St. Pius X, in his encyclical Vehementer (1902), wrote: “By its very nature the church is a society of unequals; it is composed of two categories of persons: the pastors and the flocks. Only the hierarchy moves and directs...the duty of the flock is to let itself be governed and submissively carry out the orders of those who direct them.” Such a simplistic understanding of the church would seem to have been supplanted by the declarations of Vatican II, as well as by the social and cultural changes that have taken place in the century since Vehementer’s promulgation. When it comes to the church’s teachings about sexual morality, however, this clericalist view is still very much with us. Some still believe that everything the church has ever taught about sex is universal, timeless, rooted in the very nature of things. On this view, once these moral teachings are questioned, their dogmatic foundation is weakened and everything falls apart. Any bishop who wants to remain in good grace with the Vatican is obliged to uphold these teachings in his pastoral directives. For others, the church’s moral teachings are unreasonable, anachronistic, even hypocritical. On their view, Catholic sexual morality should adapt to important changes in contemporary culture. There is a swelling discontent among the laity with an ecclesiastical authority already compromised by the sexual-abuse scandal. Such radical differences of perspective have lately turned the church into a battlefield where the opposing troops hurl anathemas at one another from their trenches.

It hasn’t always been the moral rigor of the church’s teachings that provoked dissent. In other periods of the church’s history, dissent arose in reaction to a perceived laxity on the part of church authorities. Bishops were accused of watering down Christian moral obligations and tolerating pagan adulterations of the gospel. In fact, most of the great heresies originated as criticisms of the church’s excessive tolerance—from the Donatists, who opposed the reception of lapsed Christians back into the church, to the Cathars, who aspired to an unrealistic purity, to Reformers who began by opposing indulgences and ended up rejecting the sacramental channels of grace. Such rigoristic dissent sometimes spurred reform and purification within the church, but too often it occasioned schisms and aberrations of zeal that could have been avoided had there been a minimum of humility on both sides. In the past, as in the present, dissent led to a hardening of positions with unintended consequences.  

To understand dissent, you first have to understand authority. Authority in the church must be based on truth. Episcopal authority is not the source of truth, as some would have us believe. “What is truth?” The question posed by Pilate was left unanswered by Truth Himself who stood before him, humiliated, in the praetorium. We too humiliate Truth when we abase it to our level and pretend to have power over it. Truth is a divine name and to pretend to possess it, individually or collectively, is to manufacture an idol. We can no more claim to possess truth than we can claim to possess justice. And this holds for the church’s pastors, as well as for their flock. For Christians, truth is Someone who possesses us, Someone who reveals as much of Himself to us as we can bear. It is this self-revealing Truth who founds authority in the church. The role of the magisterium is to maintain the purity of revelation by warning against aberrations without denying or minimizing the elements of truth behind them. The magisterium might be infallible in what it affirms, yet what it affirms is often just one aspect of a complex reality whose components are still not fully understood. In pulling out the weeds, there is the danger of uprooting the good grain, and this has often happened in the past. Examples abound. In the wake of the Enlightenment, as Rome felt threatened by anticlericalism and feared the disappearance of social structures that were supposed to reflect God’s will, popes condemned democracy and liberty of conscience. The church, individually and collectively, is forever docens et discens, teaching and learning. To deny the possibility of further elucidation of doctrine is blasphemous. It is tantamount to pronouncing the church dead, no longer vivified by the Spirit nor tending toward an ultimate manifestation still to come, when all that has been hidden will be revealed. The reception and assimilation of God’s word by the pilgrim church will forever be partial and variable. It will depend partly on psychological, social, and historical circumstances. Every cultural cycle, every scientific advance, can serve to deepen our understanding of revelation, to illuminate one or another of its aspects. There is, however, an objective deposit of faith, constantly elucidated through the ages, to which the blood of martyrs has borne witness. Any development in the church is made possible only by what has preceded it, yet the intoxication of a novelty often leads to a rejection of what went before.

