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 diminutions of papal power: the “Babylonian capital” in Avignon; the rise in power of the nation-state; the heretical or near heretical teachings advocated by certain groups of clerics joined by city dwellers in northern Italy, in Provence, and along the Rhine Valley; and so on. It is understandable that conciliarism received very powerful support from the Holy Roman emperor, from Bavaria, Bohemia, and England, whose interest it was to weaken and neutralize pontifical authority. So strong was tins imperial support that it is almost surprising that the councils did not actually become governing factors, when, for example, following the Avignon decades, there were three popes involved in a power struggle. Yet it never became a reigning formula, such as “the king and his parliament.”
The possibility was, however, evident. Its chief standard-bearer was Marsilius of Padua, whose attractive thesis found publicity in his writing, Defensor Pads, inspired by the Franciscans and the nominalist William of Ockham. Marsilius taught that Christians lived in a disorderly, warlike situation, mainly because their “republica” had two heads, the pope and the emperor. Peace could be guaranteed if the latter gains the legal upper hand, since the establishment of empire precedes the establishment of the Church. More precisely, there was a Roman empire before Christ appeared on this earth and sent forth His apostles to convert Jews and infidels. In addition, as the king of France proclaimed through his legists, the “king was emperor in his realm.” Thus, the pontifical authority extended only to matters of faith, not to matters of policy and military action.
How could one bring peace to Christian Europe? asked Marsilius. The highest authority in Christendom, the emperor, possesses the sole right to call councils, by inviting the pope and all those other groups and orders (today we would call them “elected representatives” and “lobbies”) that compose his empire. Any interest group or pressure group would be subject to periodic consultation: the free towns, the monastic orders, the citizens, etc. The problem is that the Church is considered an other “interest group,” dominated by the emperor and by the machinations of power. At best, quasipolitical parties would form, each focusing on fractional interests. The breakup of the christiana respublica could not be prevented.
This is prospect was well understood by the “papalists,” who also understood that currents of secularization were continuing under the guise of pagan sympathies, the Renaissance climate, and what may be called an early “ecumenism,” avant la lettre. It became obvious that, in facing the external dangers (for example, the Ottoman invasion), Christendom must present a united front. Indeed, the great philosopher Nicholas of Cusa turned from conciliarist to papalist in the middle of the 15th century when, as a delegate to Constantinople, he realized the threat that a lack of authority in Rome would represent.
When the Reformation came to the fore, conciliarism abated. In fact, the very meaning of the council shifted, exemplified by the Council of Trent (1545-1563), where the delate concentrated on facing the Reformation and reorganizing the Church’s internal affairs. During the next three centuries, the power relations were such within Christendom that the question of dominance was hardly discussed. The modern sovereigns (Spain, France, the Habsburgs, England) held their respective churches well in hand, the council was not convened, and diplomacy became paramount. Louis XIV’s “gallicanism” was a policy in itself, and the Habsburgs had their hands full with the Turkish invasions. In a way, the eclipse of the conciliarist debate indicated that the “christiana respublica” was itself liquidated, and calling the council together was no longer an internal affair. The next great council was Vatican I, held under different auspices. Appropriately, it dealt with theological matters (such as papal infallibility) and, thus, with the Church’s spiritual response to liberal ideology and national ambitions. The idea of calling the council together was no longer disputed: Rome had the monopoly of this demarche. Ubi papa ibi ecclesia.
Yet this monopoly also suggested that the issues debated at the council were no longer of an essential nature. When, in the late Middle Ages (from Marsilius to Cusanus), the two “parties” were locked in combat, the bitterness indicated a quarrel on the political summit; by the 19th century, “theology” was granted to the Church, but the Church had lost its political weight. The various national assemblies—particularly that of France—passed anti-Roman and anti-clerical laws, depriving the Roman Church of her political and ethical say. And nascent Italy restricted the Church’s domain to a tiny enclave.
Is the Church’s governance compatible with democracy? Can the Church modify its structure and become democratic, as today’s “conciliarists”—the various critics, whether laymen or theologians—demand? There is no question that, all told, the Church resisted democratization under any political climate—whether under pagan tribal chiefs. Renaissance princes, critical intellectuals, modernist currents—but that She managed to do so by adopting a nondemocratic structure. The roots of the Church’s rejection of change may be found in Christ’s legacy to St. Peter, but also in the co-opting of the Roman imperial model. The church can never forget that the emperor Constantine saved the Church from the barbarian ocean and, at the same time, from the various heresies by calling the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325). In other words, the rule of the emperor proved to be a good model for decision-making, and the pyramidal structure, an excellent chain of command. the essence of politics is rooted—this is how Rome sees it—in the principle of authority.
