True and False Democracy in the Catholic Church

One of the assumptions that seems to animate so many of the conversations surrounding a more synodal Church is that a more “democratized” Catholic Church is by definition a better Church. To that end, we saw in last year’s Synod on Synodality that there was a lot of chatter about a Church that listens to “the people of God.” And those two concepts — a democratized Church and the Church as the people of God — were often conflated to mean almost the same thing.

I think that this conflation is incorrect and that the “people of God” metaphor, used in Lumen Gentium, when properly understood not only does not endorse a more democratic Church but actually implies the opposite.

Whenever I saw the “people of God” metaphor referenced in the lead-up to the first part of the Synod on Synodality, I was reminded of the words of the character Indigo Montoya in the movie The Princess Bride: “You keep on using that word. I do not think it means what you think it does.” Indeed, the synodal leaders resurrected a long-dead interpretation of the people of God metaphor, popular among liberal theologians in the ’70s, to denote the laity as opposed to the hierarchy, with that mistake compounded by a related one, where a distinction was made between “the institutional Church” (a tiresome and oppressive oligarchy of old celibate men) and “the Church of the people” (a liberating wonderland of “real people”).

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