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On Dialogue, Disagreements and Dissent in Church

I frequently come across Catholic writers and commenters (the rule-book Catholics) complaining in horror on-line at the existence of Catholic “dissenters” who insist on calling themselves Catholic, even while flouting the teaching of the church.

As I am one of those who publicly disagree with the teaching on some issues (by no means all) but refuse to deny my Catholic identity, I am directly affected. In my own mind, the position is simple. I am in agreement here with Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, who made clear a few months ago that Catholicism is not in fact about blind obedience to authority, but rather it is a commitment to a search for truth (and with it, in consequence, to service, and justice and the rest). I have stated before that I accept the teaching authority of the Church, but “teaching” does not mean legislating, and any good teacher will fully expect and encourage students to argue a case where they disagree.

A useful article at America magazine by Nicholas Lash makes much the same point, but does so much more effectively than I could hope to do.

When the Second Vatican Council ended, several of the bishops who took part told me that the most important lesson they had learned through the conciliar process had been a renewed recognition that the church exists to be, for all its members, a lifelong school of holiness and wisdom, a lifelong school of friendship (a better rendering of caritas than “charity” would be). It follows that the most fundamental truth about the structure of Christian teaching cannot lie in distinctions between teachers and pupils—although such distinctions are not unimportant—but in the recognition that all Christians are called to lifelong learning in the Spirit, and all of us are called to embody, communicate and protect what we have learned. Much of what is said about the office of “teachership” or magisterium seems dangerously forgetful of this fact.

Note please, that emphasis on a lifelong school for all its members, in a lifelong school of friendship. I like this image of a “lifelong school”. I have a firm personal commitment to the principle of lifelong learning, and the image reminds me that as we go through life, the models for learning change.  As we enter kindergarten and junior primary school, we treat the teacher’s words as absolute truth, soaking up and learning by rote every word. As we progress through high school, we are increasingly encouraged to think for ourselves, and to back up any disagreements with reasoned argument, or contradictory evidence. By the time we reach university, and especially graduate level, we are more likely to spend our time in independent study and seminar groups. We have moved from a model in which knowledge is transmitted from a teacher to passive recipient, to a collaborative learning community. In any such learning community, there will of course be some who by virtue of their training or existing knowledge will be better equipped to guide the process. Sometimes though the roles might be reversed. Designated “teachers” often learn from their pupils, and in some topics, real-life experience will be a source of knowledge to be shared. In matters of sexuality especially (but also other areas, such as business and the world of work) it will often be the case that the professional theologians in the Vatican can learn from the experience of the rest of us.

The Vatican, sadly, seems locked into a primary school model of teaching. There is little attempt to engage with ordinary Catholics in any model of learning other than the teacher / pupil one, and no evidence in orthodox body theology that there has been any listening to anybody else: not our experience, and also not to the professional experts who recommended approval for some artificial contraception.

There is also a dangerous confusion about the meaning of “teaching” itself, where the word is frequently abused as a synonym for “command”.

Aspects of Instruction

The concept of instruction is ambiguous. If I am “instructing” someone, I may be teaching or I may be issuing a command. Someone who is “under instruction” is being educated, but “I instructed him to stop” reports a command. “Instructions for use,” however, provide information and hence would seem to be educational. There may be cases in which it is not easy to decide the sense. It is, however, important not to confuse the two senses and even more important not to subordinate instruction as education to instruction as command.

I have long maintained that the heart of the crisis of contemporary Catholicism lies in just such subordination of education to governance, the effect of which has too often been to substitute for teaching proclamation construed as command.

Here is a very simple model: The teacher looks for understanding, the commander for obedience. Where teaching in most ordinary senses of the term is concerned, if a pupil’s response to a piece of teaching is yes, the student is saying something like “I see” or “I understand.” If the response is no, the pupil is saying “I don’t see” or “I don’t understand.” When subordinates say yes to a command, they obey; when they say no, they disobey. Dissent is disobedience. The entire discussion about the circumstances in which it may be permissible or appropriate to dissent from magisterial utterances makes clear that what is at issue is when and in what circumstances it may be virtuous, and not sinful, to disobey. There could, in my opinion, be no clearer evidence that what we call “official teaching” in the church is, for the most part, not teaching but governance.