Although it seems today that a “new deal” is being prepared for the “modern Church,” democracy is unlikely to penetrate the Church’s corridors and chambers. The “conciliarists” are more vocal than ever, and their support is perhaps stronger than it was in imperial times, it comes mainly from intellectual circles (the same as in Marsilius’s time) whose ideology, however, proves fragile because it is no longer trying to effect structural change within an institution, but the abolition of that institution and its substitution by a lobby. This would be such a fundamental metanoia that nobody could control the outcome or even foresee its meanderings. It is more likely that counter-churches will arise, each with a different set of doctrinal affirmations. The new global ideology expects any change within the Church to be automatic, brought about by the Zeitgeist, by the weight of international diktats, by the “mature” decisions of humanity as a coalesced block. Cone is the precision with which Marsilius handled a concrete problem; it is replaced by sentimental slogans and bureaucratic inefficiency.
The Constantinian principle remains the permanent model for governing the Church. Changes in ecclesiastical policy and in personnel are, of course, conceivable; but, if nothing else, the ruins of political systems that cluttered the century just past show the way to the exit. The projects of this transitional epoch (totalitarianism, democracy, excessive freedom, moral reform, globalism) have been based on the misjudgment of human nature. The most ancient heritage. Christian and classical, has a better change of survival. It should be understood, however, that “democracy” coincides less and less with what the Greeks and the moderns meant by it. Democracy is now generally innovation, fashion, super organization, profitability— in other words, a mélange of whatever the dominant forces of the moment propose and advertise. This liquid situation permits aggressions against any institution and concept, from nations to grammatical rules. Hence, at a certain level, the Church is also exposed to aggression, mainly because it deals with concepts, their definition (called dogmas and articles of faith), and their permanence. Such aggressions would be successful if the church’s governance (hence her definitions) were to pass to a permanent “council” with democratic infighting, endless redefinitions and ideologically tainted debates. Recently, Monsignor Martini, archbishop of Milan and presently a papabile, expressed his dream of seeing the institutionalization of just such a permanent council in his lifetime. The dream was entertained by Marsilius’s contemporaries—and, apparently. it never died.
To summarize a long and unsolved historical problem, we find that leadership —whether democratic, aristocratic, or authoritarian—faces the more general question of how to channel power to the mutual satisfaction of all concerned. But as the realities of human nature shift with time, place, and social structure, the desired equilibrium is hardly ever achieved. We read authors as different as the Roman Juvenal, Samuel Pepys, and Restif de la Bretonne (during the French Revolution) on the distribution of political power and social response in vastly different situations, and we are compelled to conclude that some sort of authority is needed to establish a routine. Authority is then seen as the guarantor of that routine, until the routine itself moves to a different configuration, under a new authority and its games.
This used to be nearly perfectly understood by the Church, for more than 1,000 years. Inheriting Christ’s moral commandments and the Roman imperial structure. She tried to combine the two; Transcendental authority combined with political authority seemed to be the best formula, at least in the Western milieu. The result was the fusion of three classical political power structures—monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy and this ecclesiastical subdivision of institutions was soon transferred to political and civil institutions. For more than a millennium, the recipe proved acceptable, even ideal. Most aspirations—popular, civic, cultural, and economic—found their place; even the cosmos seemed to conform to the overall valid formula, at least until the arrival of Copernicus and Galileo. But science, as understood after the 17th century, promoted a new formula that opened the tripartite image to criticism and made it replaceable. The modern crisis is derived from that criticism, in spite of the fact that the criticism was itself criticized—hence the political instability of our epoch.
The Church seemed to be alone in resisting the change, concretely freezing Her “political” structure according to the old subdivision. She still finds, however, a large support in “civilian” (political) circles, many of which attempt to recreate the classical pattern. Is there a possibility of a restauratio of a society based on authority? Or is the best we can hope for only a remote imitation of a desacralized Weltanschauung, which, while it has recourse to authority, places the ordering principle elsewhere—namely, in a hidden elite, which resorts to ideologies, demagogy, and ordinary tricks?
The last 200 years saw these attempts repeated over and over in the name of liberalism, Marxism, social democracy, fascism, and any combination thereof. Hardly anything seems to work, because the routine itself is constantly disturbed by decolonization, international Utopian ventures, technological advances, vast migrations, economic upheavals—and their mass interpretation through publicity. Even such immemorial institutions as the family and the schools have fallen victim to the modern crisis. The nationstate itself seems to be dissolved, its place taken by global lobbies, or simply by anarchy. Bellum omnium contra omnes.
In a book published in 1967 (Counterrevolution), I suggested that the Church’s passage to the revolution—I meant the modern crisis—may signal the latter’s victory. At present, 35 years later, we still do not know whether we find ourselves on its threshold or inside Plato’s cave.