How dissent operates in the Church

How dissent operates in the Church

Bishop George Pell

Differences among Catholics now make good copy for radio, newspapers and TV and bishops are reluctant to highlight these divisions as one of our tasks to work for unity. But bishops cannot remain silent when writers seek to build a consensus against official teachings, against the Pope, and teach regularly and publicly that Catholics can write their own tickets, can decide themselves the tenets of their Church.

An anonymous cleric/theologian writing in The Age (June 24, p.17) was - like so many others in recent weeks who have dissented via the media over Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Veritatis Splendor and the new Catechism - no single-issue protester. He wanted a comprehensive rewrite.

He rejected the authority of the Pope and his bishops, attacked the new Catechism, disputed the age-old Church positions on homosexuality, premarital sex, contraception, masturbation and abortion, argued for women priests and claimed that "women are invisible, their experience not named, honoured or listened to." What about the many saintly and powerful women in Church history, ranging from Mary, Mother of God, to Mary MacKillop?

The writer claimed legitimacy for his idiosyncratic views by an appeal to personal conscience and to the process of acceptance or rejection by the people. The Pope, he said, does not have the last word.

No organisation could survive such Alice-in-Wonderland individualism. It would dissolve and disappear within a generation. The Catholic Church cannot determine what people actually believe in practice, but through its leaders, it can and should declare which beliefs and practices are Catholic. We are not a group of free-thinking do-gooders. Every society and community imposes limits, while those who cannot maintain cabinet solidarity leave the cabinet.

The validity of Christ's teaching has never depended on popular approval. He was crucified for his opinions and Christians have been killing, lying and committing adultery for 2,000 years (and unfortunately will continue to do so). This is no argument against those teachings, merely evidence of our weakness and perversity.

The 12th-century Camaldolese canon lawyer from Bologna, Gratian, (quoted by The Age writer) was correct when he claimed that disciplinary norms need to be "received" by a community for them to be effective, but statements of belief and even theological opinions are outside the world of law and do not derive their force from popular approval.

"New church" followers often claim today that all Christian morality, especially sexual morality, could be changed because the Church has changed her views on slavery and on usury. This is a basic methodological error, placing the cart before the horse. A better understanding of the implications of the New Testament moral teaching in public life cannot be used to subvert the New Testament bases of personal morality. The fundamental Catholic appeal is to the truth of Christ's teaching; this norm cannot be set aside by changing fashions.

This is true of priestly ordination. Our anonymous author argues that the ordination of women is a disciplinary matter, not an issue of faith, which has only recently been confronted by the Church. In fact, pagan priestesses were common in the Greco-Roman world of Christ. The Vestal Virgins in Rome, who ranked immediately after the Emperor, gave distinguished service for more than 800 years.

Over the ages breakaway Christian groups have attempted something like women's ordination, e.g., the Marcionites and Montanists in the Second Century, and the Catharists and Waldensians in the Middle Ages. Gratian himself in his Decretum drew on tradition to exclude women from priestly ministries - baptising and teaching - and the great medieval theologians Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure and Duns Scotus grappled with the exclusion of women from the priesthood, which is conferred by the sacrament of orders and is not merely a role or function. The changing role of women has brought new opportunities, insights and pressures on the Church, but it is not an entirely new situation. In every age the role of women in the Church has been absolutely necessary. Moreover, the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven are not the ministers but the saints, and the hierarchy exists for the holiness of the faithful.

The following list offers an idea of the ways in which present-day dissent is disguised or dressed-up. Some of the ruses are worthy of Orwell's "double-speak".

  • Attack the Pope and then call yourself conservative and middle-of-the-road, redefining the "centre" in a heterodox fashion. The American priest Fr Richard McBrien (author of Catholicism) is an old hand at this, but the line has been run in Australia.
  • Claim that the Pope is divisive (or the Catechism is) when traditional truths are restated. There is the bizarre sight of rebels and dissenters defending their position through an appeal to a unity involving the papering over of fundamental differences. But no unity can be built against the Pope.
  • Claim that the Church is "authoritarian", as month in and month out you attack her while remaining safely in your position of leadership and responsibility.
  • Claim that freedom of conscience enables you to choose your faith and morality, to contradict Christ and the Pope and still claim to be as good a Catholic as the Pope. (The Church has never taught that conscience is supreme. Conscience is at the service of truth.)
  • Claim that the Church at the Second Vatican Council recovered a proper historical understanding of truth and escaped from the static, neo-Platonic world-view which dominated during the Counter Reformation. Then go further and imply, rather than state, that fundamental dogmas and sacraments are liable to further change and development and imply, rather than state, that fixed points of belief and practice are only for "fundamentalists."

However, the Pope has now delivered three massive blows against the forces of dissolution in the Church: Veritatis Splendor, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. As a result, it is no longer possible to claim that basic Catholic positions are unclear.

The skirmishes will continue, and the tumult and the shouting are not entirely done, but the 'party' is over. It is the opponents of Catholic teaching within the Church who now have the problems: do they accommodate themselves to these restated teachings inside the Church - or outside her?

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