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Why does dissent provoke such opposition and friction in the Church?

Why does dissent provoke such opposition and friction in the Church?

The difficulties would be minimal, were we living in a world (or a church) which is ruled by conceptual propositions and nothing else. But the real world is quite different. It is also a world of strong emotional dynamics and irrational options. All dissents, no matter how propositional, operate in such a world.

Moreover, those who are entrusted with the pastoral care of the community must take into account not only the intellectual propositions and exchanges, but also the waves they cause in the turbulent universe of human beings.

Thus, two more situations ought to be mentioned. One is when the propositional dissent of a theologian (without his ever intending it) in fact becomes a feeder to a deeper


than it gets). Now, horizons can never be bridged by dialogues alone; since the meaning of a word depends not only on its content but on its place within a given horizon. (The same word can carry different meanings in different horizons.) If the parties in dialogue are not aware of this fact, at most, there will be endless talks coupled with polite tolerance but no meeting of minds and hearts. The passage from one horizon into another cannot be achieved by a new conceptual understanding; it is the surrender of the whole person to a new environment. Thomas Aquinas entered into the horizon of Aristotelian philosophy, and found new meanings in traditional Christian concepts. Etienne Tempier, the bishop of Paris, and the two successive Archbishops of Canterbury, Robert Kilwardby and John Peckham could never follow him—so they condemned or attacked him. I doubt any “dialogue” between the theologian and his hierarchical adversaries would have helped; only an intellectual conversion of the bishops could have brought mutual understanding and reconciliation.


attitudinal dissent in others. I am not thinking here of causing a childish scandal, or of provoking a hypocritical protest on the part of those who cultivate their ignorance. I am speaking of concrete situations where the peace or unity of the church for some reason is seriously threatened, and, as a matter of fact, a reasonable act of dissent when perceived by others feeds into the dynamics of disruption and fragmentation. This is by no means a figment of imagination; for instance, in a country where there is an ongoing effort by the government to tear the church apart, a most legitimate act of disagreement may promote the disintegration of the community. Clearly, in such cases more is at stake than a propositional dissent; prudence requires a judgment that takes into account the existential situation of the community.

Another such a situation is when the propositional dissent itself springs from an internal breach of communion, or moves towards it; if that happens the issue is a much deeper one and eventually may cause serious disruptions in the community. If there is a remedy it is in a reconciliation on an equally deep level.


examples speak for themselves.

Practical examples

After these theoretical reflections, let some practical examples speak for themselves.

(1) Let us assume for the sake of argument that the proposition “A sacramental and consummated marriage is indissoluble” is not infallibly defined (some theologians hold that it is, some hold that it is not). The ordinary official documents of the church certainly speak of it as indissoluble.

There comes a theologian who declares his dissent from the official teaching. The reaction of those in authority is a declaration that the person must not be taken for a Catholic theologian. How to judge this case?

The theologian should clarify his position further. If he means that the church has some radical power, in virtue of the power of the keys, to dissolve sacramental marriages, even consummated, but does not wish to use it in order to protect the common good, he would be saying only what has been said intermittently in the course of history (even at the Council of Trent) and is part of the teaching of the Orthodox church. If he means that any couple at any time can dissolve their marriage on their own authority and be free to wed again, then our theologian is contradicting a virtually uninterrupted tradition in the East and in the West; consequently, his opinion is at variance with the Catholic doctrine.

If the conflict between the theologian and the proper authority develops without the necessary subtle clarifications, the conflict is misplaced; it has erupted before the issues were properly defined. From such a conflict no light is likely to emerge.

(2) Let us suppose, again for the sake of argument, that in a given country abortions abound and they are on the rise. A theologian gets hold of the writings of Aquinas and finds the doctrine that the “animation” of the fetus occurs several weeks after its conception. From there he concludes and proclaims that the termination of pregnancy is permissible, provided it takes place before the animation. (The church never defined the time of animation.)

Yes, but there are other not so rational factors playing their part. Few of the citizens would be able to appreciate the philosophical finesse of the theory of Aquinas, or perceive how ill-suited his ideas are to explain the discoveries of modern biology. In the concrete order the argument of the theologian would simply add to the dynamics of the movement for abortions.

Have the ecclesiastical authorities the right to intervene, in spite of the fact that no infallible doctrine is denied? It seems that the authorities have the duty to intervene because the seemingly innocent theory feeds powerfully into the forces of destruction. The object of the pastoral care of the church is the concrete existential order of the world.

These examples should confirm what has been said before: whenever a concrete case of “dissent” presents itself, there is no one standard solution that can be applied with precision. We certainly have enough general principles to work with, but there are also particular circumstances, which make every case unique. It follows that the practical resolution of an individual case can come only through a unique prudential judgment. The way to such a judgment is through an effort to discover the correct hierarchy of values in the concrete circumstances of the case, and then do what is necessary to support the more important ones.

It is good to recall, however, that because our knowledge in assessing the objective facts and in judging the words and deeds of a person is always limited, most prudential judgments are not perfect; they are subject to correction, should new information reach us or should we come to better insights. Thus, in ordinary circumstances the zeal for the purity of the house of God should be tempered with the awareness of human fallibility.

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

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