Dissent can be a sign of vitality; it can draw out the latent riches of revelation. The scribe versed in the affairs of the Kingdom will continually bring forth old things and new. Rather than automatically suppressing it, therefore, the magisterium should treat it with cautious respect, remembering that the Spirit is still at work, and the church still a work in progress. Rigidity and narrowness of vision can lead to the sin against the Spirit—and this sin can be a collective one.

Today, the most acute problems of dissent usually have to do with the church’s moral teachings. Traditional Catholic moral theology generally abstracts from concrete historical and social contexts and considers not particular men and women, but “human nature” faced with hypothetically clear-cut options. Human nature, however, does not exist apart from real human beings, who must act in situations full of ambiguity. Very often we find ourselves in “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situations, where even the best option may not seem to be a good one. Pastoral common sense usually (but not always!) takes this complexity into consideration, but the official teachings of the church continue to define good and evil in terms of black and white, with little nuance or compassion, thus alienating many from the sacramental sources of grace.

Of course, the church must maintain the sublimity of the Christian vocation, which surpasses our ordinary human capabilities. Were the church to reduce the exigencies of sanctity to what is supposed to be realistic, it would betray its mission. “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” St. Thomas tells us that we fulfill this precept by tending toward perfection. Weighed down by individual and collective sin, faced with the complexities and ambiguities of ordinary experience, we can only tend toward perfection in a very imperfect way. Moreover, the emphasis on this or that aspect of the moral teachings of the church tends to shift from one time and place to another, and an exaggerated stress on one set of moral values often leads to the neglect of others equally important. Here, too, there is room for legitimate dissent. The conflicts that take place in the human heart are seldom as simple as the church’s official teachings would have us believe. The problem isn’t so much what the church proclaims as how it proclaims the truths of the faith and applies them to concrete situations. We are asked to think with the church (sentire cum ecclesia), but it is equally important for us to love as the church has been called to love. For the church is mater as well as magistra, and a mother listens compassionately to her children. Thinking or loving, the church’s model is Christ, who imposed himself on no one and took upon himself the sins of all.

What is especially disconcerting is that those who speak in the name of the church have often excused the church’s past sins and errors by invoking considerations—historical conditions, the lack of a good alternative—denied to individual Christians living now. Is there not a double standard here? The “dispensers of light” are as much in need of mercy as their flocks are.

The safekeeping of the deposit of faith and the upholding of the Christian moral code are confided to the church’s hierarchy. The bishops are not, however, the exclusive owners of the spirit of discernment. Historically, this gift has often been manifest in the little ones of God, in the “sensus fidelium.” It is precisely this charisma that stimulates the church’s growth in wisdom and in grace. There is a necessary tension between the function of the hierarchy and the prophetic instinct of the people of God. That tension could and should be fruitful, but in reality it is often bitter and sterile. It might well be that the prophetic élan in the church is especially at work in the poor and the unrecognized, in the little ones to whom is revealed what is hidden from the wise and mighty. One of the great contributions of liberation theology has been to remind the church of the privileged place of the poor in the Kingdom of God.

It might be well to remember that, during a period of great confusion following the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century, imperial decrees, confirmed by local councils of bishops, imposed Arian beliefs. According to St. Jerome “nearly all the churches in the whole world, under the presence of peace and the emperor, are polluted with the communion of the Arians.” Even Pope Liberius, bowing to pressure from the emperor, communicated with the Arians and excommunicated the defenders of Nicaea. The faith professed at Nicaea was conserved by the laity and parish priests, while the great majority of the hierarchs maneuvered, quibbled, and compromised.

It is not enough for the church’s hierarchy to praise the fidelity of lay Catholics; it must also be willing to learn from them. And that requires bishops to acknowledge humbly that they don’t yet know everything about the will of God—that it is still revealing itself to us, and sometimes surprising us. The bishops, like their flocks, are still pilgrims on the way. Like the rest of us, they should be looking for signs ahead.

Jerry Ryan, a frequent contributor to Commonweal, died on January 23. Requiescat in pace.

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