Friday, August 26, 2011

On dissent

A while ago, in the comments below this post, regular commenter Diamantina da Brescia asked this insightful question about Catholics in the state of dissent:
If a confessor/spiritual director advised a person to abstain from Communion because of his or her struggles concerning a grave matter dealing with faith or morals, and the person's conscience could not satisfactorily resolve the issue (i.e., he or she could not see it the Church's way, yet the person still believed that the Church is the ordinary means of salvation for all humanity) for several years, how would that person be able to perform his or her Easter duty during that time? Go to Confession, see whether he or she is allowed to receive Communion, then attend Mass as usual? And would such a person still be allowed to serve in church ministries (other than EMHC, of course), be active in the Legion of Mary and/or Knights of Columbus, be a lay member of a religious order, etc. during that time, if such a person were previously active in those ministries and groups? And how could a person not allow his or her faith wither and/or falsify one's conscience in Confession when one is not permitted to receive Communion for a protracted, indefinite period of time?

This is a hypothetical, but I wonder whether some practicing Catholics fall under this category. I suspect that most people who struggle with the Church's stance in faith and morals either stop practicing Catholicism altogether or evade the matter when they go to Confession. Some confessors might tell struggling penitents to continue receiving the Eucharist, but I can imagine that other confessors would not.
I have to admit that I had never thought about the Easter duty in regard to a person's struggle with persistent and serious dissent from Church teachings. For those already separated from the Eucharist by their actions, e.g., those who have formally or informally left the Church, or those who are living in an irregular marriage situation and thus can't receive Holy Communion, I suppose the need to confess a failure to make the Easter duty while in this state of persistent separation might exist, should the person attempt to be reconciled with the Church.

But what of those who don't actually leave, and who are not in a state of grave sin--but who nonetheless are in a state of honest dissent from some essential Church teaching? I promised to consider this thoughtful question and write a post about it...and then I got busy with other things for too long, for which I apologize.

Some bishops have written that Catholics in a state of dissent from Church teaching have a duty to refrain from receiving Holy Communion. But is that just because they are public figures? Or is there something about dissent itself that needs to be examined, here?

What, exactly, is dissent?

To break this down a little, let's look at some selections from an article by Dr. William May:
As scholars such as the late great Dominican theologian, Yves Cardinal Congar, have noted, the term magisterium has such a long history and during the Middle Ages it referred to the teaching authority proper to theologians, i.e., those who by study and diligence have achieved some understanding of the truths of the faith and their relationship to truths that can be known without the light of faith. [1]

But today this term has a very precise meaning, one given it by the Church herself in her understanding of herself as the pillar and ground of truth (see Tim 3:15) against which the gates of hell cannot prevail (Mt 16:18; Gal 1:8), and as the community to which Christ himself has entrusted his saving word and work. According to her own understanding of the term, the Church teaches that the magisterium is the authority to teach, in the name of Christ, the truths of Christian faith and life (morals) and all that is necessary and/or useful for the proclamation and defense of these truths (see Dei verbum, 8). This teaching authority is vested in the college of bishops under the headship of the chief bishop, the Roman Pontiff, the "concrete center of unity and head of the whole episcopate," [2] the successor of the Apostle Peter (see Vatican Council II, Lumen Gentium, 22; Vatican Council I, DS 3065-3074). [...]

At times the magisterium proposes matters of faith and morals infallibly, i.e., with the assurance that what is proposed is absolutely irreformable and a matter to be held definitively by the faithful. At other times the magisterium proposes matters of faith and morals authoritatively and as true, but not in such wise that the matter proposed is to be held definitively and absolutely. But still the matter proposed is to be held by the faithful and to be held as true. Note that the proper way to speak of teachings proposed in this way is to say that they are authoritatively taught; it is not proper to say that they are fallibly taught.
So, in other words, the Church has her teaching authority which is entrusted to her by Christ; she teaches some things infallibly and others authoritatively and as true; but everything taught by the magisterium, whether infallibly or authoritatively, is counted among those things to which a Catholic refers when he says, "I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God."

