(first provided for users of the Directory of the Lay Fraternities of England and Scotland!)
This article comes with an invitation. Everywhere in the world peoples’ rights are in the balance and democracy is at risk, not least in the so-called “free world” whose leaders so often trample over the poorest and take sides against refugees and migrants. Can we learn anything from the democratic ways of a Catholic religious Order founded 800 years ago? You might not suspect us of being democrats! So our invitation is just: read and find out!
Because ours is consensual not adversarial politics In contest-based elections, teams form composed of candidate-proposer-seconder and they play off against one another. In the Dominican way, you start with the Mass of the Holy Spirit. Every elector is given a blank voting slip, and each writes one name when the moment comes to vote. The slips are collected and counted, then opened. The person whose name has achieved the required majority is declared elected. If there is no clear result a second ballot is held in the same way. In the course of the series of secret ballots the choice of the electors floats to the top. It will be the person who in the final and decisive vote clearly has first place, and this just has to be the expression of the common mind. Who has cast a vote for him or her is never known, and can’t come to mind later. So there are no ‘supporters’ and no ‘candidates’ or if you prefer, any professed member can be considered a candidate. Before the voting starts, the electors may decide to hold a discussion. Possible names are suggested. This is not understood as proposing or seconding people. This discussion is called a tractatus. Nobody may validly vote for himself or herself. When there is a tie, the eldest by profession is declared elected.
Because a member has the right to choose to vote for anyone he or she wishes The elector is not limited in his choices. It doesn’t matter if a name has not come up in the tractatus, the elector can put that name in the ring by writing it on the blank voting paper. You might have good reason to believe that the ‘outside chance’ is the one to go for. It could be a young or not well known person who has caught your imagination. Why, do you think, are new Dominican priors often so young? The electors can take a break between ballots so as to reflect and to discuss their options with one another, both privately one-to-one, in groups, or even all together, depending on the need of the moment.
Because the tractatus gives the best available picture of the Province (the Priory, the Fraternity) and its needs In the course of a tractatus, we get some idea of the qualities, needs, preoccupations and hopes of the members. What people hear and share during a tractatus is useful for those who will be elected to the Council, or elected or nominated to do a particular job. A tractatus can be held by the electors of a Fraternity in its own election, by a Fraternity choosing delegates to send to the Lay Provincial Chapter, by the Chapter before the election of the Lay Provincial Council, and again by the Council before the election of the officers of the Province. So there is a current of discussion and exchange on which the electoral process floats. A tractatus can best indicate the talents available, and of course establish who is available and willing to accept a mandate.
Because the inconveniences attached to election by other methods are avoided Where there is proposing and seconding, or a show of hands, or a proposal to continue someone in office without due process, the secrecy of the election is lost. Here is a point that just has to be understood. It very often happens that there really is only one person for the job in the minds of all the electors. In that case isn’t it just fussy to insist on a secret election? That’s nevertheless ruled out by both the friars’ Constitutions, for the friars, and by the Lay Dominican Directory. It would take away the prerogative of the elector to change his mind and put down another name even in the moment when he fills in his voting paper. It might speed up a process which, with us, is done step by step and with deliberation. If allowed it would establish a baleful precedent that could well give trouble on a future occasion when the outcome might well not be as obvious as it is this time. If there is a division (in the parliamentary sense of a divided house) the secret ballot, where everyone can vote for his or her choice but no voter is identified, is the safest path to take. Ambiguity lurks in the phrase “nemini contra” – the only fair way of making sure that every view has had a chance to express itself is the ballot. Also, in our Dominican way, a mandate comes cleanly and unambiguously to an end, and those who have led us go back to the ranks. There is no lingering presupposition that anybody will be re-elected. Decisions made by a secret vote have most weight – when you are elected in this way, you’re sure that the brethren really have made a preferential choice of you!
Because it responds to the character of our Order. Herbert McCabe wrote a piece on Obedience (see ‘God Matters’ p. 226) where he explains that Dominican obedience is not about doing someone else’s will, but about seeking the will of God together. A really obedient community would be one in which no-one was ever compelled to do anything. Not all Dominican communities and individuals ‘do’ a vow of obedience of course, but all seek God and His desires. In our deliberations we are not looking for a quick result, rather to come to a common mind: “what we seek is not the victory of the majority, but, if possible, unanimity” (see Timothy Ratcliffe, ‘Sing a new song” pp. 35-38). Voting patiently, ballot by ballot, result by result, lets us move gradually towards a common mind about who shall be the women and the men we need to lead us and do the jobs. Surely that explains why we try first for an absolute majority and only when we can’t reach that do we settle for a relative one. In any case the leadership is all the stronger because it originates not from this or that part of the room, but from the whole body. Our way of providing ourselves with leaders is deeply prized, it was the gift to us of St Dominic himself, eight centuries ago.
fr Bob Eccles O.P.
Blackfriars St Michael’s Cambridge