Thursday, July 1, 2010

On Obedience and Dissent Within the Catholic Church (Part II)



When I left off last time, I mentioned I would begin with the motives which lead to dissent.  As I said, malice is not the only motive.  Some others might think they have no alternative in the matter.  Perhaps they might not see the error of their reasoning.  Emotion can cloud the mind of any person.  It can even be that they do not understand what the Church teaches and therefore think their misconception is what the Church teaches.

A Little Backtracking First

In this article, I would like to look at some of these motives behind dissent.  I think, however, I should speak a little on what dissent is, and also on the authority the Church teaching holds.

Preliminary Disclaimer

The issues discussed here are not intended to be making reference to any specific individual or website.  It is not for me to judge the specific cases of any person or their motives.  The examples I use are widespread, and therefore used by many.  

PART I: Understanding what Authority and Dissent is in Relation to the Church

Understanding Authority Within the Church

There are many kinds of authority: Governmental, Parental, Ecclesial, Moral and so on.  One can easily commit the error of equivocation, using a meaning other than the one intended.  So to clarify, this article intends to speak on what Authority means in relation to the Catholic Church.

In America, we're used to the idea that truth is defined by what 50%+1 of the voting population holds… though we seem to be moving towards an idea of ideological illegitimacy, where authority is rejected if it does not hold with a certain ideology.  As a result, from 2001-2008, a certain portion of the population thought George W. Bush was illegitimate (the 2000 election flap was a handy excuse), while in the present administration, a portion thinks Obama is incompetent to be president.

Authority within the Church is threefold, with the offices of teaching, sanctifying and ruling the Church.  It isn't based on the consent of the governed, but rather is considered bestowed by the authority of Christ, and is to be viewed as service and not power.  This has not always been practiced by some of those in authority (Pope Leo X's infamous quote of enjoying the papacy for example), but it is recognized that this is the abuse which runs against the norm.

Unlike civil societies, the Church is a society of faith, and the intent of the Magisterium is to teach on the duties of the believer before God.  The Church doesn't tell us who to root for in the Stanley Cup, for example, or what to eat for dinner.  However, it can and does tell us what we are to believe if we want to consider ourselves part of the Catholic Church.

If we choose to deny what the Church says we must assent to, or if we assent to what the Church says we must deny, our behavior cannot be considered a legitimate expression of the Catholic Church.

In the roles of teaching sanctifying and ruling, the Church Magisterium acts under the belief that it must teach, explain and pass on the teachings which Christ handed on to the Apostles.  We reject the notion of the personal interpretation of Scripture as the infallible guide because of the possibility of self delusion.  Cardinal Newman, in his Development of Christian Doctrine expressed this problem as follows:

…those who maintain that Christian truth must be gained solely by personal efforts are bound to show that methods, ethical and intellectual, are granted to individuals sufficient for gaining it; else the mode of probation they advocate is less, not more, perfect than that which proceeds upon external authority. (Chapter 2. Section 2)

In other words, how can we know the ethical and intellectual gifts needed to interpret Scripture are given to all… especially considering the contradictions on different issues?

Thus, the Catholic Church believes the truth is given to the Church, passed on through the apostles by their lawful successors.  The authority to teach, and protection from error, is not something given simply to individuals who become part of the Magisterium.  Rather, the authority they have is due to the office itself, and exists when exercising their office in communion with the successor of Peter (this is why a sacramentally ordained Bishop who is not a member of the Catholic Church has no authority over a Catholic).

Extraordinary and Ordinary Exercise of Authority

What we must remember here is that the Church can make use of their authority in two ways.  The way most non-Catholics have heard of (but do not understand) is infallible teaching.  This means that when the Church teaches ex cathedra, all Catholics are required to accept this teaching as true.  The one who denies the ex cathedra teaching would be a heretic.  If you deny, as a Catholic, the Trinity or the Immaculate Conception, your belief is entirely against what we believe is the faith passed on, and protected from error by God's protection of the Church.

The ordinary exercise of authority is one which still binds the faithful to obedience.  Denial of these teachings might not make one a heretic, but it does indicate that what they hold is in opposition to the Church teaching, and is unacceptable.  Christ gave Peter and the Apostles the authority to bind and loose (See Matthew 16:19, 18:18).  If what the Church binds and looses will be bound and loosed in Heaven, one cannot dissent from this binding and loosing without also being in disobedience to Christ.

Keep in mind here, that we do not believe that the Magisterium can arbitrarily change Church teaching on a whim.  The Magisterium serves Christ and must be faithful to the teachings of Christ.  Thus we believe the Magisterium cannot permit woman priests, gay marriage or the like… the Church does not have the authority to defy Christ who gave the authority.

