"Dissent"? Or Conversation Among Adults?
Note: The text in italics was added by the editor in revising the original. The text which is
underlined is matter that was deleted in the revision process.
With the issuance of the pastoral letter Ad Tuendam Fidem Rome has mounted yet one more
valiant effort to stem the tide of what it calls dissent. [The letter reminded Catholics that they are
obliged to accept certain doctrines, such as the reservation of priestly ordination only to men or
the invalidity of Anglican orders that are taught by the "ordinary magisterium" of the church.]
What kind of a response is this step evoking? From a totally non-scientific collection of
anecdotes heard around the country in the past few weeks, it would appear that once again the
whole broad spectrum of possible responses is showing up. At one end are those who applaud the
appropriate action by legitimate authority to set limits on theological pluralism; at the other are
those who see the sky falling yet one more time, in the form of ham-handed control or even
injustice. Perhaps most telling are the responses of those who believe the apostolic letter shows
that, if the angels aren't yet dancing on pin-heads, they are at least dressed in their tutus awaiting
the concertmaster's cue to come on stage.
The spectrum is out there, for sure. Whether the bubble in the spectrum is shifting, and in which
direction, is anybody's guess. It's a big world to evaluate.
What is more important than knowing how many people fall into the different positions along
the spectrum, however, is the question: just what is happening here? It is quite possible that the
question could be framed incorrectly through failure to appreciate some fundamental
perspectives about the ways by which the church's articulation of its insights into God's dealings
with us actually develops. Reflecting on those realities might help to soften the rhetoric all
around and help us all to remove our sandals in the face of mystery.
The Nature of 'Teaching'
The Roman pontiff and the bishops (and, to a lesser extent, the presbyterate) are rightly accorded
the honor and responsibility of teachers in our communion. In the concept of 'the magisterium' it
is they who are the magistri. Affirming that fact does not, however, in spite of the view of the
rigid reactionaries, put an end to all conversation. Even after we acknowledge their role as
teachers, everything still hinges on one's understanding of, and model for, the act of teaching. It
turns out, further, that one's understanding of the act of teaching depends on the audience one is
The church's long-standing model of teaching was based on the assumption that the teachers had
in their classroom a group of children, for whom the primary needs to be supplied by parental
figures were the imparting of information and a simple set of standards which would provide the
children the security of easily grasped and equally easily applied yes-no boundaries. The model
was arguably valid for the long period in which clerics were just about the only people with
formal education and the rest of the faithful were mostly illiterate. Children need structure
provided for them; in our civic life we have seen enough destruction wrought in recent years by
the naive removal of all boundaries to know that we do positive harm to children by setting no
limits for them.
Fair enough. But what happens when the model of teaching appropriate to children is continued
long after they have reached the age when their God-given growth impels them to ask questions
and think for themselves? Ask any parent. The same everyday experience that teaches us the
wisdom of providing boundaries for children also tells us that, once the threshold of adulthood
has been passed, efforts to tell them what answers they must come up with --- much less what
questions they may or may not ask --- are worse than futile, they will only widen the distance
between the magistri and those they rightly believe they are called to teach. Pedagogy then has to
yield to adult education, which is not just a horse of a different color but that wonder of wonders,
an animal that plays an active, creative role in the very process of its own generation.
Adults don't 'dissent', they discuss and deliberate and converse and dialogue. Yes, and argue.
Sometimes they come to agreement and arrive at a common position; sometimes they are unable
to. In the New Testament it appears that Paul and Barnabas never did resolve their differences;
they just agreed to work in different patches of the vineyard. In adult development, whether its
subject matter is molecular biology or the articulation of faith, neither of the two parties is ever
purely a receiver; precisely as adults, they are both fully formed persons, divinely created
subjects endowed with, and to be respected for, personal knowledge, freedom, and responsibility
for their choices.
The language of 'dissent', by contrast, implies a priori that some definitive position has been
arrived at. The question has been answered and the case closed --- which, of course, may be the
very point the adult participant finds unconvincing. Sometimes even the very framing of the
question is in dispute. When you think about it, apart from this usage by the Vatican, in our civil
life the place where we most commonly meet the term 'dissent' is in the sphere of judicial
decisions: "the court decided 6-3; those dissenting were justices X,Y, and Z." (Incidentally, it is
interesting to observe that in that world those who are described as 'dissenting' are not removed
from the court, much less banished from the country. They continue to be respected and valued
partners in the conversation on other issues --- or even on the same one, when new experience
shows that the question should be re-visited.)
This latter reflection gives rise to another dimension of the present situation. And that is that in
church usage the concept of dissent brings with it a note of moral failure. Those who dissent are
viewed, not simply as disagreeing with the orthodox position, nor even as being objectively
wrong. They are viewed as being morally deficient, having a sort of virus that must be either
controlled or perhaps even eradicated lest it contaminate others.
