One of the things that makes the Catholic culture wars so frustrating is the intractable, black-and-white position that people take on the subject of dissent.
Great numbers of folks have jumped to one extreme or the other on dissent and are convinced that anyone who doesn't agree with their side is either dishonest or just stupid.
I wrote a blog about the possibility of responsible dissent which appeared Sept. 9 ("Dissent? Don't You Dare!") and got dozens of comments from right-wingers who presented their position of what it takes to be a loyal Catholic. Here are a few excerpts:
- "Dissenters have already excommunicated themselves … and don't even realize it."
- "The church's teaching on faith and morals are infallible … This is almighty God that's speaking."
- "Be honest and go to the Episcopal Church."
- "Any time one talks about dissent, it is a wound … Doctrine must be preserved as a whole and cannot change."
These are conservative people who have drawn a line in the sand, accepting a position held by teachers, family, friends, pastors, even bishops and popes, that any deviation from official teaching is wrong, regardless of the reason.
They cling to this as one would to a lifejacket in a swirling sea. There is no room for difference of opinion since those who disagree are marked as hypocrites, traitors or heretics.
There's a lot of anger here.
At the other end of the spectrum were many who agreed with my position and took the occasion to extol individual conscience as the supreme arbiter of decision making, but without adding any qualification.
Others, perhaps influenced by the Republican presidential debaters, changed the subject in order to rant on the bishops. Some samples:
- "It's rather like the bishops hiding and moving abuser priests to avoid scandal."
- "The boys in red have made many stupid and probably immoral decisions with respect to handling pedophile priests."
- "It is B16 who … by not allowing discussion and dialogue and reform…destroys the sacred trust with the laity and clergy."
I have talked with many liberal Catholics in recent years who insist they can dissent about any teaching with or without reason. Some of these have become so disenchanted that they dismiss the office of pope and bishop and the teaching authority of the church. For practical purposes they have given up hope that the Holy Spirit may be leading us – painfully -- to a better understanding of Catholicism.
There's a lot of anger here too.
Still, among the comments I found readers who did not take an intransigent position. These are thoughtful, searching folks who read, pray and ponder thorny problems like dissent without coming to rancorous or absolutist positions. The hang-up here is that these searchers, like the proverbial choir, talk only to like-minded associates, so their balance doesn't get into the discussion. More often than not, it's the extremists who frame the debate.
So can we talk?
I have this idea of a debate on dissent in the church, or better, a series of debates between qualified representatives from left and right -- no grandstanding, no polarizing, no gotcha questions, no yelling.
Undoubtedly, the result would not lead to mass conversions from either camp, but it just might lower the decibel level, even set a tone of respect we haven't seen in a long time.
Somehow, we've got to get out of this quagmire that has turned Catholicism into the quintessential dysfunctional family of the 21st century.