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Leonard Swidler
"In the wake of the decision of the civil court to support the Vatican in its argument with Father Charles Curran, the imposition of a loyalty oath on Catholic theologians and officials, and closure of two progressive seminaries in Brazil, Catholics in general and American Catholics in particular, may begin to doubt their right, and at times obligation, to be a loyal opposition through reasoned dissent and dialogue.

I would like to recall that such a doubt is not only unwarranted, but that the exact opposite is called for - particularly by American Catholics.  Reasoned dissent and dialogue should not be seen as flaws in American Catholicism.  They should be viewed as part of its maturity.  They should be seen as its vocation.

How does a community know it has a vocation, a calling?  Probably the most important way, as pointed out by Pope John XXIII and Vatican II, is through the signs of the times.  It seems clear that the signs of the times in both secular history and church history point very clearly to the need to move away from the authoritarian, patriarchal style of governance in the Catholic church that has prevailed in recent centuries to a more democratic style worthy of a community of mature adults schooled in responsible freedom and dialogue.

In this contemporary vocation, moreover, American Catholics bear a special responsibility, since it is in America that both freedom, with its necessary concomitant, dissent, and dialogue have been most highly developed individually and communally: a church providing a model of deliberation, dissent, dialogue and decision-making would be the American church's special contribu- tion to the church universal. What are the arguments for this? 

The Christian faithful...have the right and even at times a duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church....Those who are engaged in the sacred disciplines enjoy a lawful freedom of inquiry and of prudently expressing their opinions on matters in which they have expertise.

These are not the wild words of some radical group of non-Catholics, or even the words of a group of liberal Catholics.  They are canons 212,3 and 218 of the new code of canon law of the Roman Catholic Church.  This might seem to some to seal the argument, but there is more:

Christ summons the Church, as it goes its pilgrim way, to that continual reformation of which it always has need.... Let everyone in the Church...preserve a proper freedom... even in the theological elaborations of revealed truth.... All are led...wherever necessary, to undertake with vigor the task of renewal and reform...Catholics'...primary duty is to make a careful and honest appraisal of whatever needs to be renewed and done in the Catholic household itself.

Who, this time, are the radical advocates of freedom and reformation "even in the theological elaborations of revealed truth"?  All the Catholic bishops of the world gathered in Ecumenical Council Vatican II (Decree on Ecumenism, No. 4).  The same council also firmly declared that,

The human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all humans are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals, social groups and every human power...Nobody is forced to act against his convictions in religious matters in private or in public....Truth can impose itself on the mind of humans only in virtue of its own truth" (Declaration on Religious Liberty, Nos. 1,2).

The council further stated that "search for truth" should be carried out "by free enquiry...and dialogue....Human beings are bound to follow their consciences faithfully in all their activity....They must not be forced to act contrary to their conscience, especially in religious matters (ibid., No. 3).

 There is still more: In 1973, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated that the "conceptions" by which church teaching is expressed are changeable:  "The truths which the church intends to teach through her dogmatic formulas are distinct from the changeable conceptions of a given epoch and can be expressed without them"  (Mysterium ecclesiae).

But how can these "conceptions" be changed unless someone points out that they might be improved, might even be defective, that is, unless there is deliberation, possibly dissent, and then dialogue leading to a new decision on how to express the matter?

And a real mind-boggler:  "Doctrinal discussion requires perceptiveness, both in honestly setting out one's own opinion and in recognizing the truth everywhere, even if the truth demolishes one so that one is forced to reconsider one's own position, in theory and in practice."  Words of the Vatican curia in 1968 (Humanae personae dignitatem).

Even Pope John Paul II encouraged responsible dissent and supported theologians in their invaluable service done in freedom. In 1969, then archbishop of Krakow, he said, "Conformity means death for any community.  A loyal opposition is a necessity in any community."  A decade later, as pope, he declared, 

The church needs her theologians, particularly in this time and age....We desire to listen to you and we are eager to receive the valued assistance of your responsible scholarship....We will never tire of insisting on the eminent role of the university...a place of scientific research, constantly updating its methods and working instruments...in freedom of investigation" (address to Catholic theologians and scholars at the Catholic University of America, Oct. 7, 1979?emphasis added).

A little later, he even went so far as to remark, "Truth is the power of peace....What should one say of the practice of combatting or silencing those who do not share the same views?" (More than ironically, even as a countersign, that statement was issued Dec. 18, 1979, three days after the close of the "interrogation" of Edward Schillebeeckx in Rome and on the very day of the quasi-silencing of Hans Kung.)