Does this mean that a person has to assimilate fully every single teaching before he or she can be really Catholic or approach communion? Not necessarily; but he or she must be able to give what is called the religious submission of the will and mind (in Latin: obsequium religiosum). This religious submission does not forbid a lack of internal assent, according to Dr. May, when one is engaged in a scholarly pursuit of the truth--so long as one is prepared to accept whatever the Church decides when her proper authorities decide it. But it doesn't apply to magisterial teaching, whether infallible or authoritative:
But it taught one is not giving a true obsequium religiosum if one dissents from magisterial teaching and proposes one's own position as a position that the faithful are at liberty to follow, substituting it for the teaching of the magisterium. But this is precisely what has been occurring. Dissent of this kind is not compatible with the obsequium religiosum. In fact, those who dissent in this way really usurp the teaching office of bishops and popes. Theologians, insofar as they are theologians, are not pastors in the Church. When they instruct the faithful that the teachings of those who are pastors in the Church (the pope and bishops) are false and that the faithful can put those teachings aside and put in their place their own theological opinions, they are harming the Church and arrogantly assuming for themselves the pastoral role of pope and bishops.

Dissent, understood in this sense, is thus completely incompatible with the obsequium religiosum required for teachings authoritatively but not infallibly proposed.
What does all of this mean?

I am not in a position of authority, of course, and would be subject to correction on this as on all Catholic matters. But from a common sense perspective, what this means to me is clear: Catholics in good standing are required to give the religious submission of mind and will to all that the Church teaches whether infallibly or authoritatively. While some scholars, theologians, and even ordinary lay people may at times propose hypothetical questions or discuss an infallible teaching as if it were theoretically possible for it to be different than it is, such discussions only happen in good faith if the person raising the question has formed a firm purpose of adhering to Church teaching whether or not his point or objection or hypothetical is answered as he wishes it to be.

If a Catholic reaches the point where he or she simply cannot give the religious submission of the mind and will to Church teachings, it would seem, based on what various pastors and bishops have taught, that they ought to absent themselves from the Eucharist rather than participate in a sacrament which emphasizes the unity of the faithful. But I think there are many steps along the way to actual dissent, and that a person who is merely wrestling with some teaching while giving it the proper religious submission--in other words, a person who says "I don't really understand this teaching and it seems wrong to me, but I'm prepared to accept it and will study the matter as deeply as is necessary while asking the Holy Spirit for enlightenment," would probably (ask one's pastor to be sure, of course!) be fine to continue to receive communion.

But what of the person who is in a case of stubborn and persistent dissent?

Not to pick on any specific issue, but let's take a look at the Church's teaching against artificial contraception.

Suppose person A was hopeful before 1968 that the Church's teaching against artificial contraception was going to be amended to allow the birth control pill. This person, while engaging in theoretical theological discussions about the matter, was not in dissent from the Church. Then Pope Paul VI promulgated Humanae Vitae, and the matter was closed: artificial birth control is gravely morally evil and not permitted for Catholics. Though person A experiences some human feelings of disappointment and is not sure he fully understands this teaching, he resolves to give assent to it while studying the matter and reflecting on it. Person A is not in a state of willful, persistent dissent and can probably receive communion regardless of how long it takes him to embrace this teaching wholeheartedly (provided, of course, he's living according to it the whole time).

Suppose that person B was a friend of person A's on the "discussion committee" that hoped for birth control to be allowed. When Humanae Vitae is released person B declares that the pope was wrong and that he is personally free to reject this teaching; he is open about his use of artificial contraception within his marriage. Person B further declares that it is fine for him, a Catholic, to reject Church teaching whenever his conscience (however ill-formed it is), showing that he fundamentally misunderstands the Church's teaching on the conscience, too. Person B is in a state of willful, persistent dissent and is no longer really united to the Church, and thus probably should not receive the Eucharist.

