It’s the Polity, Stupid.

July 28, 2013 at 1:48 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Thirty years ago last fall I enrolled in a Master of Divinity program in a Protestant seminary here in New York City. It’s not as if I had never met a Protestant before; on one side of my family, Catholics had married Protestants for three generations. So I grasped that there are differences.

Most of my relatives were standard mainstream Prots, however—-Methodists, Episcopalians, the odd Presbyterian. But New York Theological Seminary is majority Black, so what I encountered were lots of Baptists, as well as Pentecostals and independents. Pretty different in many respects from UMCs and Episcopalians.

One aspect of the NYTS curriculum that fascinated me were courses that the various Protestant churches required of their ordination candidates—-denominational history and polity courses: Baptist History and Polity; Presbyterian History and Polity; Methodist History and Polity.

I had practically never heard the word “polity” before, so I looked it up: “A form or process of civil government or constitution. From polis, city.” So each denomination has a different governance process and structure, much the way nation-states do. I was particularly taken with the polity of Baptist and other congregationalist churches because it’s so different from Catholic polity. The congregation hires and fires the minister and owns the property. There’s usually some kind of umbrella organization for all the churches in a particular region, but the local congregation has almost all the power.

Since the election of Pope Francis, there’s been a lot of speculation about whether various changes are in the offing in our own Roman Catholic denomination. Early on I got an email from the head of the New York chapter of the reform group Call to Action with links to two articles discussing such possible changes. The first was an article in the British Catholic newspaper The Telegraph reporting that “Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras said he was backing more posts for women after the Pope named him… to lead a task force of eight cardinals from around the world to reform the Roman Curia, an alleged hotbed of intrigue, infighting and corruption. The cardinal’s comments, made to The Sunday Times, were backed by Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi on Sunday.”

The second, in the National Catholic Reporter, reported that a “Vatican official responsible for the sainthood cause of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador announced Sunday that the cause has been ‘unblocked’ by Pope Francis, suggesting that beatification of the assassinated prelate could come swiftly.”

Both of these developments sound promising. I myself am especially hopeful that the possible beatification and eventual canonization of Archbishop Romero signifies a reversal of John Paul II’s vicious repression of liberation theology, a theology that is at the heart of my faith.

But some of us are old enough to recall that there was also a great deal of hope during the reign of Pope John XXIII. “Good Pope John,” unlike his predecessor and his successor, went to great lengths to save European Jews during the Holocaust and introduced significant changes into the Catholic church by calling Vatican Council II.

Yet Pope John XXIII’s successors, especially Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, undermined and reversed many of the changes introduced by their predecessor and the Council he called. In point of fact, as Benedictine Father Anthony Ruff announced with astonishment after the Vatican trashed the translation of the Roman missal on which he and others had labored for ten years, the Roman Catholic Church is an absolute monarchy. But at least in secular absolute monarchies, the son or daughter of the previous monarch may have some faint inclination to continue the parent monarch’s policies. In a celibate absolute monarchy, the next guy (I use the term advisedly) can reverse previous decisions with the wave of his wand. Maybe the Vatican and the hierarchy place as much stress as they do on the unchanging truths of the Catholic faith precisely to obscure the arbitrary reversals that the church’s absolute monarchical structure allows.

All of this leads back to the question of polity. The Second Vatican Council taught that the laity as well as the ordained are “the people of God,” and many of us believed it. Had we taken a course in polity at seminary we might have asked what changes in the church’s governance structure would underpin this theological pronouncement. Instead, we continue to fixate on the color of the smoke coming out of the Vatican chimney and hope against hope that the new guy will treat us a little better than his predecessor did, though we know that everything he does can and may well be reversed by the monarch who follows him.

(This post is a slightly revised version of an article that appeared in the June-October 2013 issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s ordination Conference.)


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

  1. Marian, dear, I do so enjoy your posts.  I read them more faithfully than almost anything.  Please write more about Pope Frances.  He seems so special to me.  Has a little visit with Fran Martin last night.  I was trying to get Ruth Gallant’s address.  She doesn’t hear well enough to want to converse so I’ll just have to work on my penmanship so she can read what I send.    Lyllis


  2. This option to reverse efforts to move the Church forward with us through time,
    causes one to abandon the expectation of a contemporary, relevance…it breeds
    a ‘disconnect’ at a certain level.


  3. I wonder if your studies of “congregational power” polities has given you some insights as to what might work for independent religious organizations, like the one you and I both belong to!


    • Actually, having observed a number of American Baptist bodies by dint of being married to an ABC minister, I am more or less convinced that neither monarchical nor congregational polity works all that well. I think you need something in between.


  4. I tried to post a comment but it wouldn’t do it. Not sure what I have done or if they changed the rules. Loved the article, and thank you for keeping on! take care, Margaret

    On Sun, Jul 28, 2013 at 1:48 PM, Marian Ronan


    • I think this is a comment, but the technology can be confusing. Thanks, Margaret!

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at
Entries and comments feeds.