But this support for, indeed, advocacy of, responsible dissent by the highest Catholic officials should not at all be surprising.  It is part of the proper pattern found in the whole history of humankind.  The human being is by nature a historical being, and therefore subject to constant change.

It is to be expected that established positions, in theory and practice, will upon occasion cause problems.  The way this conflict is responded to is first, through deliberation, and then, if judged proper, dissent, then dialogue, and finally decision?which decision may in the future again become the cause of further deliberation, dissent, dialogue and decision, and so on.  For humankind this is the natural law.

We see this already in our religious history in the Hebrew Bible, with its prophetic tradition.  The prophets dissented from the establishment very loudly and clearly.  True, they were often resisted, and even put to death, by the establishment.  Still, the prophetic tradition was accepted by Israel, God's chosen people, as a whole.  Jesus, who was an observant Jew, also stood in this prophetic tradition?indeed, he was called a prophet by his followers.  He challenged the religious establishment.  He was a dissenter.  And Christians are said to be his followers?

His immediate followers, the disciples and apostles, did in fact follow him in this. They too were religious dissenters, and consequently they likewise fell afoul of the religious establish- ment, sometimes even suffering the same fate as their leader.

 The point is that, from earliest Christianity, just as in Judaism, there has been deliberation, dissent, dialogue and decision.  The first "pope," Peter, experienced this when Paul "withstood him to his face" - and Peter changed.

This practice of decision-making in the church by dialogue and consensus continued through the early centuries.  But such dialogue and ultimate arrival at a consensus by its very nature included the possibility of dissent.  There can be no such thing as a CONsensus without the possibility of DISsensus.

Listen, for example, to the words of a 1st-century Christian teacher - writing even before the New Testament was completed - speaking about something that may be startling to many Catholics, namely, the community electing its own bishop: "You must, then, elect for yourselves bishops and deacons....Their ministry to you is identical with that of the prophets and teachers. You must not, therefore, despise them, for along with the prophets and teachers they enjoy a place of honor among you" (Didache 15:1-2).

Nor did this dissensus, dialogus, consensus  within the church cease with the end of the 1st century. In the 3rd century we hear St. Cyprian, writing of a critical theological issue: "It is a subject which must be considered not only in counsel with my colleagues, but also with the whole body of the laity (cum plebe ipsa universa)." At another time he wrote, "From the beginning of my episcopate I have been determined to undertake nothing on my own private judgment without consulting you and gaining the assent of the people (nihil...sine consensu plebis)."

This was also true for Rome, for the clergy there wrote to St. Cyprian, "Thus, by the collaborative counsels of bishops, priests, deacons, confessors and likewise a substantial number of the laity, the problem was dealt with...for no decree can be established which does not appear to be ratified by the consent of the plurality."

No less stalwart a figure than Pope St. Leo the Great in the middle of the fifth century stated, "Let him who will stand before all be elected by all."  Indeed, the ultimate autocrat, Pope Boniface VIII, at the beginning of the 14th century, wrote:  "Whatever affects everyone must be approved by everyone."

It will probably come as somewhat of a shock for many to learn that not always in the history of the Roman Catholic church were the pope and bishops the supreme teachers of what was true Catholic doctrine.  For almost six centuries of Catholic history, the teachers, the theologians, were the supreme arbiters in deciding what was correct Catholic teaching.  This occurred in the first three centuries of the Christian era and again from the 13th through the 15th centuries.

Let me give only one example from the 14th century, that of the French theologian, Godfrey of Fontaines.  He poses the following question - and note how he poses it:  "Whether the theologian must contradict the statement of the bishop if he believes it to be opposed to the truth?"

He answers that if the matter is not concerned with faith or morals, then he should dissent only in private, but if it is a matter of faith or morals, "the teacher must take a stand, regardless of the episcopal decree...even though some will be scandalized by this action.  It is better to preserve the truth, even at the cost of a scandal, than to let it be suppressed through fear of a scandal."  And, Godfrey pointed out, this would be true even if the bishop in question were the pope, "for in this situation the pope can be doubted."

Even in the 20th century, under the pall of the Modernist heresy hunt, we find the traditional theological manuals, which every bishop over 50 today studied in his seminary days, putting forth the doctrine that "the consensus of the faithful is a certain criterion of the tradition and faith of the church."

