Tuesday, July 08, 2008

A Catholic Understanding of Faithful Dissent (Part 2)

In Part 1 of “A Catholic Understanding of Faithful Dissent” I noted how Catholic journalist and author Robert McClory (pictured at right), spoke powerfully and eloquently as keynote speaker at the Second Annual Prayer Breakfast for Hope and Justice in Minneapolis on May 3, 2008.

In particular, McClory spoke on how the Catholic tradition develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. To support this belief, McClory highlighted the Second Vatican Council document
Dei Verbum, which clearly states that this development of tradition occurs “through the intimate understanding of spiritual things [that believers] experience.” In this way, Dei Verbum says, the Church “constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth.”

Still moving and developing

McClory maintains that this “foundational teaching” of the Church should remind us that Vatican II teaches that “we’re not there yet. We don’t know everything. The Church is growing. It is moving and developing.”

Furthermore, this understanding of the developing nature of the Church and of Catholic tradition refutes the idea that to be good Catholic means, first of all, unquestioning obedience to those who have been placed over us and who declare that they have the truth that we don’t. McClory is adamant that “this understanding of what it means to be a ‘good Catholic’ is wrong.”

Yet he also acknowledges that it’s an idea, a belief that’s held by many – including the vast majority of Catholic bishops, Archbishop John Niemstedt of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis among them.

A conversation with Bishop Nienstedt

At one point during his address, McClory talked about a phone conversation he had with Nienstedt in 2004, when Nienstedt was the newly appointed bishop of New Ulm, Minnesota.

As was mentioned in Part 1, McClory was writing a
story at that time for the National Catholic Reporter on Nienstedt’s denouncing of the theological views of his predecessor, the late Bishop Raymond Lucker, and his urging of Catholics not to read Lucker’s book, Revelation and the Catholic Church: Vatican II in the Twenty-First Century, “as though it reflects Catholic thinking.”

“As a whole,” wrote Nienstedt on the New Ulm diocese’s website, the book, “challenges the church’s own understanding of herself as being authoritatively charged under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to teach in the name of Jesus on matters of faith and morals.”

When he spoke to Nienstedt by phone for his National Catholic Reporter story, McClory was reminded by the bishop of the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium, of how, according to Nienstedt, 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.

For Nienstedt, says McClory, “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.”

What the Church really teaches about faithful dissent

“When I was talking to then-Bishop Nienstedt in 2004,” said McClory, “I reminded him that some of the most well-known and respected theologians in the Church today don’t say that everything that is taught by the Church is always and everywhere to be accepted on the face of it. I reminded him, for instance, that Francis Sullivan in his definitive work,
Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church, says that in some instances, respectful dissent is quite appropriate.

According to McClory, Nienstedt responded: “Well, that’s not true. Sullivan agrees exactly with what I say.”

Not having Sullivan’s book on hand during his interview with Nienstedt, McClory noted how he and the bishop moved on to another subject. At the May 3 prayer breakfast, however, McClory did have on hand the quotes from Sullivan’s book that support the notion of faithful dissent.

Accordingly, McClory shared how Sullivan in Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church writes that:

It would be inconsistent for the magisterium to propose a moral norm as a requirement of the natural law . . . and not offer convincing reasons that would appeal to the intelligence of those to whom this teaching is directed. . . . It would be a mistake to rely too heavily on merely formal authority in proposing it for acceptance by thinking people.

In other words, says McClory, “the Church cannot simply say: ‘We’ve got all the answers now. Just listen and be obedient.’”

Observed McClory: “The reasons we hear for some of the Vatican’s propositions put before us are ludicrous.” Elaborating, he noted that: “We are told, for instance, that contraception is contrary to the natural law and everybody with a thinking mind knows that. Yet a lot of people that I think have thinking minds don’t know it. It’s not that they haven’t heard the teaching of the Church. They’ve heard it, thought through it, and they disagree.”