It would appear to be a safe statement to make, that in today's world the magistri find themselves
in a classroom populated with a more highly educated student body than ever before in history.
And I am not speaking solely about the academic credentials possessed by numbers of people
scarcely imaginable even three generations ago, although that reality is astounding in itself .
Beyond that, the educational level of even the most unschooled includes much knowledge about
matters unknown to their parents. People with little schooling sit in coffee-shops and discourse
quite intelligently about economic, psychological, and political systems --- because they have
personal experience of them and their lives are affected by them. The same holds true of religious
realities. It has been observed that war is too serious to leave to the generals; is not our faith life
too serious to hand over to the magistri?
I am reminded of an experience I participated in during Vatican II. Some of the theological
experts at the council were visiting with us graduate students and the discussion came around to
the impact that an emerging, educated laity might have on the role of the clergy. One of the
participants acknowledged the reality but tried to minimize its significance by saying, "Yes, they
will be better educated, but they won't be educated in theology...." , implying that the clergy
would still have their privileged perch because of their specialized learning. At that point George
Lindbeck, an astute Protestant observer, interjected: "Don't forget, a person who becomes more
educated in any field becomes more able to critique the so-called expert's proclamations even in
a field the person knows little about." In other words, even the untutored lay person can smell the
presence of theological obfuscation in the blah-blahing of ecclesiastical puffballs. Theologically
'uneducated' laity can offer cogent and sophisticated critique of homilies that merely parrot
seminary manuals. (After all, the uneducated laity --- perhaps they especially --- do pray, and
prayer is surely one of the primary sources of divine guidance.)
A Changed 'Classroom'
Beyond the shift in relationships between the two parties, the magistri and the ordinary faithful,
the parent-child educational model (and the language of 'dissent') ignores the incredible changes
in communication that are part of our every-day reality as a result of the revolution brought about
by instantaneous global communications. It is perhaps true that 24-hour news cycles may too
easily lead to the itch for sensational 'news'; and the Internet may indeed give free reign to every
nutcake or predator imaginable --- but, whether we like it or not, we are all in a global
living-room. When the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the Communications Decency Act was
unconstitutional, Judge Stewart Dalzell named our new communications world perfectly: "The
Internet may be fairly regarded as a never-ending worldwide conversation. . . . the most
participatory form of mass speech yet developed (emphasis added)."
All the faithful may not yet be in the Internet but they are in that living-room. And the
conversation will go on, no matter the efforts to control it. The parent who would try to still it has
as much chance of success as King Canute shouting back the roiling tide. And whereas the sea
will at least remain and lash at Canute as he shouts, the parent trying to stifle dissent among adult
children will only drive them out of the conversation pit entirely.
Protection From Ill-formed Consciences
The magistri have traditionally been motivated to play the parental role by an honest concern lest
the faithful fall into heresy or other sin by following consciences tainted by ignorance, personal
bias, or sheer selfishness. Although our church has a long and cherished history of honoring the
dignity and inviolability of personal responsibility for individual choices and actions --- even
canonizing Joan of Arc for her integrity in trusting the Spirit and acting against the commands of
her smaller-minded teachers ---, the threat of 'the loss of souls' through ignorance or spiritual
immaturity carries great weight for conscientious magistri.
When I was a seminarian, the 'protection of souls' argument for the unchanging character of
orthodox teaching was given great prominence. The premiss was that God could not allow the
consciences of the honest faithful to be led astray by false teaching for any length of time. The
conclusion was that the magistri would always be a reliable guide for the obedient laity.
An honest confrontation with our common story tells us that the premiss was itself misguided.
God did allow it. There have been times in our story when great masses of the laity formed their
consciences honestly and dutifully in accordance with the message of the magistri, acted
accordingly, and did objectively sinful things. The shameful story of slavery in our country is an
example near at hand. Good people saw their leaders accepting the moral validity of the
institution of slavery and even offering biblical support for their position --- after all, hadn't St.
Paul instructed slaves to be obedient to their masters? --- and as a result of their obedience good
Christians collaborated in terrible injustice.
Theologians who are focused on conceptual distinctions about grades of doctrinal teaching will
try to say that church leaders never taught the acceptability of slavery, of course. There are no
encyclicals or apostolic exhortations declaring such a thing. And so we must return to the nature
of teaching once more, bringing out another facet frequently overlooked.
The mentalist model of teaching/education which prevails among theologians who study the
magisterium misses the whole point of the most powerful teaching instrument of all, the example
and behavior of the embodied human person, of the one who would teach. Jesus in several places
in the Gospels warns against judging on the basis of declarations or protestations, like those
crying "Lord, Lord". He instructs us instead to look to the fruits of different positions as acted
out by real human persons. Francis of Assisi put it in a more ironic form: "Preach the Gospel at
all times. If necessary, use words." From that more integral notion of teaching there is no doubt
that the faithful were, sadly, taught by church leaders to accept slavery as part of God's plan.
