Vital Signs

Church and Democracy

There is no documentary evidence of any period in the history of the Church when dignitaries such as bishops would have been "democratically" elected by the assemblage of "voters." On the other hand, popular election was never excluded in the form of acclamation. A famous ease of acclamation was that of St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, who, before his elevation, had not even been a member of clergy. His firmness and his virtues were recognized to such an extent that the acclamation was evident. The Milanese believers were indeed recognized as a decisive factor in the governance of the ecclesiastical body, but not with voting ballot in hand, the way we recognize democracy today. (Co-opting this was another matter, and there are numerous examples.)

Even in the most trying of times, however, democracy and its methods did not become rooted in the Church. "This does not mean that efforts were not made. Indeed, a name was given to these efforts—conciliarism, the most immediate and direct term that the Church could accommodate. In short, conciliarism meant that the pope was not the single authority who assigns policy and makes decisions, because these decisions and policies needed for their validity and universality the contribution of the bishops and, eventually, of other officeholders, too (and not necessarily just ecclesiastics). The pinnacle of this 14th-century movement coincided with various...

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