Dissent? Don't You Dare!

by Robert McClory

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At the heart of most disagreement in the church today is the issue of dissent.

May a Catholic in some situations and in good conscience reject or contradict an authoritative teaching? Or must internal and external agreement be given to all?

This dilemma is the invisible elephant in the living room and the 800-lb. gorilla in the closet. Many Catholics are now convinced that turning away from any official teaching is sinful, even heretical -- as if salvation depends solely on obedience.

The new archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput put it this way a few days ago: The church is “no place for cafeteria Catholics,” he said. “If they don’t believe what the church teaches, they aren’t really Catholics.”

This oft repeated assumption is the main reason why there’s been such a stir recently over the more than 300 Austrian priests who declared publicly they will defy the hierarchy by giving communion to divorced Catholics who remarry without church permission, that they will allow women to preach at Mass, and that they support the ordination of women and married men.

Their document was titled “A call to Disobedience.” The archbishop, Vienna Cardinal Joseph Schonborn, was offended.

“This cannot go on,” he told reporters. “If someone had decided to go down the path of dissent, that has consequences.”

I suspect a lot of liberal Catholics admired the gustiness of these Austrian priests but were shocked at their potentially suicidal proclamation. Doesn’t everyone know there is no toleration of dissent in the Roman Catholic Church -- never, no way, no how? That’s the way it has been, is now and will be evermore!

Unfortunately, many of us have poor memories, poor memories of history, poor memories of even more modern times.

During a period of time in the ‘60s and ‘70s public dissent was expected, respected, even encouraged from the top on down. The papal encyclical Humanae Vitae was the occasion. Its official position banning all forms of artificial birth control sparked a fierce debate not just between the truly faithful and impudent renegades, but between believing Catholics at all levels.

That never resolved debate is seldom heard today because it’s been muzzled by the sheer force of authority, as have debates on all other neuralgic issues in the church.

According to an analysis in the ‘70s by sociologist Joseph Selling, 18 national and regional bishops conferences in the world gave full assent to Humanae Vitae, while 15 conferences either disputed its conclusions or gave a highly mitigated interpretation of its message, and nine bishops conferences said they were totally puzzled.

Those persons who come to conclusions different from the encyclical “should not be regarded as inferior Catholics,” said the Scandanavian bishops.

Catholics with diverging opinions, declared the Canadian hierarchy, “should not be considered or consider themselves shut off from the body of the faithful.”

The U.S. bishops even set out norms for legitimate dissent. It is proper and acceptable, they said, “if the reasons for disagreement are serious and well founded, if the manner of their dissent does not question the right of the hierarchy to teach or cause great scandal.”

The bishops took note of John Henry Newman’s description of circumstances in which conscience could oppose the authority of the pope and they praised “the spiritual tradition which accepts enlightened conscience, even when honestly mistaken, as the arbiter of moral decision.”

Theologians throughout the world, like Bernard Haring, Walter Burghardt and Karl Rahner, weighed in on the subject, arguing for the right, even the obligation of disagreement.

Said cautious theologian Avery Dulles: “It would be serious mistake to use the encyclical as a kind of Catholic loyalty test. Nothing could so quickly snuff out the spirit of personal responsibility which has done so much to reinvigorate American Catholicism.”

The author of the encyclical, Paul VI himself, seemed to find the reactions stimulating. “May the lively debate aroused by our encyclical lead to a better knowledge of God’s will,” he told a congress of German Catholics.

The lively debate did flourish for a time, but when it appeared a consensus favoring dissent was gathering, a chill wind blew in. After some 600 theologians signed a statement which said “Spouses may responsibly decide according to their conscience that artificial contraception in some circumstances is permissible and indeed necessary to preserve and foster the value and sacredness of marriage,” the hammer fell.

The statement’s author, Charles Curran, was banished, and theologians who hoped to preserve their careers in Catholic universities were warned to change their minds or at least keep to themselves any dissenting opinions.

Still, the debate simmered on for years. At the Vatican synod of bishops in 1980, several urged a greater openness to the experience of married people in determining sexual morality and disputed the stamp of “intrinsically evil” placed on each and every use of contraception.

“Many men and women of good will and a majority of priests and theologians dissent on the teaching of Humaane Vitae,” said San Francisco Bishop John Quinn. “And their position cannot be dismissed.”

But their position was dismissed. During the duration of Paul VI’s pontificate, throughout the long winter of John Paul II’s papacy and during the reign of Benedict XVI no steps have been taken to reconsider or initiate any consultation on the encyclical’s doctrine. It has become in fact the litmus test of loyalty to the church.

Any candidate for the episcopacy who refuses to formally endorse the official teaching will not be ordained a bishop.

I raise all this not to reignite a public debate about birth control but to point out that as recently as 40 years ago, dissent over a doctrine proclaimed at the highest level of church authority swept through the church. Inspired by the teachings and tone of Vatican II, great numbers of Catholics, lay and clergy, thought they had a right to speak out on matters for the good of the church.

Church history reveals countless other periods when thoughtful and earnest dissent served to steer the church through crisis and into the light. There were times when theologians with their interesting and innovative ideas were invited to spar with other theologians and bishops in open sessions.

Accepted and honored was the magisterium of the theologians alongside the magisterium of the bishops and pope.

The curtailing of all dissent in this era does not serve the good of the church. Rather it leads to disruption, disintegration and disaster.

The massive defections of Catholics from the church in Europe and America is one sign. Another is the diminished respect and reverence those who stay are willing to bestow on their church leaders. A third is the desperate steps some, like the 300 Austrian priests, are willing to take in order to preserve their integrity as representatives of the faith.

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