The global crisis of democracy is yet one more challenge for a Church fighting for social justice.
Father Arturo Sosa, the Jesuit superior general, made that observation at the recent World Congress of the Social Apostolate of the Society of Jesus.
But the global crisis that many of the world’s social, political, economic and cultural institutions are going through is also an opportunity and a summons for the Catholic Church.
The Church must play a role in healing the ills caused by globalization, even as its structures are being changed by globalization.
The concurrence of the globalization crisis and the Catholic crisis is much more than a coincidence: it is a parallel. This is why, in order to understand the current crisis of democracy, it is essential to understand the Church’s struggle for a new model of governance – a synodal Church.
It’s not just the attempt to fulfill the Second Vatican Council’s promise to shape a more Gospel-like Church, liberated from the institutional-political model of the Christendom era. It is also the endeavor to respond prophetically, here and now, to the crisis of governance and representation in our age.
Seven factors linked to the crisis of democracy
In a very enlightening lecture delivered a few weeks ago at a conference organized by the Italian Catholic magazine Il Regno, Sabino Cassese explained the crisis of democracy by linking it to the following seven factors:
1) Decreasing political participation
2) Failure of political parties to foster participation and form an ethos of citizenship
3) Growth of parallel channels for the formation of public opinion
4) Erosion of the importance of debate for decision-making
5) Poisoning the wells of the democratic system (e.g. foreign interference in the electoral process and fake news)
6) Contradistinction between representative institutions and the people
7) Development of new information and communications technology
This list could just as easily be applied to the crisis of the Catholic Church’s ecclesial (and not just ecclesiastical) ecosystem.
The Church’s crisis parallels the crisis of democracy
1) There is a crisis of participation in the Church. This is not simply due to secularization. It also has to do with a growing sense, among many Catholics, that it is not even worth trying to make a contribution to the life of the Church.
2) The Catholic Church today relies on ecclesial and ecclesiastical structures that have been greatly weakened.
This is due to the collapse of public authority and credibility that the Vatican, the bishops and the clergy once enjoyed among both Catholics and non-Catholics.
It is also being affected by the marginal role of religious orders, as well as the fragmentation of lay Catholic associations and political movements.
3) These weakened institutional structures are being challenged by powerful non-institutional and anti-institutional forces.
This has created the ideal conditions for external interference – from Catholics who are not accountable to anyone in the Church, and even from non-Catholics who are concerned with the social and political message of the Church.
This is the context for the rise of parallel channels of information concerning Catholicism, which are independent from the hierarchy and accountable to nobody.
This includes the emergence of powerful non-institutional Catholic actors with subversive agendas, dependent on big money – money that is not transparent and not channeled by the institution. This is different from the sacrosanct existence and use of discretionary funds by those in position of legitimate power.
4) There is a crisis of trust in the Church’s institutions – from the local parish all the way up to the Vatican – as places were decisions are made in a way that is respectful of the baptismal dignity of all the faithful. (Pope Francis has already begun to change this through the process of synodality).
5) The wells of Church governance have also been poisoned: from the insinuations that the conclave of 2013 was illegitimate to the open accusations that Francis is rigging the assemblies of the Synod of Bishops.
6) There is also the narrative concerning the contradistinction between the good Catholic people who are faithful to the tradition of the Church and the chaos that is allegedly being created by this pontificate.
7) And there are new developments in information and communications technology, which are necessary for a Church dealing with multiple levels of transition in this moment of its globalization.
These include generational transition (the crisis in the transmission of the faith to younger generations), the end of a male-dominated Church, a geopolitical shift towards the Global South and Asia, a theological and cultural transition (collapse of cultural institutions, of higher education and intellectual elites) and a technological transition (environment, social media).
This is all happening in the context of a “de-confessionalization” of Christianity; that is, a Catholic Church where the boundaries between Catholics and non-Catholics are much less visible and relevant for the lived experience of Christianity.
Synodality as the Catholic response
The parallels between crisis of our political democratic systems and the crisis of the institutional Church can be boiled down to participation, public opinion, representation, system of decision-making and bypassing communicative distortion.
The Catholic way to address the present crisis is synodality.
Synodal reform seeks to develop a governance system that continues along the path marked out by Vatican II, as Francis clearly explained in an October 2015 speech that can be considered his magna carta of synodality.
The synodal way is also a highly “political” response to the crisis of our time and the paralysis of our political debate. That’s political in the sense of creating citizenship, not partisanship.
Catholic theology is no longer debating the divine right of monarchs versus democracy, as it did until the 19th century.
Instead, it is defending democracy from threats, most of all from the danger that everything is reduced to a sort of theater where the institutions that have kept us together are now substituted by the theater of the show business-like characters, moral norms and modes of communication.
This is not just a problem of our secular political systems. In the Church, as well, talk about reform often has become a theater or a format.
But the Church’s answer to this is synodality. The synodal process must be the alternative to the lecture circuit where competing agendas vie for media attention and ideology-driven donors.
The synodal process takes place in a real, lived ecclesial community and not in the realm of Church fiction or virtual religion. It is about being pastoral rather than trading in sarcasm and sound bites especially through social media.
The synodal process puts the assembly of real people who participate in and represent the Church at the center, and not a media audience whose market value is in its divisiveness.
Global and national efforts to inculcate synodality
Synodality is beginning to take root in the Catholic Church.
It has visible limits, but is also becoming more frequent and is developing its way of working, especially at the Vatican with the various assemblies of the Synod of Bishops that Pope Francis has convened.
It is also happening in the local churches, the most notable example being the preparation for the Plenary Council for Australia in 2020-2021.
It should happen also in other countries.
Last week Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego (California) launched the proposal for a national synod in the United States. In a lecture at Saint Mary’s University in Texas, he reminded American Catholics that the synod is not just an impossible dream.
“Such a synodal pathway is not foreign to the Church in the United States, nor is it beyond our capacities,” said the bishop, who held a synod in his own diocese in 2016.
McElroy also warned against the dangers of becoming paralyzed and therefore captive to the crisis of our political culture.
“The great danger is that our ecclesial life is becoming like our political life – polarized, distorted and tribal. That is why a deep and broad process of synodal dialogue within the Catholic community in the United States could empower an alternative pathway forward,” the bishop argued.
A synodal process for the Catholic Church in the United States is possible. And a new synodal way for global Catholicism is certainly attainable.
Massimo Faggioli is professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University. The article appears in La Croix InternationalNovember 12, 2019.