Dissent Proper

Dissent seems to be a common feature of Catholicism in the western world. We are in the post enlightenment age, are we not? Being told what to believe by some old man in Rome is so medieval. Nevermind that this is a caricature of what it really means to be a Catholic, this is how we are often seen. Puppets on a string. To fight that perception, it seems that many Catholic theologians in the illustrious halls of academia are determined to show just how unpuppeted they really are. We think for ourselves, thank you very much!

Being fully aware of how Christian doctrine has developed through the centuries as the Church’s understanding grows with time, I am not against dissent per se. Discussion of things theological and seeking new ways to understand our doctrines is, after all, a vital part of the Church’s life. Why else do we have theologians? They can indeed be of great service to the Church. I do believe however, there is a right way and a wrong way to dissent from Church teaching – or as I prefer to term it, suggest new ways to understand a particular Church teaching. Dissent proper can be summed up in one word – humility.

With that said, the current issue of the National Catholic Register has an interview with the popular Catholic theologian Michael Novak about Pope Benedict’s address to Catholic educators in the United States. I would post the link, but it’s only available to subscribers (i.e. you’re not privileged enough to see the entire interview, so there). But here’s one question and answer from the interview specifically addressing the proper way to “dissent”:

Can dissenters serve a prophetic role in the Church, as they often say they are doing?

Sometimes, the dissenters claim to be saving the Church from the teachings of the Pope, or of tradition, by presenting a more up-to-date version. It is true that the Church always moves through history with strong arguments and adversarial positions. On certain points, it may require several generations to become clear about what is the true and most life-giving path. Sometimes those who are in a small minority win out in the end. Usually, though, they win out not only by the clarity and depth of their ideas, but also by their humility and holiness of life. One practical test I have found helpful: How deeply are disputants committed to the principle that to be Catholic is to be with Peter?

Those who offer new light to the Pope, new arguments and new ways of seeing things, may on occasion be correct, and popes will eventually winnow through and absorb what is good about their explorations. The inner test is: “Do I lay my ideas before Peter, awaiting his winnowing? Maybe I am wrong.”

When professors speak disparagingly of Peter — not perhaps of any particular pope (for all are limited, and subject to criticism) — but of the Petrine office itself, experience has shown me that I should not take them as my guides.


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