Are such Catholics lacking in obedience to the magisterium? Not according to Sullivan, who writes:

If in a particular instance, Catholics have offered their religious submission of mind and will to the authority of the magisterium by making an honest and sustained effort to achieve internal assent to its teaching, and still find that doubts about its truths remain so strong in their minds that they cannot actually give their sincere intellectual assent to it, I do not see how one could judge such non-assent to involve any lack of obedience to the magisterium.

McClory noted how the term “submission of mind” used by Sullivan refers to our offering of religious respect, our willingness to hear the teaching of the Church with an open mind. He also shared how Francis Sullivan, the author of Magisterium, was professor of ecclesiology at the Gregorian University from 1956 until 1992, serving as dean from 1964 to 1970. William Levada, the current Prefect of the Congreation of the Doctrine of the Faith, received his doctorate under Sullivan in 1971. Indeed, Sullivan has taught ecclesial doctrine to many, many bishops, said McClory. Including John Nienstedt. “Did Nienstedt not read Sullivan’s book? Was he absent the day Sullivan discussed [those parts of his book dealing with faithful dissent]?” McClory mused wryly.

Referring to the above quotes from Sullivan, McClory declared: “This is Catholic doctrine which, as far as I know, has never been challenged by anyone except extreme right-wingers. We need to know these types of authentic Catholic teachings if we are to deal with bishops who are tyrannical, with bishops who say, “No! No! No!” to everything. People need to say: “That’s wrong! I’m sorry, your excellency, but you are wrong.”

The criteria for faithful dissent

The teachings of Fr. Richard A. McCormick, an expert in moral theology, were also highlighted by McClory during his May 3 keynote address in the Twin Cities.

McCormick is well-known for articulating the criteria for responsible or faithful dissent from a given Church teaching. This criteria holds that:

1. We must make a sincere attempt to understand the teaching in question.

2. We must consider the reasons for and against the teaching, remembering at all times the importance that Dei Verbum places on the experiences of the believer.

3. We must be willing to identify and confront our own biases and prejudices. In other words, we must be open to a serious examination of one’s conscience.

4. We must hold respect for the general trustworthiness of the Church.

“If one can follow those criteria with a good conscience,” says McClory, “no one can tell you you’re disobedient or try to kick you out of the Church.”

Taking action

McClory then offered advice for the prayer breakfast attendees, the majority of whom are members of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis and who are thus experiencing a new archdiocesan administration that is much more authoritarian than previous ones.

“There a lot of things you can do,” said McClory. “You can ‘dissent in place,’ meaning you stay where we are in your parish and/or archdiocese. This takes real guts and the strong leadership of a core group of people who say, ‘I will dissent in place’ – either publicly or privately, a core of people who are grounded in the documents of Vatican II and who know what theologians say about faithful dissent, a core group not easily intimidated by a triumphalistic archbishop or pastor.”

Letter writing, to the archbishop personally or to the editor of the archdiocesan newspaper and secular papers, boycotting of the Archbishop’s Appeal, picketing, public demonstrations, the hosting of alternative prayer services and educational events – all are legitimate actions that can be taken in any diocese that operates in a totalitarian way, said McClory. “We can also insist in dialogue,” he said. “If nothing else, a grudging respect can be developed between the archdiocese and those who are faithfully dissenting.”

“We also need gutsy members of the laity and gutsy priests – priests who are willing, despite concerns about their career, pension, or parishes to take a stand,” McClory declared, reminding the prayer breakfast audience that “Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston left office in 2004 only after a group of 85 priests wrote a statement saying, ‘You need to leave.’ The Vatican heard that, because it’s the priests to whom it’s more inclined to listen.”

Eucharist and community

McClory listed other steps that can be taken by Catholics so as to counter an authoritarian regime: organize a lay synod, find a parish that is supportive and in which one can be spiritually nurtured; form a network of small faith communities that may or may not be connected to a parish; form an intentional Eucharistic community – similar to what is happening in Holland and elsewhere. There are a great number of such communities emerging throughout the U.S., notes McClory. “In these communities, the Eucharist is always essential and fundamental but it is not necessary for a priest to preside,” he said.