Later, we get to a phrase I have come to use rather often – the “rule-book”. Lash sees the emphasis on the rule-book as misplaced (as do I), and shows how this much greater emphasis on the rule-book is part of the legacy of Pope John Paul II:

Commenting on Pope John Paul II’s encyclical “The Splendor of Truth” (1993), Herbert McCabe, O.P., contrasted manuals and rule books. A manual helps one to acquire some skill: as a football player or a piano-tuner or, if we extend the range of skills to those habits we call the virtues, as a just or generous person. A manual is an instrument of education. In addition to manuals there are rule books, which tell you what, in some particular context, you are and are not allowed to do. Father McCabe writes: “The rule book does not tell you anything about acquiring skills in football; it simply tells you the rules and the kinds of action that would break them.” The rule book is an instrument of governance. What worried Father McCabe about “The Splendor of Truth” was that it is, he said, “in great part, an attack on those who want to read the rule book as a manual by those who want to read the manual as though it were a rule book.”

Nowhere in “The Splendor of Truth” does John Paul II discuss disagreement in the church or the duty of episcopal authority to monitor and guide it. Indeed, near the end of the encyclical, in a passage denouncing “dissent” and “opposition to the teaching of the Church’s pastors,” the pope comes close to claiming that there is simply no place for disagreement on moral questions in the church: “While exchanges and conflicts of opinion may constitute normal expressions of public life in a representative democracy, moral teaching certainly cannot depend simply upon respect for such a process.”

Lash concludes by imparting information that was totally new to me. That forbidding word, “Magisterium”, which is so often used to denote an impressive body of fixed teaching/ instruction that we dare not deviate from, originally had a different meaning – and spelling. Without a capital letter, it referred to a process of teaching, rather than a set of rules.

“It is for ecclesiology,” said Robert Murray, S.J., an English Jesuit, “that [the term]magisterium till about the mid-nineteenth century referred to the activity of authorized teaching in the Church. The use with a capital ‘M’ to denote episcopal and especially papal authority was developed mainly in the anti-Modernist documents.”

The 19th-century shift from the name of a function, that of teaching, to the name of a group of officers or “functionaries” was for two reasons most unfortunate. First, it was unfortunate because it created the impression that in the church only bishops bear responsibility for witnessing to the Gospel. (We should never forget that most bishops were first catechized by their mothers.) Second, it was unfortunate because bishops seldom do much teaching in the ordinary sense, being preoccupied with the cares of middle management. As a result, the contraction of the range of reference of magisterium to the episcopate alone served only to deepen the subordination of education to governance that I have deplored.

The importance of an appropriate model for the teaching office of the Church lies in the idea of its proper reception. Where adults have participated in the development of an idea, they will buy into it. Otherwise, acceptance is uncertain. It is entirely orthodox Catholic teaching that where an idea has not received proper acceptance by the whole Church, its standing and status as genuine doctrine is insecure. We have seen this profoundly demonstrated in the matter of artificial contraception. The process of formulating a doctrine quite properly involved a process of gathering evidence and listening to the professional opinion of a range of experts representing the church as a whole. Their considered judgement was ignored, and a ruling unilaterally imposed. To nobody’s great surprise, that ruling is widely ignored. The whole concept of Vatican teaching authority has been damaged as a result.

Fr Timothy Radcliffe puts it beautifully:

“Human community,” says Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., “is sustained by conversation.” That he regards this axiom as an ecclesiological and not merely an anthropological principle is clear from his later remark that “sharing our faith is always more than stating our convictions: it is finding our place in that conversation which has continued ever since Jesus began to talk with anyone whom he met in Galilee, and which is the life of the Church.” Disagreement is an unavoidable feature of serious conversation about the things that matter most. David Woodard, a brilliantly effective but somewhat eccentric parish priest with whom I had the privilege of working in the early 1960s, came back one day after visiting a neighboring parish and exclaimed: “Those people are completely lacking in Christian charity; they can’t even disagree with one another!”

Disagreement is not disloyalty. Only by stating our disagreements, and conducting reasoned conversations over them, can we hope to progress. It is in this spirit that I openly state my disagreements with orthodox Catholic positions. In the same spirit, I welcome any corresponding disagreement with me.

(The extracts quoted above barely do justice to the full article, which has much more, including commentary on the distinction between disagreement and dissent. Read it in full at America)



2 Responses

  1. It was odd the first time someone referred to me as a dissenter. Perhaps the funniest comment was when an “ex-gay” man referred to me as a “nebulous alien.” I think for me it is hard because growing up I never really was exposed to anti-gay rhetoric from the Church. It has only been in the last few years that I read Church documents that use words like “disordered” to refer to gay people. I have read some documents from the CCD and been horrified by the tone of some. It appears that some in the Church see gay people as inferior and/or depraved. But this is not the Church that I grew up in and these views are foreign to me.

  2. They’re not only foreign to you, Mark – they’re foreign to the Gospels.

    I’m preparing a long essay addressing this, on the theme of “Put Christ back into Christianity”, which I hope to publish during the final week of Advent.

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