The Roman Catholic Church has a problem with dissent.
More accurately, members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy have a problem dealing with faithful dissent on the part of some of their fellow Catholics.
This problem on the part of the hierarchy is, of course, not new. Yet for many of us here in the Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis it’s been particularly evident in the clumsy handling by the chancery of a number of recent situations of faithful dissent. Two examples: the chancery’s banning of an 82-year-old cradle Catholic and his lesbian daughter from speaking on Catholic property, and its refusal to publish material in the Archdiocesan newspaper that respectfully questions Church teaching and presents an alternative perspective.
Catholic journalist and author, Robert McClory is somewhat of an expert on faithful dissent. His 2000 book, Faithful Dissenters brings together 17 compelling stories of men and women who “loved and changed the Church” at different times in its history.
On Saturday, May 3, 2008, over 125 people gathered at the Metropolitan Ballroom in Golden Valley, Minnesota, to hear McClory deliver the keynote address at the Second Annual Prayer Breakfast for Hope and Justice.
Sponsored by a coalition of progressive Catholic organizations, including the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM), The Progressive Catholic Voice online journal, Pax Christi Twin Cities, Catholic Rainbow Parents, and Dignity Twin Cities, this year’s prayer breakfast was entitled “Here Comes Everybody: Democratizing Catholicism in Challenging Times.” The title was inspired, in part, by McClory latest book, As It Was In the Beginning: The Coming Democratization of the Catholic Church.
In his keynote address McClory (pictured at left) spoke powerfully and eloquently on how the Catholic tradition develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit, and, as the Second Vatican Council document Dei Verbum reminds us, “through the intimate understanding of spiritual things [that believers] experience.” In this way the Church “constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth.”
In outlining the history of faithful dissent in the Church, and the criteria for such responsible, conscientious dissent, McClory drew on the works of noted Catholic theologians Francis Sullivan (author of Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church), Richard McCormick, SJ, and Edward Schillebeeckx, OP (whom Robert and his wife Margaret met recently during a visit to the Netherlands).
He also discussed at length the situation in the Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis in light of the new archbishop, John Nienstedt.
“You have a new archbishop who is here to ‘get things back in order.’” McClory told those gathered at the prayer breakfast. He also recounted an experience he had with Nienstedt several years ago when Nienstedt was bishop of New Ulm and McClory was writing an article for the National Catholic Reporter.
“At that time,” said McClory, “[Nienstedt] had done something newsworthy in relation to a book entitled, Revelation and the Church: Vatican II and in the Twenty-First Century. This book had been largely written and edited by his predecessor, Bishop Raymond Lucker,” explained McClory, “and, in it, Bishop Lucker said that there were a lot of things that the Church needs to think about. He listed 37 matters of authoritative Church teaching that have undergone substantial change over time – including the Church’s approach to religious liberty, the Bible, slavery, and the Jews. Bishop Lucker’s book also contained a list of 15 teachings that could change in the future, including clerical celibacy, artificial birth control, intercommunion between Protestants and Catholics, condemnation of homosexual activity, and the ordination of women. When Bishop Nienstedt came in and saw that book he said: ‘Take that off the shelf.’”
McClory interviewed Bishop Niestedt about his public criticism (some have said “banning”) of Bishop Lucker’s book. “I had a very nice chat on the phone with him,” reported McClory. “[In defending his actions] Nienstedt said he had simply tried to impose Vatican II in the diocese.”
“He reminded me of the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium,” McClory told the prayer breakfast audience. “Of how when the pope or bishops speak on matters of faith and morals, even when not speaking infallibly, the faithful are to accept that teaching and adhere to it with internal and external religious assent of soul.”
Nienstedt, continued McClory, insists that dissent from any authoritative teaching of the Church places one theologically in opposition to the Church and puts one at risk of losing eternal life. One must accept everything the Church teaches authoritatively. Everything.
On hearing this, a stunned silence came over the audience – a silence broken by McClory’s voice resolutely declaring: “Archbishop Nienstedt is wrong!”
The wave of relief and hope that rippled through the vast auditorium was palpable. For many present, McClory’s words were like life-giving water in the parched and hostile environment that the archdiocese has become in recent months.
