Is there a place for dissent in the church?

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Dissent is best understood and undertaken in the context of some other important concepts: authority, tradition, obedience,and the sense of the faithful. I can’t do justice to these topics here but for a fuller treatment on authority see my article in the 2013 VISION Catholic Religious Vocation Discernment Guide.

First, an affirmation of dissent by Karol Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II, in The Acting Person: “The structure of a human community is correct only if it admits not just the presence of a justified opposition but also that practical effectiveness of opposition required by the common good.” The tender issue here is that the church is not only a human community but also a mystical body. That which is mortal about the church must respect and address justified opposition. Which leads to the sticking point: Who decides what is justified?

YVES CONGAR, O.P. (1904-1995)

I’d like to suggest two determinants: the magisterium and the mystical body. The magisterium, the church’s teaching body, is composed in each generation of specific persons who, through apostolic succession and the power of the Holy Spirit, have attained the seats of discernment: pope, curia—the Vatican offices that assist the pope in governing the church—the College of Cardinals, and national bishops’ conferences. They write the documents promulgated into binding teaching for the whole church.

The mystical body of Christ is a much larger assembly. It’s comprised of the faithful to whom the Holy Spirit is likewise entrusted. That Spirit can draw up from the whole body a sense of the faithful (sensus fidelium) that engenders a sea change in church understanding, the way Pentecost did for its first responders. For the most part the magisterium and the sensus fidelium confirm each other, as in the Acts of the Apostles: “The community of believers was of one heart and mind” (4:32). Sometimes they also are at odds, as when Saint Paul discerned that Gentiles should not have to come to Christianity by way of Judaism (Acts 15 and Galatians 2:11ff).

Paul is the poster child for handling church dissent. He went to Jerusalem to argue his case and get a ruling from Saints James and Peter and the elders. He also—literally—got into Peter’s face later in Antioch—but he stayed in relationship, which was the main thing. Every great dissenter after him—Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Catherine of Siena, Cardinal John Henry Newman, the great Dominican theologian Yves Congar, the Australian saint Sister Mary MacKillop, among others—stayed in tandem with the magisterium and eventually pulled it forward.

Acts 2:1-4, 42-47; 4:32-35; 9:31; 15:1-29, 36-39; Galatians 2:11-14

Faithful Dissenters: Stories of Men and Women Who Loved and Changed the Church by Robert McClory (Orbis Books, 2000)
Creative Fidelity: American Catholic Intellectual Traditions ed. by R. Scott Appleby, Patricia Byrne, and William L. Portier (Orbis Books, 2004)
Creative Fidelity: Weighing and Interpreting Documents of the Magisterium by Francis A. Sullivan (Paulist Press, 1996)

Documents of the pope and the Vatican curia
Documents of church councils

Reprinted with permission from ©TrueQuest Communications.

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