Some Faithful Dissenters

Investigating further the question of the sensus fidelium and Catholic dissent, I came across two notable articles on the subject. (Here I acknowledge thanks to the magnificent archives of Michael Bayley at the Wild Reed, where I first came across the links.)

The first, posted at U.S. Catholic in July 2008, is Catholic Dissent: When Wrong Turns Out to be Right. This article reports on notable dissenters, who have faced hostility and direct opposition for their views, but have since been vindicated and in some cases canonized.

Working backwards chronologically, the article begins with  the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray, who took a stand for freedom of religion against the established view that

civil governments had an obligation to officially recognize the church and support it.

Pope Pius IX made the point in no uncertain terms in 1846 in his encyclical Quanta cura and the accompanying Syllabus of Errors: “The state must recognize [the Catholic Church] as supreme and submit to its influence. . . . The power of the state must be at its disposal and all who do not conform to its requirements must be compelled or punished. . . . Freedom of conscience and cult is madness.

Courtney argued not only that this view was wrong, but also that as espoused by Pius, it was of recent origin, having developed over the previous 100 years.  (This is not the only instance of a “traditional” teaching which is in fact of recent origin.  Papal infallibilty is another, among many).  Murray met fierce opposition from the authorities, who eventually ordered him to cease writing and publication on the subject – but he was entirely vindicated when he became a major drafter  at Vatican II of the Council’s Declaration of Religious Freedom:

“This synod declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals, social groups, or any human power . . . This synod further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person, as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and reason itself.” The words reflect Murray’s thinking and may very well have been written by him.”

An earlier famous dissident was John Henry Newman, during his time as editor of the magazine “Ramparts”.

As the editor of the magazine Ramparts, he got into trouble with the English hierarchy for asserting in an article that the British bishops would be well-advised to seek the counsel of lay Catholics in important matters. Such a view was regarded as rash and disruptive of good order. He was subsequently informed by his own bishop that the next issue of Ramparts, July 1859, would be his last as editor.

But in that last issue, he expanded on his argument:

Newman drew some shocking conclusions that have been reverberating in the church ever since: that there is in the body of the faithful (the laity) an “instinct” for the truth, that this “sense of the faithful” must never be ignored or taken for granted by the church’s official teachers, that authentic church teaching therefore comes about through a kind of “conspiracy” or co-operative enterprise on the part of both laity and hierarchy, and finally that certain lapses (or “suspensions”) can occur when one side or other of this living body temporarily ceases to function.

I had forgotten this point about the “suspensions”.  Are we now, I wonder, in just such a state, with most Catholics neglecting to speak up against the obvious stupidity of so much of the sexual teaching, against the folly of an exclusively male, supposedly celibate clergy, or against the whole structure of untrammelled clerical power?  Instead, we too readily leave the right wing neocons to parrot  their insistence that we can only be “true” Catholics if we acquiesce meekly in blind obedience to every teaching (except of course, on matters of the social Gospel). Convinced by their rhetoric that we are somehow less Catholic than they for our dissent, we bite our tongues and remain silent.

Newman, of course went on to be rehabiliated and was made a Cardinal.  His full vindication also came with Vatican II, with his ideas incorporated into the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church.

Earlier examples were the women Mary Ward, founder of the religious order the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (IBVM) in the 17th Century, Saints Catherine of Sienna, Teresa of Avila, Bridget of Sweden, and Hildegard of Bingen- “all remembered for their faithfulness to the Gospel as they understood the message in their time.  They join a cast of men who creatively protested in various eras”.

Earlier still were those against the Arian heresy, who opposed the many bishops who supported it – and about whom Newman wrote in developing his own argument. Earlier still, the apostle Peter, nominal founder of the Papacy , was opposed by Paul on the regulations governing Gentile converts to Christianity. Here too, the “dissident” view won the day.

Then the most famous religious dissident of them all – Jesus Christ, who dissented strongly from the religious authirities of His own day.


2 Responses to “Some Faithful Dissenters”

  1. Phillip Clark Says:

    This should encourage all of us not to lose hope and understand that the Holy Spirit will work things out in its proper course. Just like the German ecclesial movement procliams “We Are the Church!” and no matter how much power the authoritarians in Rome try to exert upon us they can never take that fact away! Perhaps, a collective consultation of the insight of the lay faithful might even enlighten and help change their views. Of course, that’s asking for a bit much.. =P

    • queeringthechurch Says:

      Precisely, Phillip. But since it is unlikely that the Vatican will begin such a collective consultation at their own instigation, why should we not start one ourselves at the grassroots – or netroots? That is exactly what the proposed colaboratice bloggin is all about – very much in miniature. But over the past few years, we have seen how dramatically the political influence of the netroots has grown. Up to now, we have allowed the right wing to dominate the ecclestiacal blogosphere, but we hope to challenge that. (It is pretty clear from survey evidence that right views are in fact only a minority of all Catholics: they just have the loudest voices). We must change that, and better reflect the reality that the majority are moderate to progressive in their thinking.

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