<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="65001"%> Is “Dissent” Catholic Or Even Christian? ARCC
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Selections from ARCC LIGHT
the ARCC Newsletter 
edited by James E. Biechler, Ph.D.

A Question of Rights
Is “Dissent” Catholic Or Even Christian?

By James E. Biechler

"I’m an older Catholic and in all my years I don’t remember so much as even hearing the word “dissent” in connection with the church.  The closest we came to it was in talking about the Reformation.  But now, in the past few years, it seems I can’t read a Catholic paper without seeing the word.  Just what’s going on, anyway."
--T.A.D., Fort Walton Beach, FL 

I  thought older Catholics in Florida spent their time worrying about their golf game!  But I do agree with you.  The word “dissent” is hard to avoid in hearing or reading about the church today.  You certainly can’t go to any kind of conference on church matters without meeting that word.
Most of the discussion on the idea of dissent deals with historical examples of pious “dissenters” or with ideas which in the past were regarded as wrong, heretical, or immoral, and then came to be understood in a different light.  We are told that many of the church’s saints and holy doctors actually taught truths which were at variance with the official doctrine and were vindicated only after struggle and suffering. 

Of course it’s good for today’s Catholics to know these historical facts.  They are very instructive and even necessary if we are to mature in the faith.  Nothing is as pathetic as an adult Catholic who has no sense of the development of Catholic teaching. 

Your question, I believe, has to do with something a bit different than the simple fact of dissent in the church.  It seems you have a problem with the rather sudden explosion of dissent.  You went through half your life without hearing the word and now you can’t get away from it.  Your question seems to be “Why now?”  And I agree.  That precise question mostly goes unasked and therefore unanswered.  Not enough of the current reference to dissent in the church deals with the origin of the current preoccupation.  Fortunately, you came to the right place for an answer! 

I’ll have to confess that I never cared much for the term “dissent” in speaking of ideas which differed from other ideas.  But for the present it seems we must live with the term and its negative associations. 

Dissent began in the modern Catholic church when officials of the Vatican curia objected to Pope John XXIII’s intention to call a general council.  These dissenters were not mere functionaries but cardinals and prelates who occupied the highest positions in the church.  By their opposition and high-level example they inaugurated an era of dissent which is still with us. 

With his characteristic charity John XXIII referred to these dissenters as “prophets of doom.”  They were that, of course, but because of their high offices in the Vatican curia their opposition carried enormous influence.  Pope Paul VI was strong enough to resist some of this negative influence but in his later years he yielded to much of it.  His encyclical Humanae vitae stands in witness to the victory of the curial dissenters. 

These opponents of John XXIII’s aggiornamento appointed their own curial successors.  Events since Vatican II have illustrated not only their continued dissent from conciliar teaching but show a string of victories reversing the council’s reforms.  Among these are the open rejection of the collegiality of bishops—witness the curial cooptation of the general synods and the recent emasculation of national conferences of bishops.  Another example is the reintroduction of the Latin mass which one archbishop suggested opened the door to the rejection of all the council had accomplished. 

So, the answer to your perplexity about dissent is quite simple.  Dissent is a thoroughly Catholic enterprise unless we’re prepared to suggest that the Vatican establishment is not Catholic!  We have had 40 years of clear and public dissent right in the halls of Vatican City.  Every week or so a new example shows us that the very thing John XXIII hoped to accomplish by the council, namely, an open church, is still being rejected by the “prophets of doom.” 

The major problem with this dissent at the highest levels in the church is that many Catholics confuse it with orthodoxy, with authentic Catholic teaching.  Because it comes from persons in positions of authority the ordinary Catholic believes it to be essentially related to the gospel of Christ.  This suggests scandal, in the gospel sense of the term.  Good and God-fearing people are being led astray, the unity among his followers for which Jesus prayed is being lost or postponed, and the church is clouded with suspicion, animosity and fear.  When every week or so another competent theologian or scholar is put under “investigation” the church which John XXIII longed for becomes more remote.  Sad to say, even the pope shamelessly dissents from the solemn teachings of the Second Vatican Council when his own ideology is at stake.


Dr. Biechler, an emeritus professor of religion, is a member of ARCC's board of directors. He also holds a licentiate in canon law and is a longtime member of the Canon Law Society of America. 

E-mail Comments to Dr. Biechler

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Ingrid H. Shafer, Ph.D.
e-mail address: ihs@ionet.net
Posted 18 July 1999
Last updated 18 July 1999
Copyright © 1999 Ingrid H. Shafer
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