Leaders themselves collaborated in the evil system.
Which leads us to examine yet another foundational notion: the understanding of the
divine-human relationship which one brings to one's understanding of the teaching function.
A Disconnected Theology of Magisterium and Doctrinal Development
Our church has allowed its discourse about the transmission of the Gospel message --- the
ultimate purpose of magisterial teaching, one would assume --- to be disconnected from a
Christian anthropology. More pointedly, that discourse has been cut off from considerations of
sin, grace, and redemption as communal realities. Theologies of the magisterium are usually
focused on (perfectly legitimate) issues such as the kind of authority being exercised in a
particular pronouncement, the level of its binding character, the kind of response it deserves from
the faithful, etc. In such presentations, if there is any consideration of human inadequacy or
moral failure at all, it centers totally on the recipients of the doctrinal pronouncement, never on
those who issue it. If there is consideration of the divine favor which rests upon the community,
it is located solely in the magistri. The central ecclesial insight that both sin and grace are at work
in the community of the church as a community, gets lost.
We might help ourselves to understand the point by considering what happened in another field
of theological discourse, that of moral theology. When moral theology had lost its moorings in
biblical spirituality and become desiccated casuistry, giants like Bernard Häring and Joseph
Fuchs performed heroic service in calling the church to the richness of its spiritual heritage. The
re-discovery of deeper sources for moral living called for a sea change in the thinking of whole
generations of pastors, but surely the church is richer for it. Whether the Spirit will send someone
to offer the same gift to the theology of the magisterium, to a fuller integration of Christian
anthropology and the narrower questions of magisterial authority, remains to be seen.
When I did my undergraduate theology in the 50's one of the arguments frequently adduced in
support of some teaching or other was that a doctrine taught for centuries across the breadth of
the whole church had to be true. The principle should carry much weight, to be sure, but upon
further reflection one might reasonably ask whether it should be accepted without further
critique. It is quite possible that a teaching persisted simply because of intellectual laziness on the
part of the magistri, or from lack of the courage which might be required to face the inadequacy
of the response to an exacting mystery, or because of fear of the conversion that might be called
for if its over-simplification of life were ever confronted. The Gospel call is a demanding one,
and we forget at our peril that there are intellectual sins, the failings of the spirit, as well as those
of the flesh. The great spiritual leaders from Jesus on down through our Christian history have
always taught that the former are far more lethal than the latter.
My intent here is not to attack the magistri as persons, much less the office of the magisterium
as a critical function for the health of the church. Our teachers face a daunting task, trying to
continue the formation process in a world classroom peopled by members possessed of an
enormous range of spiritual sensitivities and obtuseness, exposed by the information era to a
babel of conflicting ideas. We who do not bear the responsibility of being official teachers need
to work at supporting those who do. But as a people baptized in the same Spirit we are also
called to a richer sense of our responsibility to share in the adult-to-adult dialogue through which
the Spirit, the true Teacher, overcomes our communal intellectual sloth, gives us the courage to
wrestle with complex Gospel questions, and forms us into a single body pursuing the One who is
truth. In John's Gospel Jesus reminds us that "it is written in the prophets: 'They shall all be
taught by God'." (Jn 6:45) One part of the truth is that each of us individually, from the humblest
to the highest, and all of us as a people are deformed by intellectual pride and arrogance and
vanity and self-interest. The whole of the gospels is a challenge to our blindness and deafness
before the terrifying message of life-through-death. The other part of the truth, though, is that
each of us individually, from the humblest to the highest, and all of us as a people are taught by
the Spirit received in Baptism and en-couraged by the same Spirit in Confirmation. We are all
called to be magistri, on the condition that we are so only if we are all equally discipuli. In the
teaching process among Christian adults no one is purely recipient; nor is anyone purely agent.
The Seductive Lure of Certainty
One final consideration colors the understanding of the question we started with: what is really
going on here? It is the church's lust for the idol of certitude.
The Enlightenment confronted the church with a dramatic challenge. How was it to answer this
mind-set that appeared to undermine the very foundations of Christian faith? For several
centuries we have seen how the church wrestled with the forces of the Enlightenment on question
after question. My concern here is not the success or failure of the church to respond effectively
to any of the individual questions, but rather what has happened to the church as a byproduct of
the very struggle itself.
In The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the late Paolo Freire enunciated a seminal insight emerging
from his study of the dynamics of oppression and our response to it. It is the realization that,
when we attempt directly to fight some position espoused by an adversary, regardless of the issue
involved in the dispute, we inevitably take on the mind-set of our adversary. Concentration on the
hot issue at hand obscures the subtle acceptance of many unexamined assumptions by both
parties to the fight. Wrestle with a tar-baby and, whether you win or lose, you come away sticky.