But what about person C? Person C was born long after this whole controversy. Person C attended schools that told him he should use condoms for his early sex exploits, which they clearly expected him to start having when he was still a very young teen. Person C grew up in a non-Catholic family where artificial contraception was as natural as microwaved dinners and MTV. Person C became a Catholic because it was the easiest way to marry that Catholic girl he fell in love with (and lived with) in college, but now she's taking the faith seriously and has said some things that alarm him. C's wife wants him to let her go off the pill; though he agrees, reluctantly, he doesn't want to use NFP either, and is secretly relieved when they learn her fertility is not what it once was back when they had their two children. Though contraception use is no longer an issue, agreeing with the Church about the wrongness of it is--C's wife thinks he needs to study the issue and come to understand it, while C says so long as he's not using it does it really matter what he thinks of it all?

Should C receive communion?

And what of person D, who disagrees strongly about artificial birth control even though she is a chaste single woman in her late 40s? She's studied, she's read Church documents, she's attended workshops and asked questions--and what it boils down to is that she just doesn't agree with the Church. She still thinks the Church is the Church founded by Christ as the ordinary means of salvation for sinful humanity, but her dissent makes her think twice about approaching the Eucharist. Yet, there's that Easter duty question: should she, or shouldn't she?

Should D receive communion?

Each of these people could be described as dissenting (or, in the case of A, having withheld assent). But each will require a different pastoral approach, which is why I think it gets terribly tricky to start to say who should and who shouldn't receive. And in the case of the Easter duty, specifically, I think it's more important to determine first if one actually is in good standing as a Catholic, which is something one's pastor can certainly help one to recognize, before we begin to worry about obeying the precepts of the Church.

But I can say this: if a person starts from the place of religious submission of the mind and will, it's a lot easier to come to accept a Church teaching even if you don't understand it or accept it at first. Believing that Christ founded His Church and gave Her the teaching authority means that we accept that the Church will be a sure guide in matters of faith and morals. In other words, instead of saying to ourselves "I think the Church is wrong about X!" we could try saying, instead, "I'm not sure why Christ has led His Church to teach this about X. What is the Holy Spirit trying to say to us with this teaching, which seems so difficult for me, personally, to accept right now?"

9 comments:

Siarlys Jenkins said...

The obsequium religiosum is of course precisely why I am not a member of the Roman Catholic Church. I can perfectly well understand why a person who says "Yes, that is what I believe," would join the RC church. I can understand why someone who believes and practices differently would be invited to go find themselves another church.

But if I am certain that X is true, while a church says, no, X is false, and I believe Y is false, while a church says, no, Y is true, in no way shape or form could I conceive of a duty to say "Although every fiber of my being tells me that X is true and Y is false, nonetheless, I profess that X is false and Y is true." That makes no sense to me at all. -- and in principle, it is not different from the basis of communist party discipline.

Trying to put myself in the mindset of a hierarchical church, it still seems to me that a person who agrees to be obedient in practice, but has a doubt in their mind, should be considered a faithful and obedient parishioner.

Rebecca in ID said...

When the crowd left Jesus after He spoke to them of His flesh being true food, He asked the disciples whether they would leave, too. They didn't say, "No, we'll stay, because we understand what you mean, we totally get and agree with the whole transubstantiation thing." Instead, they said, "to whom shall we go; you have the words of Everlasting Life". If you believe that Christ is God, is Truth Itself, then you would not consent to doubting His word. When we are assenting to the teachings of the Church, we are simply assenting to Christ Himself, since we believe that He truly teaches through the Church. I think that someone who considers themselves Catholic but willfully dissents from an authoritative teaching, must not actually accept this most basic and definitive concept, that when the Church teaches, Christ is teaching. Or, they do not accept the most definitive tenet, that Christ is in fact God, is Truth Himself. There aren't really any other conclusions to be drawn.

Siarlys, Protestants give that assent to Christ through assenting to the writers of Holy Scripture. Catholics believe as well that Christ gave this surety of maintaining the truth through a living Church, not just through those letters written long ago. So if you have no problem with the first concept--that God gives surety of truth through things written by men thousands of years ago--then I don't see why you'd have a problem with the concept that it is *possible* He also gives this surety of truth in an ongoing way through the Church. You might not think it's true, but I don't understand what the problem is with the very idea of it.

The communist regime gives itself that authority which only God should be able to confer. That's the problem with it. This abuse does not show that God Himself cannot confer authority to men, only that when men take for themselves authority which is not rightly theirs, things will go very wrong.

