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Can a theologian legitimately dissent from officially taught doctrine?

Can a theologian legitimately dissent from officially taught doctrine?

Dissent has become one of the dominant themes in Catholic theology in the United States. As a rule, it means the refusal to accept some point of doctrine officially taught, but not infallibly defined. The right to such a dissent is vigorously vindicated by many theologians; there are also episcopal statements supporting it. To find a balance, efforts have been made to formulate guidelines for permissible dissent, and to assure that a “fair trial” is available should a conflict arise.

As far as I can ascertain it, dissent is mentioned less in European writings. Not that there are not any writers who dissent from the content of official documents; there are. But when they do, they tend to describe their approach as having an opinion différente, or being of anderer Meinung, and so forth. It may well be that the Europeans sense a problem with the word itself, and for that reason prefer to use other expressions.

In truth, dissent is an imperfect term under several aspects. When used it starts out on a negative note, indicating nothing positive. It is sweeping, with no recognizable boundaries. It could mean a purely intellectual stance, no more than a disagreement with the logic of a reasoning, or with the conclusion of a reflective process. But it could mean also an attitude of radical opposition to “the other side,” ready to break the bond of unity, in which case the propositional disagreement is only an external sign of a deep-lying internal antagonism.(9)

9. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the following three definitions of a dissenter:

  1. One who dissents in any matter; one who disagrees with any opinion, resolution, or proposal; a dissentient.
  2. One who dissents and separates himself from any specified church or religious communion, especially from that which is historically the national church, or is in some way treated as such, or regarded as the orthodox body.
  3. One who separates himself from the communion of the Established Church of England or (in Scotland) of Scotland.

No wonder the use of such an ill-defined word can easily provoke suspicion and negative reactions in the “other side”. When this happens, the scene is set for a sharp conflict, and the best explanations may be lost in the swirling mist of emotions.(10)

10. The language problems are not made easier by the fact that in political life a “dissenter” is often the one who is radically opposed to the ruling “establishment” and wants to get rid of it. Thus we speak of “dissenters” in totalitarian countries.

Thus, “dissent” is too much of an ambivalent word, with too many existential connotations beyond a purely intellectual significance to be a useful term in theological debates, which by definition are supposed to move on a rational level.

Besides, it is a historically loaded word, certainly in English. The term “dissenter” came into use in England in the seventeenth century. Originally it described those who intended to secede from the established church; later it was applied to those who had done so and formed the so-called free churches. Granted, today “to dissent” need not mean “to secede”, but we should remember that words have a life of their own. They often continue to carry meanings which they have acquired in a distant past; no matter what the present speaker intends.

Attempts have been made also to define the “right” to dissent with some precision. The problem is, as those familiar with the internal workings of a legal system know, that such amorphous concepts are the least suitable for incorporation into a legal document, and if they are, they create situations unmanageable for the “rule of law.” Any judge, wanting to uphold this right, would have to raise interminable questions: right to dissent from what? for what purpose? by what means? to what extent? in what precise circumstances? . . . and so on . . .! Rights are enforceable only when they are clearly defined, and their violation can be easily ascertained. If not, they open the door to endless litigations.(11)

11. The First Amendment to the US Constitution wisely speaks of the “freedom of speech”, and by implication the right to free speech. Difficult as it is for the courts to adjudicate cases concerning that right, how much greater their burden would be if they had to adjudicate “freedom of dissent” and the right to free dissent!

It follows that if we abandoned the word “dissent” altogether, we would lose little and gain much. If we could get into the habit of speaking of a researcher as holding another opinion or having come to a different conclusion or proposing a diverse hypothesis, we would only tell the truth positively. After all, hardly ever does a theologian dissent from a proposal and then settle down in a noman’s-land without an opinion; he dissents precisely because he has reached a positive conclusion, but a different one. If so, he might as well say it. Moreover, attitudinally, he may not be dissenting at all; rather, he many be consenting wholeheartedly to the search for a better understanding of the Christian mysteries.

All these arguments notwithstanding, it appears that for the time being at least, not only must we live with an unsuitable word, but we have to assert the legitimate right of the faithful to scientific research and to a different opinion through the use of a confusing expression: “the right to dissent.” So be it.

From: The Church: Learning and Teaching, by Ladislas Örsy, Michael Glazier 1987, chapter 3. Read the whole chapter here.

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