Of course, for some, such communities are cause for scandal. There have even been calls for the excommunication of those involved in them. Yet in supporting intentional Eucharistic communities, McClory shared thoughts on Eucharist and community by the great Vatican II theologian, Edward Schillebeeckx, OP.

Schillebeeckx’s extensive research shows that in the first thousand years of the Catholic Church there was an intimate and unbreakable union between Eucharist and community. Reflecting on this union, McClory noted how “Eucharist comes out of the community. It does not come from any other source.”

For instance, the Council of Chalcedon (451 CE), declares that: “Only someone who has been called by a particular community (the people and its leaders) to be its pastor and leader authentically receives ordinatio. It is an appointment or incorporation of a particular fellow-Christian as minister to a community and indicates him as its leader. An absolute ordinatio . . . is null and void.” By this last sentence the Council of Chalcedon is saying that it is not an authentic ordination when a bishop ordains a priest who has not been called forth from and by a specific community.

In light of this ancient Catholic belief and practice, Schillebeeckx writes: “The essential connection between community and ministry . . . shows that the difference between the power of ordination and the power of jurisdiction was not only unknown [in the early Church] but inconceivable in ecclesial terms.” Thus Cyprian of Carthage (250 CE) declared: “No bishop is to be imposed on the people whom they do not want.” And Leo I (435 CE) decreed: “He who is to preside over all must be chosen by all.”

Schillebeeckx also notes that “for the early Church the community itself is the active subject of the ‘we offer the bread and chalice.’” Furthermore, “all the local community with its clergy chooses its own bishop, and the person who is called must in principle accept the choice by the community of his own free will, e.g. Ambrose and Augustine.”

Of course, the division between the power of ordination and the power of jurisdiction meant the opening of the door to absolute ordinations, says Schillebeeckx. “For although the ordained person might not be assigned a Christian community, he had all priestly power in his own person,” he writes. “This view opens up the way to practices which would have been unthinkable to earlier Christians.”

Schillebeeckx cites a number of examples of such practices, including the private mass and any notion that sees the priest as “the one set apart from the people.” Such a notion implies that “priestly celibacy is the only adequate expression of this essential separateness.” Therefore, “to give permission to the priest to marry would be equivalent to blurring the distinction between layperson and priest.”

Observes McClory: “All of us in the second millennium grew up with the notion that somehow the priest is invested with spiritual powers that he holds independently from the community.” Clearly, such an understanding is at odds with the first thousand years of Church teaching and practice.

The medium of illegality

That such discrepancy has caused problems and tension in the Church is undeniable, and it is “against the background of the existing church order,” writes Schillebeeckx, that “new and perhaps urgently necessary alternative possibilities can be envisaged only through the medium of what must be called illegality. From the history of the church it seems there is a way in which Christians can develop a practice in the church from below, from the grassroots, which for a time may compete with the official practice, but which in its Christian opposition and illegality can eventually become the dominant practice and finally be sanctioned by the official church.”

Schillebeeckx is not suggesting we return to the practices of the early Church. Those times and their cultural and social milieus are beyond our reach. There is no going back. Yet what he is suggesting is that the “urgently necessary alternative possibilities” that many in the Church are not only longing for and envisioning but beginning to embody (see here and here), should draw upon the early Church’s understanding of Eucharist and community, and reinterpret and embody this understanding in our current age.

Going forth unafraid

All of this “may or may not happen here” in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, says McClory. What he would say is that we are in for a “rocky time” with Archbishop Nienstedt.

“Yet you may also be in for something of what Schillebeeckx was talking about,” McClory added. “It all depends on how you handle this difficult situation. Who knows what can happen, particularly when an entire group of people, not just one group, not just those, for example, in favor of women’s ordination, or those in favor of a new approach to homosexuality, or married priests, [but when all of them] get together and begin to function as a power without being afraid to go forth.”