 But, as noted, without the possibility of DISsensus there can be no such thing as CONsensus.  We would not be consenting to something if we were not able to dissent - otherwise we would simply be like Pavlov's dog, automatically responding to stimuli.

Equally, if not more interesting, is the fact that all these over-half-a-century-old bishops, and priests, also learned in their moral theology the ethical system developed by the Jesuits known as "probabilism."  Simply stated, probabilism means that in a disputed moral issue, a Catholic may in good conscience follow a position even though it is espoused only by a minority of reputable moral theologians.

For example, before 1960, no Catholic moral theologian openly espoused the position that artificial birth control could, under some conditions, be in good conscience used by Catholics.  Hence, no Catholic could legitimately do so at that time.  Then, in the late 1950s, Belgian Father Louis Janssens published an article that argued there were some circumstances under which it would be morally proper for Catholics to use some forms of artificial birth control.

Shortly thereafter came Vatican II (1962-65) with its historicizing and liberating influences, and the questions of birth control and responsible parenthood were widely discussed.  More and more Catholic theologians began to espouse the legitimacy of artificial birth control.  Hence, it was then possible for Catholics to use birth control with a good conscience, since at least a minority of reputable Catholic theologians espoused that position.  By 1968, the vast majority supported it.

It was then that Pope Paul VI sided with the five percent of his international commission that argued against the majority position and wrote his encyclical Humanae vitae against artificial birth control.  Now, as the probabilism (which Paul VI and all other priests of that time had learned) posited, since Paul VI and a small number of other theologians espoused the negative position, Catholics could in good conscience follow the pope's position on birth control, even though there may have been even greater reason for them to follow the massive majority who favored artificial birth control. 

Lest anyone think that only radicals publicly dissent from an officially stated teaching of a pope, it should be recalled that in response to Humanae vitae the bishops' conferences of at least Belgium, Germany, Canada and the United States issued public statements saying that, in the end, individual Catholic couples may follow their own consciences on the matter of artificial birth control, even if that led them to oppose Pope Paul VI's position (according to current polls, nearly 90% of American Catholics approve of artificial birth control).

The U.S. bishops even explicitly stated that "the expression of theological dissent is in order" if three conditions are met:  "if the reasons are serious and well-founded, if the manner of dissent does not question or impugn the teaching authority of the church and is such as not to give scandal."

In responding to the objection that public dissent supposedly might give scandal to the faithful, the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church (ARCC) stated that "if giving scandal means harming the faithful by leading them astray, then scandal is given indeed not when dissent is expressed publicly, but when harmful teachings are not corrected as a result of the public dialogue arising out of dissent" (ARCC statement on "Dissent and Dialogue in the Church," 1986).

Despite the great pile-up of documentation and precedent over the last two centuries in favor of a responsible dissent in the church, in August 1986, Archbishop James Hickey of Washington, DC, publicly tried to roll back the centuries with the claimed support of the Vatican.  Referring to the 1968 U.S. bishops' norms for theological dissent mentioned above, he commented, "I think we've seen these norms, as applied to public dissent, are simply unworkable."

 Even more remarkable was his claim that the Holy See had said "there is no right to public dissent" (this all revolved around the Vatican's dismissal of Charles Curran from the Catholic University of America).  It is apparent that the Vatican would like to make that a Catholic reality again, as if Vatican II and its freedom fallout had never occurred.  But explicitly to state such a claim, as the archbishop did, has the breathtaking quality of saying aloud that the emperor has no clothes.

In 1864, Pope Pius IX, in his Syllabus of Errors, condemned "that erroneous opinion most pernicious to the Catholic church...called by our predecessor Gregory XVI 'madness,' namely, that liberty of conscience and of worship is the right of every human being."  A century later, Vatican II's Declaration on Religious Liberty stated: "Religious freedom in society is in complete harmony with the act of Christian faith" (No. 9).

How does the archbishop of Washington, or anyone else, think the Catholic church moved from the condemnation to the commendation of religious freedom?  Obviously, many Catholics dissented publicly and substantially over a long period - and sometimes at great personal cost (as late as the middle 1950s, American Father John Courtney Murray was silenced by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger's predecessor (Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani) for publicly advocating freedom of conscience).

The 1917 code of canon law forbade "Catholics from participating in disputations or discussions with non-Catholics without the permission of the Holy See" (canon 1325,3).  And in 1919, 1927, 1948, 1949 and 1954, the Vatican explicitly repeated its rejection of Catholic involvement in ecumenism.