This seems like a good point to look at the issue of dissent.

What Is Dissent?

Dissent within the Catholic Church can be described as a refusal to accept the teaching authority of the Church as binding (either in entirety or on a single issue), and generally takes one of two forms:

  1. Protest against Church teaching, with the aim of changing the teachings (Groups like Dignity and We Are Church fall into this group)
  2. "If it's not ex cathedra infallible, then it is an opinion which we can ignore." (Many people, including those who simply misunderstand the Church teaching hold to this.)

The result is to refuse to accept Church teaching in the first case, and to think it is not binding in the second case.

PART II: A Look at Motives Behind Dissent

As I said above, not all people who dissent do so from malice.  I am inclined to think much of it is based on a lack of understanding of what the Church teaches and why it is important.  Thus the level of culpability will differ depending on the reason the person who dissents from the Church does so.

Dissent seems to be caused by certain things which lead us to put our personal desires first.  Some of these are:

  1. Ignorance of why the Church teaches as it does
  2. Fear of losing something one values
  3. Pride in thinking one knows better than the Magisterium
  4. Being Deceived

Let us look at these categories.

#1: Ignorance

Most of us would bristle at the thought of being in this category.  None of us wants to be thought of as "stupid" after all.  However this is not what we mean by ignorance.  To understand ignorance we need to know how the Church understands it.  We believe that there are true things and true ways which we must choose in order to live according to God's will.  Now not all people do know this truth.  Such people are said to be ignorant of what they should do to behave rightly.

Now of course, not all people have the ability to know everything.  A poor peasant in a region entirely dominated by Islam may have never had the chance to even hear the Gospel, let alone make a decision on it.  Such people are called Invincibly Ignorant.  It would be impossible for such a person to learn what they should know to do right.  Because they could not learn what they needed to do to avoid doing wrong, we believe that such a person has done wrong, but it is not his fault he has done so.  God will judge us on what we could have known, not what was impossible for them to know.

Take for example, the Holy Office and their statement against Fr. Leonard Feeney:

Not only did the Savior command that all nations should enter the Church, but He also decreed the Church to be a means of salvation without which no one can enter the kingdom of eternal glory.

In His infinite mercy God has willed that the effects, necessary for one to be saved, of those helps to salvation which are directed toward man’s final end, not by intrinsic necessity, but only by divine institution, can also be obtained in certain circumstances when those helps are used only in desire and longing. This we see clearly stated in the Sacred Council of Trent, both in reference to the sacrament of regeneration and in reference to the sacrament of penance (<Denzinger>, nn. 797, 807).

The same in its own degree must be asserted of the Church, in as far as she is the general help to salvation. Therefore, that one may obtain eternal salvation, it is not always required that he be incorporated into the Church actually as a member, but it is necessary that at least he be united to her by desire and longing.

However, this desire need not always be explicit, as it is in catechumens; but when a person is involved in invincible ignorance God accepts also an implicit desire, so called because it is included in that good disposition of soul whereby a person wishes his will to be conformed to the will of God.

However, if a person could learn the truth, but decides that doing so is inconvenient or potentially problematic, the person is said to be vincibly ignorant.  He has no excuse for not seeking to learn what is right.  This is why the Catholic Church has taught in Vatican II:

In explicit terms He Himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism(124) and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through baptism as through a door men enter the Church. Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.

They are fully incorporated in the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and are united with her as part of her visible bodily structure and through her with Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops. The bonds which bind men to the Church in a visible way are profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion. He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a "bodily" manner and not "in his heart."  All the Church's children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged. (Lumen Gentium #14)

The anti-Catholic who has grown up believing the Church is "the whore of Babylon" might be forgiven for not believing the claims of the Church [It would depend on how earnestly he or she sought to learn and do God's will].  The Catholic who has the teaching authority of the Church and still fails to seek or learn what is required has much less of an excuse.

So how does this relate to the issue of dissent?  Sometimes it happens that an individual either is ignorant of why their own preference is disordered.  At other times, they do not have a clear understanding on why the Church says we must or must not do a thing.  Because they do not know, they say, "This makes no sense!  Why should I follow this?"

However, just because a person does not know the reason for a teaching does not excuse them from seeking to understand.

#2: Fear of Loss

There are times when a believer is put into a position of having to choose between their faith and something they value.  In the extreme sense, we can refer to martyrdom (please do not confuse the Christian concept with the "Suicide Bomber" version), where a person chooses to suffer death rather than to give up their faith.  However, there can be other, lesser, ways where a person may have to suffer for their faith.