Rebecca in ID said...

Also it seems to me that the question about the Easter duty would be answered the same way you would answer someone who is wondering how they can possibly fulfill their Easter duty if they are planning to continue to live in sin with their girlfriend. They can't very well go to Confession if they're unrepentant, so how can they receive Communion? Willful doubt is an action and you can consent to it or not. Most everyone is assailed by thoughts of doubting about this or that, sometimes, but that is not the same as willful consent.

Diamantina da Brescia said...

What if one believes that the Catholic Church is the ordinary means of salvation for humanity, but that when the Church teaches, Christ is not necessarily teaching (except when the Pope is speaking ex cathedra)? I suppose that is what I was trying to say.

I spent 13 years in the Orthodox Church (mostly in the Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Western America) as a young adult, and had a wee bit of trouble with the role of the Papacy even after I reverted in 2003 to the Catholic Church in which I was baptized and confirmed. However, thank goodness, I have come to believe that Jesus wanted Peter to have a place of authority among His apostles -- not just a place of honor, being the "first among equals", as the Orthodox Churches contend. Of course, that Petrine authority has been streched and abused at times (as I have seen from reading John Julius Norwich's enjoyable but excessively worldly Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy). However, since Blessed Pius IX it has not been notably abused, and the popes of the last 150 years have been good and holy men. Of course, Catholics must honor and obey the Pope not because he is a good and holy man, but because the Pope is God's representative on Earth. Even if a Pope were an absolute scoundrel (and some Popes have come close to that), Catholics would still be obliged to honor and obey him. That is hard to swallow, and I can see why the Protestant Reformation happened. However, if I (with my current education and biases) had been alive 500 years ago, my position would have been like that of Erasmus: a critical friend of the Catholic Church.

Turmarion said...

This is a thoughtful and interesting post. A few thoughts:

Recall that in the Purgatorio, Dante depicts the bottom of Mount Purgatory as inhabited by the excommunicated. God's forgiveness goes beyond all formalities and institutional strictures. Of course, that's a separate issue from the appropriate procedure in this vale of tears, but it should always be borne in mind. Even if a person should absent themselves from Communion, or even the Church, we must never make presumptions about their standing with God.

Second, I'd tend to read infallibility and even authoritative teaching in the narrowest possible way. The Syllabus of Errors is an excellent example of teachings proposed authoritatively by a Pope, no less, many of which have essentially been changed. Now I realize that this is a can of worms, and I don't want to go too far off topic. I'm aware of the defense that these teachings haven't really "changed". Certainly the evidence is that Pius IX probably thought of them as infallible, and the "changing" of Church teaching regarding the Syllabus is one of the lynchpins in the arguments of sedevacantists.

The point is that Person D of your example might wind up being vindicated (though maybe not until after death, at which time the issue, for D, would have gone to a higher authority). I'm not necessarily saying this regarding contraception, btw, just as a general possibility.

Given this possibility, my gut instinct is that if a dissenter is not propagating dissent and is in other ways in good standing, he or she should continue to study, try to grasp the teaching, etc., and should not absent themselves from Communion (certainly not the Church). God knows the person's heart, and I think that refusing the Sacraments (or suggesting that one absent himself from them) should be done only in the case of gross public scandal. This would, of course, be a matter for the individual penitent and priest, though.

Finally, it is interesting that so many in the conservative Catholic world--especially members of the TTSCP!--so often stray on the issue of "authoritative teaching". Not you, Red--I don't always agree with you, but you're admirably consistent. The point is that so many conservative Catholics will go off on dissenters and will make the exact same arguments you present here, regarding obsequium religiosum, etc.--that is, just because it's not "infallible" that doesn't mean you do what you want.

However, they'll turn right around and blithely dismiss Church teaching on capital punishment (gee, they changed the Catechism to reflect the Pope's teaching on this, but I guess that doesn't make it authoritative....) and its criticism of--ahem--certain wars as unjust, on the grounds that those teachings aren't infallible and are probably signs of deterioration of the Church as a result of nefarious librul forces. Even Antonin Scalia did this in this article in First Things; and in the letters a few issues later (I can't find them on the website, but they're in the print edition), Justice Scalia gives a very snide and cutting response to Avery Cardinal Dulles (who had mildly rebuked Scalia for his opinion), even making an implication that the Pope himself was the victim of muddle-headed sentimentalism.

