The previous post began with reference to the results of a referendum proposed by Britain’s P.M. concerning BREXIT – whether or not the U.K. should remain in or leave the European Union. The current reactions to the unexpected result of the national consultation of individual voters suggests that it may be useful, in this Blog, to reflect theoretically on governance by referendum not only of countries but of the Church.
Another name for the use of referenda is direct democracy. The Church has never claimed to be a democratic institution. It defines itself as a divinely appointed and inspired body of believers, the Mystical Body of Christ (!), in which the Pope, successor of St Peter, has supreme authority, shared in part with Bishops united in General Councils. The Pope can infallibly define dogma “ex cathedra”. To do this he sometimes takes into account what is called the “sensus fidelium”. As the faithful in general seemed to have long believed in the Assumption of Mary into Heaven, the Pope used that belief as confirmation and support – even if it was not strictly necessary for a papal definition – for his decree on the belief as dogma. This was not a referendum.
In civil government laws are defined and decisions are taken normally, after “due deliberation”, by the elected representatives of the people. BREXIT was a rare exception to the rule (only the third referendum in British history). Nothing similar has ever been done in the Church.
All of this makes me wonder, however, what would happen if certain beliefs of the Catholic Church were put to the vote of the faithful. It will never happen, of course, but it may be interesting to reflect for a moment on the implications of allowing the faithful the right to decide on a given issue by referendum.
The BREXIT experience brought to light the danger of direct democracy within the body politic. (The implicit rule seems to be : Never launch a referendum unless you are certain of the outcome . . .). The practice is rare because it is generally recognized that most proposals to approve or disapprove a given legislative action require “due deliberation”, and not just the counting of noses. An analysis of the recent BREXIT referendum reveals that the apparently democratic principle of “one man, one vote” permits the electors themselves to vote and therefore impose a majority opinion, without their understanding of the issue, of what is at stake, and of the consequences of both a “yes” and a “no” vote. Random interviews across the British social strata after the referendum confirmed the superficiality, the emotivity, the prejudices and ignorance which motivated many populist voters.
If one has to wonder about the wisdom of referenda in the governance of civil affairs, it is not difficult to understand why the Church hierarchy would never conduct an opinion poll on articles of faith. But it would be most interesting to see what would happen if they did…