainline Protestant denominations, it's long past time that we learn from our brothers and sisters in other Christian communities. (In fact, we would not have to go even that far: Most religious communities of women and men have strongly democratic procedures.)

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Another set of comments that struck me in NCR's reporting from Rome came from Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, who leads Vatican office for the synod. He said, "It is important for a person to express himself [or herself] without fear or suspicion. Feeling free to express what is believed or what it is doubtful shows what distinguishes a human being from other creatures."

Amen to Cardinal Baldisseri. But does honest expression apply only at synods? Does it apply only to cardinals and bishops? Not if it's "what distinguishes a human being from other creatures." It's long past time to apply such a norm to the church as a whole, to theologians (Elizabeth Johnson, Margaret Farley, Charlie Curran), to those in ministries not always understood (Jeannine Gramick), to the faithful in the pews.

Let's welcome healthy discussion and debate on theological and pastoral issues. It's way past time -- centuries past time! Maybe the synod can set us on that road.


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