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The Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church


    • "All Catholics have the right to express publicly their dissent in regard to decisions made by Church authorities. . . . Catholic teachers of theology have a right to responsible academic freedom. The acceptability of their teaching is to be judged in dialogue with their peers, keeping in mind the legitimacy of responsible dissent and pluralism of belief." (Charter of the Rights of Catholics in the Church, nos. 8, 20.)

    "The right to responsible dissent" refers to public dissent from non- infallible teachings of the official Church. Infallible statements are those which are explicitly declared to be so. The Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church (ARCC) bases both rights cited on a Vatican II collegial understanding of the Church. This understanding sees the whole Church, the entire people of God, as a learning and teaching Church. This is in contrast to a relatively recent pre-Vatican II (but not truly traditional) ecclesiology, which saw the pope and bishops as the sole teachers and the rest of the faithful as uncritical learners. In this model of the Church any kind of dissent was in effect ruled out, whether a teaching was proposed as infallible or not.

    The post-Vatican II Code of Canon Law adverts to the collegial model of the Church both for the faithful in general and for teachers of theology in particular: "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, and they have a right to make their opinion known to the other Christian faithful" (Canon 212,3): "Those who are engaged in the sacred disciplines enjoy a lawful freedom of enquiry and of prudently expressing their opinions on matters in which they have expertise, while observing a due respect for the magisterium of the Church" (Canon 218).

    ARCC is convinced that there are times when public dissent from non- infallible teaching is a duty for a Catholic, and especially for a theologian. Such public dissent will be motivated by a desire to deepen the Church's understanding of its teachings and, indeed, will have proceeded from the notion that the teaching in place enjoys the presumption of truth. Dissent from that teaching will flow from careful and prayerful study and dialogue. Such dissent will be a positive contribution to the Church's self-understanding.

    In fact, Church history provides many examples of the official Church's ultimately incorporating into its body of teaching what were originally dissenting opinions: thus, St. Paul's dissenting views were adopted over St. Peter's; St. Thomas Aquinas's books, burned by bishops, became a bulwark of Catholic teaching; Vatican II paid heed to those theologians who had dissented from the traditional teaching on religious liberty and radically reversed that teaching.

    An objection to public dissent is that it supposedly gives scandal to the faithful. ARCC contends, however, 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. Thus, in 1968, in speaking of the possibility of "licit theological dissent," the U.S. bishops stated: "The expression of theological dissent is in order only 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." The previous year in a pastoral letter the Bishops of Germany had written: "To safeguard the real substance of the faith, the Church must give doctrinal instructions which have a certain degree of obligation, but, not being definitions of faith, have a certain provisional character, even to the extent of possible error."

    ARCC by no means wishes to "impugn the teaching authority of the Church." ARCC recognizes the need for authoritative Church proclamations on matters of faith and morals. However, ARCC does reject that interpretation of Canon 752 that claims that the same type of religious assent must be given to both infallible and non-infallible statements. If this were so, then why make a distinction at all between the two types of statements? Everything, then, in effect would be infallible. Is this traditional Church teaching? If not, then non- infallible teachings are by definition, fallible, and, thus, possibly reformable. How else could they be reformed, then, unless public dissent and dialogue are allowed?

    Even the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in its 1973 decree Mysterium ecclesiae states that the "conceptions" by which Church teaching is expressed are changeable: "Even though 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; nevertheless it can sometimes happen that these truths may be enunciated by the sacred magisterium in terms that bear traces of those conceptions." ARCC asks: How can these "conceptions" be changed unless someone points out that they might be improved and may even be defective?

    Pope John Paul II himself encouraged both the faithful in public dissent and theologians in their invaluable service done in freedom: In 1969, then Archbishop of Cracow, 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."

    ARCC claims that among the "signs of the times" the Church must pay attention to are that spirit of open enquiry and dialogue, of academic freedom, of intellectual integrity and freedom of conscience that are so highly valued in the contemporary world. Indeed, ARCC would argue that Vatican II's Declaration on Religious Liberty enshrines those values, values which undergird the right to public dissent in the Church. Thus: "Nobody is forced to act against his convictions in religious matters in private or in public....Truth can impose itself on the mind of man only in virtue of its own truth...The search for truth (should be carried out) by free enquiry...and dialogue....Man is bound to follow his conscience faithfully in all his activity.... He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience, especially in religious matters."

    Catholic Christianity is a living faith, not a dead imitation of a past which no longer exists. Catholic theology is a contemporary reflection in today's thought categories on present questions and problems about what it means to think and live as a Catholic Christian in this concrete world. 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, decisionÄwhich leads to further deliberation, dissent....

    The function of the Congregation of 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 it in the most creative possible channels.

    Indeed, even the pope and the Vatican have stressed the absolute necessity of dialogueÄwhich presupposes dissentÄand sketched out 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 man 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 ensured by law and reverenced in practice" (Humanae personae dignitatem).

    To paraphrase Gamaliel (Acts 5:36-39): If the dissenter is in error, nothing will come of it: but if the dissenter is showing us a truth we have not seen, God is with the dissenter, and the truth will prevail. Not only that, but "the truth will set us free."
    4C 10/93


Other voices

Another Voice

Questions From a Ewe

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

Edited for posting on the ARCC Web Site 28 January 1996 by Ingrid Shafer.
Hypertext version (c) 1996 Ingrid H. Shafer

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