However, some people fear the loss of something to the extent that they choose something evil rather than to lose something desired.  Consider the extreme example of the woman who chooses two abort two of her triplets for fear of being inconvenienced by having to shop at Costco.  [Note: Before anyone starts, I never said Amy Richards was Catholic.  Rather this is an illustration of the fear of giving something up]

Or how about the couple who chooses to contracept because they fear that they will either have to reduce the frequency of sex or have the added expenses of children?  How about the woman who fears she'll lose her chance at love if she doesn't "put out" for her boyfriend?

Now we need to make clear that there is a difference of course between the person who falls into sin and repents and continues on vs. the person who says "I shouldn't have to give anything up!  The Church should change!"  The second is the attitude of dissent.  If Christ tells us that if we love Him we will keep His commandments (John 14:15) and that rejecting the Church is to reject Him (Luke 10:16).  If we refuse to follow the teaching of the Church because we do not want to lose something which we can only do through disobedience, this is dissent.

#3: Pride

Pride is defined by the OED as "quality of having an excessively high opinion of oneself."

Unfortunately this motive happens a lot.  The belief is that the Magisterium is not as well informed as the dissenter, whether in knowledge of history, theology, science as fields of knowledge… or even believing one knows better about what God would want through personal feelings. 

The problem is, people can use spurious reasoning to justify themselves, and not all sources of authority are legitimate.  We need to remember there were many false prophets in Israel, teaching in contradiction to what God required.

30 A shocking, horrible thing has happened in the land:

31 The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests teach as they wish; Yet my people will have it so; what will you do when the end comes? (Jeremiah 5:30-31)

Pride is, in essence, a refusal to recognize authority greater than the self, because the one afflicted with pride has an opinion of oneself which is higher than that of others.

Pride, then, pits an individual's abilities against the charism given to the Magisterium.  Admittedly the individual may not think of it in these terms.  If he or she thinks of the Magisterium as nothing more than "a bunch of out of touch celibate old men" and deny the claim that the Magisterium speaks with the authority given by Christ, then it is easy to fall into this error.

#4: Deception

This can be the self-deception or being deceived by others.  I spoke on Self Deception awhile back, so I think the main point to be made here is that if one is self-deceived into thinking their reasoning is correct, they may decide "…and therefore the Church must be wrong," with no basis to justify this.

Deception can also come from others… particularly if the deception sways a person to justify what they want to do anyway.  This is often the fallacy of irrelevant appeal (false expert), where a person makes an interpretation of Church teaching which in fact contradicts how the Church understands it.  However, before taking the word of an individual who urges a person to dissent by citing a Church teaching against the Church, the question comes up, by whose authority can they teach?

However, when such a question is unasked, a person might be tempted to use the dissenter's argument as an excuse to justify their own dissent against a Church teaching which is inconvenient to their way of life.

The Underlying Motive

All of these reasons for dissent generally have the emphasis of emotion first which leads to dissent, and then the dissent is hardened with excuses to justify the defiance of the teaching authority of the Church.  However, if the desire to do a thing contrary to Church teaching was not present, there would be no reason to dissent.


Now I recognize that those who are outside the Catholic Church do not accept the authority of the Church.  Their rejection I believe is wrong, but it is not the same thing as dissent.  For those within the Catholic Church, part of what one is expected to follow is the recognition that the Bishops, as successors to the Apostles, under the headship of the Pope (the successor of Peter) have the authority to teach and to pass on the faith handed on by Christ to the Apostles.  We are expected to recognize that Christ remains with His Church and protects the Church from binding and loosing error.

Dissent rejects both of these things.  It denies that the Magisterium can teach authoritatively, and it denies that when the Church teaches formally, it can bind us to follow.

Dissent often confuses sins of an individual as "proof" that the Church cannot teach authoritatively.  However, as Catholics we believe that the teaching of the Church and sins of the individual are not the same thing.  We can (and have) see individuals who share in the teaching office of the Church scandalize by their behavior and may act in a way which fails to meet their responsibility.  However the abuse of authority does not deny legitimate authority.

Thus the Dissenter has a dilemma which he or she must necessarily ignore.  If they accept the idea of membership within the Church, it follows that certain views must be incompatible with membership, and there is an authority to rule on what is and is not authentic Catholic belief.  If they reject this authority and belief, then the question is why be a member?  If the Church is only relevant when it agrees with the individual and wrong in other cases, it makes membership superfluous.

It is a question some will have to answer when they stand before the Lord.

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