I think part of the problem we face is that so many of the self-appointed spokesmen for orthodox Catholicism are like this--they do the exact same thing that "dissenters" and "liberals" do when it's their ox that's being gored, which means that the beam of dissent lodges firmly in their own eyes, while they loudly denounce the optic health of their ideological foes.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Last time Blogger ate my post, the next day it turned up twice after I reposted. So, I'm going to wait and see, then try again if necessary.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

OK, third attempt at a second attempt:

Rebecca, I won't respond at length about why I don't accept the authority of Rome. We've covered that ground. If you believe what the RC church teaches about the meaning of various Biblical passages, then you believe the magesterium is authoritative. If you believe the magesterium is authoritative, then you believe what it teaches about the meaning of various Biblical passages. You and I start from fundamentally different premises.

Assenting to the teaching of your church is NOT, as far as I can see, assenting to the teachings of Christ. It is assenting to the teachings of certain men who, with the best of intentions, tried to follow Christ and teach what that meant. Then there were men with less good intentions who took up the power thus assembled...

But my original point was the limits of dissent WITHIN the body of those who HAVE submitted to the Holy Father, believing that he IS Christ's vicar on earth.

No person can WILL themselves to BELIEVE something is true, starting from an honest belief that the premise is false. The most any discipline can expect is that a person will say "I may not know as much as you, I accept your leadership, therefore, I will govern my ACTIONS in accordance with what you tell me. I may even refrain from arguing my point in a time, place and manner that would undermine obedience in the practice of others. But I may still submit my thoughts, in formal bodies, about why perhaps the canon should be revised.

If I feel I WANT to put a dollar on the lottery, but I know that many pastors teach in the name of God that I should not, then if I do, I am giving in to a modest sin, not engaging in dissent. However, if I honestly believe that Bingo is a fine form of entertainment, which meets with the approval of Our Lord, then I might have something to discuss with the pastor who teaches otherwise. If I want to remain a member of his church, I might say, I will not gamble, although I think it may be OK with God if I did, but perhaps you know better than I.

It is the notion that holding an honest mental reservation sets one outside the communion that I find dangerous. Very dangerous. It is true that most communist parties arrogated authority that belongs only to God -- but then, so, in my opinion, does any authority that reaches into the mind. The most doctrinaire communists I have ever known were raised in the RC church, and freely quoted church positions on indoctrination to justify their own methods.

Turmarion makes good sense when he says "if a dissenter is not propagating dissent and is in other ways in good standing, he or she should continue to study, try to grasp the teaching, etc., and should not absent themselves from Communion." That neatly distinguishes between discipline and thought control.

Rebecca in ID said...

Siarlys, my point wasn't to talk about reasons to believe in the Holy Magisterium. My point was, if you believe Jesus did establish a Holy Magisterium, then believing the Magisterium is believing Jesus. If you believe Jesus established His Church just as certainly as you believe He is Divine, then it makes no more sense to pick and choose from the teachings of the Magisterium, as it does to pick and choose from the teachings of Jesus written in Holy Scripture. It's that simple.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

OK, I infer that you understand that some of us do not believe that Jesus established a Holy Magisterium... so we are talking about those who do. Could you believe that Jesus is God, if you were convinced with all your heart, mind, and soul that something he said was wrong? Or, more precisely, if you were convinced that something is true, which is in conflict with what he said it true? Doesn't believing in his divinity involve some judgement that yes, this must be the words of God, because they ARE so true?

After that, you might well set aside your own judgement on a few details.

Muslims believe Jesus was sent by God, but are certain that a transcendent God could not have had a Son.

You may, I suppose, believe that whatever those words in Scripture mean, the Magisterium knows the meaning and you don't, so you just take their word for it. I'm sure you know that most other Christian denominations read the same words of Scripture, and find a different meaning in them. It's not that we pick and choose different passages.