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How to determine the limits of legitimate dissent

How to determine the limits of legitimate dissent?

As soon as this query is raised, all the latent ambiguities of the term surface—with a vengance. What kind of dissent are we talking about? Dissent from what? For what purpose? And so forth. Please, Reader, bear with the complexities, it comes from the subject matter, not from the writer. There has been already too much simplification concerning this issue; the penalty for continuing with it would be severe: confusion would reign supreme. (12)

12. Yves Congar in his Vrai et fausse réforme dans l’ Eglisc gives a set of rules for what a contestation must never do, in order to avoid being destructive of the church. Mutatis mutandis, the roles can point to the limits of dissent. He writes:

In the church la contestation can never be

  1. destructive of charity, . . . activity that wounds the heart; . . .
  2. a calling in question of those hierarchical pastoral structures of the church for which the foundations were laid by the Lord; . . .
  3. the denial or the calling in question, in a hasty, thoughtless and irresponsible fashion, of those points of doctrine for which one should rather sacrifice one’s life; . . .
  4. a rejection of those who think otherwise as bad persons, irretrievably lost; regarding them as damned without hope; . . .
  5. one cannot admit expressions of contestation in a liturgical celebration, for instance, in the homily. This would create an unbearable climate of tension and agitation in the assembly. Whatever we may think, the others have a right to peace and to respect for their position.(See p. 518)

At any rate, here and now we are seeking the permissible limits of a propositional dissent. That is, we assume that the dissenter has surrendered to God who reveals himself, and that he has accepted the Catholic belief concerning the role of the church in guarding and proclaiming the evangelical message. We are talking about a dissenter who is in full communion with the Catholic ecclesia.

That is, we assume that he consents to the core of the Catholic belief as it has been handed down by the church from generation to generation, confirmed and affirmed by the great councils, or by the pope speaking with that infallibility with which Christ wanted his church to be endowed (cf. Vatican Council). (13)

13. Because of a widely spread contrary opinion, it remains necessary to stress (and repeat) that the primary subject of infallibility is the church, not the pope, not the episcopal college. Here is the text of Vatican Council I:

" The Roman Pontiff . . . enjoys the infallibility with which the divine Redeemer wanted his church to be endowed in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals." (DS 3074)

Now, here is the question: In such circumstances, could the legitimacy of the dissent be decided by invoking the distinction between infallible and non-infallible teaching, and saying that dissent from non-infallibly defined propositions is legitimate?

The answer cannot be a simple yes because of the complex composition of the corpus of non-infallible beliefs and opinions; that corpus, as we have seen earlier in this book, may contain much that belongs to the core of our tradition but which (as yet) has not become the object of an infallible “determination.”

A historical illustration can show the correctness of this statement. The Reformers of the sixteenth century dissented from traditional beliefs on many points which were in no way infallibly defined at that time (not even the seven sacraments were defined!). Yet, as it turned out, they were wrong; in some instances, their denial went against the core of our tradition. Part of the message of the Council of Trent is that someone may be breaking the unity of faith even if the doctrine denied has never been the object of a conciliar definition.

The situation is not all that different today. In the non-infallible corpus there are surely “seeds of truth” which in due course will enter into the core known with infallible knowledge. Therefore, to state simply that dissent from non-infallibly held doctrine is legitimate, is simplistic, and incorrect. Before any judgment is made, the relationship of the non-infallible doctrine to the infallible core ought to be examined, and then a judicious statement should be made whether or not an act of dissent is permissible or not.(14)

14. Doctrines are defined because they belong to the core of the Christian tradition (that is, they are not added to the core because they were defined). The definition itself is an external authentication of an internal unity. It follows that when a point of doctrine is questioned and dissent is intended, the prospective dissenter must always move beyond the issue of “it-has-not-been-defined-infallibly” and ask what is the relationship of the contested doctrine to the core of the tradition.

A good theologian should be able to perceive the standing of a particular point of doctrine in the process of developing; he responds accordingly. He knows that before the doctrine reaches full maturity and can be affirmed with an act of faith, there is a long process. The pronouncements by popes and bishops have their own place in this movement. They benefit from an assistance of the Spirit, not only to determine (when the times are ripe for it) with finality what the church must believe but also to promote the progress of such belief.

Their contribution, however, should leave plenty of room for the theologians. Ideally, the two (hierarchy and theologians) should work in harmony; when they do, the results are likely to be enlightenment, peace and harmony (as happened at Vatican II). If they do not, conflicts are inevitable (as is happening in our times).(15)

15. The success of Vatican Council II was due as much to the insights of the theologians as to the judgment s of the bishops. It was an ideally construed situation for progress. To begin with, the theologians were trusted; they were officially invited to contribute. They came not only from all places, but from all schools of thought. They did much of the work by themselves; then they put their insights before commissions composed of theologians and bishops who did much of the screening, selecting and deciding what should be put before the plenary assembly. Finally, the bishops voted at their general congregations. Throughout it all there was a balanced play. The daring insights (or the pedestrian thinking) of the theologians were subject to the “Christian common sense” approach of the bishops; that is, intellectual discourses were measured by pastoral effectiveness. The final documents are the results of such a play, which was both creative and moderating.

If only such conditions could be recreated in the church of today, much of our woes would disappear. The thinkers in the church need the sobering influence of the pastors, and the pastors need the refreshing influence of the thinkers. At bottom, our problem is that we are still reluctant to accept the fact that the church is a community where nothing will go well unless we act as a community. Theologians and bishops had many disagreements during Heenan, Archbishop of Westminster: Timeo peritos annexa ferentes, “I fear the experts bringing their addenda! ” ? ); yet, intent on serving the church, they were forged into a community by the events of the council. Such a close and intimate cooperation can never be achieved through occasional contacts.

In this process,the voice of a theologian who remains in communion but proposes an answer different from the one given by those in authority may not be an act of dissent at all; rather, it may be a needed contribution to the development of doctrine, coming from someone who is assenting to every part of the revealed truth but is in the process of searching for the whole truth.

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

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