By diverting its energies away from its primary positive mission of proclaiming the Gospel and
focusing them instead on warding off what it perceived to be an attack from outside, the church
resisted the answers but took on the mental attitudes of its adversary. One of them was the
conviction of the Enlightenment that life was intrinsically decipherable, that certitude can be
reached on just about everything if we just put our minds to it. The emphasis on 'dissent', with its
concomitant sub-text that the answers are both definitive and cogent and therefore certain and
beyond question, is a byproduct of that mentality.
Institutions are very uncomfortable with ambiguity. The caution, to be sure, is not an
unreasonable one. If ambiguity becomes too great the root identity of the body may come into
question; the bonds of membership can become so slack that it is not clear just what the
institution stands for or why one should continue to be committed to it.
Unfortunately the drive for institutional clarity, for sharper lines, carries with it
a risk which few institutions fully avoid. The drive for institutional clarity and certainty easily
transmutes into a trench mentality, a defensiveness so focused on the rightness of positions
espoused by institutional leadership that less benign behaviors begin to show up. Arguments in
support of the institutional position begin to be weighted beyond their intrinsic merits. By
contrast, arguments and evidence to the contrary are not accorded the even-handed treatment they
deserve. They are either glossed over or belittled with dismissive labels. In a worse scenario, the
institution may resort to ugly measures to attack the messenger instead of responding to the
merits of the messengers' arguments --- just as the messengers, in the conviction of the rightness
of their cause, manifest mirror images of the same ignoble behaviors. Some phrase-maker along
the way characterized this kind of situation as a dialogue of the deaf, but that chauvinistic
description does an injustice to a body of people who are quite able to dialogue, thank you,
because they know what it means to listen.
History is rife with ruptures and schisms brought about through such exaggerated claims of
rectitude. They happen in every civic institution; why should the church in all its humanness and
sinfulness be immune? Intellectual sin can be social as well as individual, after all.
For such a mind-set the clouded mirror of faith is not enough, nothing short of sight will suffice
--- even if it is only a mirage. The danger is that we, all of us from the humblest to the highest,
will proclaim as certain the answers to questions whose complexity calls much more for modest
and humble offerings of reasonable, prudential wisdom, which is the fruit of the Spirit and
provides the only kind of guidance appropriate to the mystery of a life of faith.
Where to Turn?
When the issue is one of corporate spirituality rather than of institutional purity, as the present
situation seems clearly to be, our best hope lies in the word and practice of the one who played
down his role as teacher and thereby was anointed supreme Teacher, Jesus. From the accounts in
the Gospels it appears that his most common response to the questions placed to him by
uncomprehending followers seeking guidance was to offer, not an answer but a better question.
He asked them how people around them identified who he was, and when they responded he
faced them with the far more demanding personal question: OK, now who do you say that I am?
On another occasion they weren't sure about the appropriate response to an oppressive ruler's
demand for taxes, so he told them it was up to them to figure out just how to balance the claims
of Caesar and those of God. His predominant mode of instruction was through parables which
confronted them with the personal responsibility for figuring out just how the parable might shed
light on their own choices. In one of them he even cautioned us directly not to jeopardize the
potential of a rich harvest by prematurely trying to pull out the weeds.
And beyond his instruction, the Gospels show us how he actually dealt with his followers' drive
to make sure the boundaries of 'the company' were very clear. John reported that they had noticed
someone using the name of Jesus to expel demons. That was apparently a very disturbing
experience for followers who were quite certain they knew the mind of the teacher so, as John
says, "we tried to stop him because he is not of our company" (emphasis mine). Jesus' reply
moves the issue from the criteria implied in John's judgment of who is in and who is out of the
company, to a more profound criterion: "Do not try to stop him, for anyone who is not against
you is on your side (Lc 9:50)." Mark makes the response more pointedly ecclesial: "Anyone who
is not again us is with us (Mk 9:40)." In the Acts of the Apostles Luke depicts with apparent
approval the similar counsel of Gamaliel. When the members of the Sanhedrin were in a rage
over the attitude of Peter and the apostles and were ready to put them to death, the Pharisee
Gamaliel reminded them of all the other uprisings that had come to nought in spite of early
success at attracting followers. Then he said, "My advice is that you have nothing to do with
these men. Let them alone. If their purpose or activity is human in its origins, it will destroy
itself. If, on the other hand, it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them without
fighting God himself. (Acts 5:38-39)."
We walk by faith and not by sight. As individuals and as a people sinful and graced. Sight will
come one day. But for now all of us, magistri and the rest of us in the living-room alike, could do
a lot worse than to heed the wise counsel of John XXIII: " See everything; overlook a great deal;
correct a little."
[George B. Wilson, S.J., is an ecclesiologist who does church organizational consulting with
Management Design Institute out of Cincinnati, Ohio.]