Who made the decisions for the church through the years?

Thanks to those who commented on my recent piece about the history of slavery (Dissent: Lessons from Slavery, Sept. 28) and how totally the church's view of that peculiar institution changed. My intention was not to criticize church leaders for failing for so long to recognize slavery as intrinsically evil (though they certainly could be criticized), but to present a single issue, a moral issue at that, which came to be seen in a new and different light in a new age. If Catholics, right and left, can agree that real change can and does occur, then we may have taken a first step toward a balanced dialogue on the currently red-hot topic of dissent in the Catholic Church.

The second step is more difficult. It is the idea of the "sense of the faithful." The notion has often been interpreted so broadly that it means for some that every doctrine and every church teaching must be submitted to a democratic vote by all members of the church, and their decision is final. This is the kind of direct democracy that appeals to many liberals and gives conservatives acute mental distress. So I would like to submit for practical purposes a far less sweeping definition of sense of the faithful: the participation of the laity at some point in the formulation of authentic church teaching. That participation may be very meager, or it may be more extensive, but not so extensive as to deny the teaching authority of the bishops and pope.

Although "sense of the faithful" arises regularly in articles, books, in Catholic conversations and arguments, and in theology courses at Catholic colleges and universities, the term cannot be found in the Catholic catechism. I could be wrong, but I don't believe any pope has discussed or written about it as such. I've never heard of a bishop or priest talk about it in a homily, and it seems not to be subject of any interest to diocesan newspapers. Because of its volatile potential, sense of the faithful remains a mysterious, controversial elusive topic. Nevertheless, if we consider it in terms of lay participation in church decision-making, there is plenty of evidence from history.

Some examples:

At the Council of Jerusalem in the first century, when a decision was necessary regarding the requirements for admission of Gentiles to the church, the Acts of the Apostles reports that the whole assembly of believers was summoned. Amid "much debate," the leaders presented their position and agreement was reached "with the consent of the whole church."

The early second-century document, the Didache, calls on the full community "to elect for yourselves bishops and deacons." This direct selection of leaders would become a staple of church practice for many centuries.

In the third century, Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, followed the practice of consulting priests and deacons on all decisions and involving the whole community in selecting new priests and deacons. He said the procedure was a matter of "divine authority" and an essential of tradition "from the beginning."

In the fourth century following the Council of Nicea, a great dispute arose, with the majority of bishops holding that Jesus was not God and the majority of laity maintaining he was divine. The dispute was settled after about 60 years, with the laity position becoming the accepted doctrine. John Henry Newman in the 19th century used the phrases "consensus of the faithful" and "sense of the faithful," insisting that the post-Nicene experience indicates the Holy Spirit dwells in the full body of the church, not just in the leaders.

By the fifth century, bishops were making decisions more unilaterally, like monarchs. Still, the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon tried to preserve the older, participative system. It declared that if any bishop should presume to ordain a priest who had not been chosen by a community, the ordination would be both illegal and invalid.

What does this prove? Only that the early church valued the "sense" of its full membership. As centuries passed, decision-making became more centralized in the hierarchy, but the laity still participated in many areas. A respected historian of the Middle Ages, Brian Tierney, observed, "Christian texts are filled with a sense of community meetings, community sharing, community participation in decisions." This reflects, he said, a strong belief that the consensus of the Christian people indicates the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Laity attended many ecumenical councils and even participated in some.

In the 20th century, the Second Vatican Council said a lot about the laity: that "they too share in the priestly, prophetic and royal office of Christ and therefore have their own role to play in the mission of the whole People of God ... that laypersons, by reason of … knowledge, competence or outstanding ability ...[are] permitted to and sometimes even obliged to express opinions on things which concern the good of the Church."

Today, the church offers countless opportunities for the laity to serve, though not in the area of decision-making. Today, decision-making is becoming even more centralized than at any other time in history, according to former America magazine editor Tom Reese.

Conservatives may say this is a good thing; religion ought to be a top-down, smooth-working enterprise, and besides, mass participation can become quite chaotic. Liberals can acknowledge some truth in that observation and still point to the danger of passivity in the practice of the faith and the loss of something that seemed essential to Christians of an earlier times. That something is the basic "sense of the faithful" that I would hope right and left Catholics could agree on before sitting down for genuine dialogue on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of dissent.

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