When is dissent not just dissent?

by Robert McClory

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The recent, very thorough survey of American Catholics, whose results were featured in the Oct. 28-Nov. 10 NCR, revealed no overwhelming shifts in belief and practice since the first such survey in 1987. The latest figures reinforce the fact that a substantial number of Catholics are convinced they can be in good standing with the church without adhering to church teachings on various issues, including weekly Mass attendance and remarriage after divorce. More than half the respondents in the survey consider "not very important" Catholic positions opposing abortion, same-sex marriage and requiring a celibate male clergy.

Bishops, priests and other church leaders have been viewing similar results for years now without throwing up their arms and declaring panic. Their easy and obvious response is that the surveys are polluted by the number of lax Catholics, half-Catholics, and pseudo-Catholics affected by the winds of secularism, relativism and individualism howling through American culture. Obviously, they say, this is dissent, this is disobedience.

There can be some truth there, but I would like to suggest that we may be dealing with something else -- something you are not likely to hear mentioned by your bishop or your parish priest. It is the "non-reception" of certain church teachings. And that is not just a less blunt term for dissent. Non-reception holds a respectable place in Catholic teaching among theologians (and very likely among many bishops if they were not so fearful of saying what they think).

According to Jesuit Fr. Ladislas Orsy, writing in the Encyclopedia of Catholicism, church law, like ordinary human law, has two stages. First, it is formulated by the lawgiver and promulgated or brought to the attention of the subjects. In the second stage, those who become aware of the law must try to understand it as they "encounter it in their concrete, particular and personal situations." They must then "form a critical judgment about the law either by affirming it through steady obedience or by bringing to the legislator's notice the difficulties the law may generate."

But what if the subjects, having presented their difficulties, are rebuffed by the legislator or are simply ignored? In that case, the second stage is incomplete and the law has no real effect. It's a little like the tree falling in the forest when there is no one around to see it or hear it fall.

Discussing Vatican II, Benedictine Bishop B.C. Butler acknowledged that if a teaching "failed in the end to enjoy reception on the part of the church, this would prove it had not met the requirements" for enforcement. And in 1969, the theologian Joseph Ratzinger (currently Pope Benedict VI) spoke about even infallibly proposed teachings: "Where there is neither consensus on the part of the universal church nor clear testimony in the sources, no binding decision is possible. If such a decision were formally made, it would lack the necessary conditions and the question of the decision's legitimacy would have to be examined." What Butler and Benedict are getting at is the very real possibility of legitimate non-reception.

Is that what these surveys are telling us over and over again? It would be out of the question, I think, to attribute all non-reception to the presence of irresponsible pseudo-Catholics in the survey responses. The latest American Catholic survey is helpful here, since it carefully distinguishes in some areas the responses of highly committed, moderately committed and low-committed Catholics. The highly committed are described as far more likely than other groups to affirm the importance of the sacraments, the core beliefs of the church, the church's apostolic tradition and its social justice teachings. They also tend to rely heavily on Vatican teaching authority and to emphasize church teaching regarding sexual behavior. Simply put, these are "cream-of-the crop" Catholics.

Yet according to the survey results this year, almost half of these loyal believers say you can be a good Catholic without adhering to church law on divorce and remarriage, on living together without a valid marriage, on attending Mass weekly. And 60 percent of this highly committed flock says you can be a good Catholic without following church teaching on contraception. It would seem then that many dedicated Catholics are trying to develop an informed conscience and have concluded they may disagree with official teaching in good faith in some cases. At least implicitly, they recognize that the two-stage characteristic of authentic teaching means a law not received by the greater church lacks the force of obligation. Call it dissent, if you will, or call it non-reception. It is what's quietly happening in today's American church.

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