“Archbishop Nienstedt is wrong according to the best Catholic sources,” McClory continued. “Yet what he says is widely said by bishops today. Many insist that to be a good Catholic means, first of all, obedience – obedience to those who have been placed over you and have the truth that you don’t. This understanding of what it means to be a ‘good Catholic’ is wrong.”
In countering this misguided understanding of what it means to be “a good Catholic,” McClory highlighted Dei Verbum, 8 – “one of the most important statements of the Second Vatican Council.”
The tradition which comes to us from the apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, . . . through the intimate understanding of spiritual things they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through their episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth.
Commenting on this statement, McClory reminded the audience that: “Vatican II says we’re not there yet. We don’t know everything. The Church is growing. It is moving and developing. And how does it develop? Through the contemplation and study made not just by the hierarchy, but by believers, and through the ‘intimate understanding’ of things they experience. This is what the Church teaches. It’s a foundational teaching. Accordingly, the Church cannot simply say: ‘We’ve got all the answers now. Just listen and be obedient.’”
McClory then gave a number of examples of teachings concerned with faith and/or morals that have changed. For instance, it was once taught and believed that the Earth was the center of the universe and that all the planets and stars revolved around it. The Fathers of the Church were unanimous on this belief. Accordingly, it was regarded as an article of faith and promoted as such. “Nobody doubted or contradicted it,” said McClory, “until Copernicus and then Galileo, who scientifically proved that it was not true. Nobody in Rome today says the Earth is the center of the universe.”
The Church’s changing attitudes and teaching on usury were also discussed. McClory noted that for 1600 years the taking of interest on a loan was considered sinful because Jesus says, “Give, asking nothing in return.” (Also, as William Hunt notes, “charging interest was seen as contrary to the very nature of money. Treating something sterile as though it were productive was going against nature.”) For these and other reasons, usury was forbidden until the sixteenth century and the birth of capitalism, at which point the teaching began to change. In 1850 the pope himself borrowed (at a substantial rate of interest) some fifty million francs from the Rothschild banking house for remodeling and repairing St. Peter’s Basilica. “And now in the Code of Canon Law (1983),” said McClory, “it is stated that every head of a Catholic religious institution is obliged to take the money left over from the activities of that organization and put it into a bank account to earn interest.” In short, “that which was formerly deemed intrinsically evil has come to be regarded as a serious moral obligation on the part of Church management.”
And then, of course, there is the moral issue of slavery. “The Church always opposed the abuse of slaves,” said McClory, “but at no point up through the 1800s, and even after the Civil War, did it oppose slavery itself.”
“The Church never said that slavery was evil,” McClory continued, but rather viewed it as a “peculiar institution,” a “regrettable but unavoidable condition of fallen human nature.”
“Some Catholics,” said McClory, “even understood slavery as a good way to help those ‘poor, uneducated, savage people’ to become Christian.”
McClory then drew gasps from the audience when he shared an excerpt from an 1866 document from the Holy Office: “Slavery itself is not at all contrary to natural or divine law because the sort of ownership a slaveholder has over a slave is understood as nothing other than the perpetual right of using the work of a slave for one’s own advantage.”
“This is a statement from the Holy Office that makes no sense,” said McClory. “Just two years after this statement was issued Pope Leo XIII declared that slavery always was and always will be morally reprehensible. It may be used for no reason or under any consideration.”
So what can be learned from such examples of change within the Church? McClory insists that any educated Catholic knows that the Church at one time held some things to be doctrinally absolute, and that these things turned out to be wrong. Accordingly, “one cannot be an intelligent Catholic,” he insists, “without saying that doctrine can be wrong in the future and, more to the point, can be wrong in the present.”
“To deny this and to insist that one must hold everything the Vatican teaches with absolute certainty, is, to use a theological term, ‘nuts,’” McClory remarked wryly. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
NEXT: Part 2 of “A Catholic Understanding of Faithful Dissent.”
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
What It Means to Be Catholic
Here Comes Everybody! (featuring an April 2008 interview with Robert McClory).
Ghostwriting for the Pope (a commentary by Robert McClory).
Robert McClory’s “Prophetic Work” (featuring two reviews of McClory’s latest book, As It Was In the Beginning: The Coming Democratization of the Catholic Church).
The Second Annual Prayer Breakfast for Hope and Justice