But in 1965, Vatican II "exorted all the Catholic faithful to...take an active and intelligent part in the work of ecumenism ....The concern for restoring unity involves the whole church, faithful and clergy alike.  It extends to everyone" (Decree on Ecumenism, Nos. 4,5).  How does Hickey, or anyone, think the move was made from the excoriation to the exhortation of Catholic ecumenism?  Again, only much public deliberation, dissent and dialogue led to this radical reversal.

Catholic Christianity is a living faith, not a dead imitation of a past that no longer exists.  Catholic theology is a contemporary reflection in today's thought categories while facing current questions and problems about what it means to think and live as a Catholic Christian in this concrete world.  Simply to parrot the past is to pervert it.

To be a Christian means to make what Jesus thought, taught and wrought understandable and applicable in today's language and life.  Christian life and theology must be something dynamic, not dead, and therefore at its heart there must be deliberation, dissent, dialogue, decision - which leads to further deliberation, dissent and so on.

One of the main functions of the magisterium (the reality too often seems to be a MAJESterium), and especially the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, therefore, ought not be to put a stop to deliberation, dissent and dialogue, but instead precisely to encourage, promote and direct them in the most creative possible channels. As a 1979 petition in support of Schillebeeckx signed by hundreds of theologians urged, "the function of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith should be to promote dialogue among theologians of varying methodo- logies and approaches so that the most enlightening, helpful and authentic expressions of theology can ultimately find acceptance.

 Hence, we call upon the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to eliminate from its procedures "hearings," and the like, substituting for them dialogues that would be either issue-oriented, or, if it is deemed important to focus on the work of a particular theologian, would bring together not only the theologian in question and the consultors of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but also a worldwide selection of the best pertinent theological scholars of varying methodologies and approaches.  These dialogues could well be conducted with the collaboration of the International Theological Commission, the Pontifical Biblical Commission, universities, theological faculties and theological organizations.  Thus, the best experts on the issues concerned would work until acceptable resolutions were arrived at.  Such a procedure, of course, is by no means new; it is precisely the procedure utilized at the Second Vatican council (reprinted in Swidler, Kung in Conflict, Doubleday, 1981, pages 516f.).

Indeed, even the pope and the curia wrote of the absolute necessity of dialogue and sketched how it should be conducted.  Pope Paul VI, in his first encyclical, Ecclesiam suam (1964), wrote that dialogue "is demanded nowadays....It is demanded by the dynamic course of action which is changing the face of modern society.  It is demanded by the...maturity humanity has reached in this day and age."  Then, in 1968, the Vatican declared that, 

The willingness to engage in dialogue is the measure and strength of that general renewal which must be carried out in the church, which implies a still greater appreciation of liberty....Doctrinal dialogue should be initiated with courage and sincerity,with the greatest freedom... recognizing the truth everywhere, even if the truth demolishes one so that one is forced to reconsider one's own position....Therefore, the liberty of the participants must be insured by law and reverenced in practice" (Humanae personae dignitatem, Aug. 28, 1968; emphasis added).

What must we Catholics then do today when the return of a centralizing authoritarianism is so much the order of the day?

First, we must not leave the church, but love it, and that means live it, live from it, live in it and live with it, that it might help us lead more fully human lives - which is what Jesus is all about (our "salvation") - loving ourselves, our neighbors, the world around us and thereby the source.

But that loving, that living the church means growing in "salvation," salus, maturity, and for that we need deliberation; and then, where appropriate, dissent (even if painful to us); a reaching out to dialogue (even when rebuffed), so that ultimately a new, ever more mature decision can be made.  That is our (American) Catholic vocation.

Leonard Swidler, Professor of Catholic Thought at Temple University, ed. with Hans Kung, THE CHURCH IN ANGUISH: HAS THE VATICAN BETRAYED VATICAN II? (Harper & Row, 1987), is a member of the National Board of Directors of Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church (ARCC). 

Reprinted by ARCC with permission, NATIONAL CATHOLIC REPORTER, September, 1989.

Other voices

Another Voice

Questions From a Ewe

Challenges Facing Catholicism
(Bishop Geoffrey Robinson in converation with Dr Ingrid Shafer)

Link to Spanish Translation.
Posted 10 March 2001
Last updated 10 March 2001
Electronic version copyright © 2001 Ingrid H. Shafer
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