“In this way,” concluded McClory, “Minnesota is similar to Holland. People in both places are more focused on moving forward than being moved back. So many people in the Catholic Church in Holland told me: ‘Things are going on here. We are not going to be shut down.’”

The thunderous applause from those in attendance at the May 3 Prayer Breakfast for Hope and Justice, indicated that such a conviction is shared by many in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis.

We plan on going forward, unafraid.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
A Catholic Understanding of Faithful Dissent (Part 1)
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

For more on the situation here in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, see the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Talk of the Archdiocese
A Profound and Devastating Loss
250+ People Attend Catholic LGBT Pride Prayer Service in Minneapolis
Thoughts on Archbishop Nienstedt
The Shrinking Catholic Tent
Reflecting on Inclusive Language
Celebrating and Embodying Divine Hospitality
No Place for Dialogue in Archdiocesan Newspaper
When Quackery Goes Mainstream
Interesting Times Ahead
Monitoring Nienstedt
An Open Letter to Archbishop Nienstedt
Nienstedt’s “Trauma of His Own”
300+ People Vigil at the Cathedral in Solidarity with LGBT Catholics
Why We Gathered
Archbishop Nienstedt’s “Learning Curve”: A Suggested Trajectory

Image: Michael J. Bayly.


Anonymous said...

Hmm...the Church sees itself as both guardian of and promultagor (sic) of a unitary deposit of faith. The deposit of faith has two inseparable aspects, scripture and tradition.

There is a tendency among some Christians to add to these aspects. Among some Anglicans & Episcopalians - some, not all - there is what some call the "Three-legged stool" of scripture, tradition and reason.

Among some Methodists I've heard of scripture, tradition, reason and lived experience. It probably would not take too long to find 5, 6, 7 or more aspects. And then "deposits of faith" rather than a unitary "deposit of faith."

So, how is one to judge rightly between these model? Can they all be right? Can they all be partially right and partially wrong? Is this all dependent on temporal, historic, social or cultural context?

"I came to suggest how you might live more appropriately in the moment in your context, and have it to the full." Is that what Jesus is saying?

Anonymous said...

A problem that many elide is that faithful dissent even as outlined by Sullivan does not include being able to propose a different truth as universally definitive for the Church. That is, faithful dissent is by its nature personal and subjective.

But nature abhors a vacuum, and when people find themselves in good conscience unpersuaded to a level of moral certainty of a given teaching, they may well be tempted to propose a different truth in its place. That is, they go from a negative (that is, unable to assent in full) to an affirmative (that is, offer a truth they think is not only true for them but that all should acknowledge). Which prompts my repeated question here: if one is to propose that the teaching of the Church is wrong or incomplete in some way, one must demonstrate a sincere willingness to consider one's own thoughts and idea capable of being wrong or incomplete - after all, none of us can be *more* infallible than the Pope, can we? Faithful dissent thus requires a measure of epistemilogical and rhetorical humility (which is not the same as modesty, I should hasten to add).

When this dynamic is obtaining (and this is especially true in the vacuum of the media, which tempts people to fill space with ideas and analysis and conclusions), it is easy for the faithful dissent to get swallowed up into something else. The conversation changes without everyone realizing that it has indeed changed.

In this context, Niestadt's reaction is perfectly understandable and to be expected. He's not the only one responsible for the confused conversation - its occurring on both sides.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Actually, Mark, when Christians add to scripture and tradition, I don’t believe they would say they're adding to a “deposit of faith,” but rather to the sources of revelation. Even Catholics do this. For instance, according to Fr. Lee Pinhe, Vicar General of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, in order to “conform to God’s will,” Catholics must turn to three “sources” – “sacred Scripture, church tradition, and the church’s magisterium or authoritative teaching ministry.” I don’t think he’s talking about the “deposit of faith,” but rather sources of revelation.

I actually think that part of the problem is this term “deposit of faith.” It sounds so static and lumpish; as if it’s something you can boast about possessing (like an idol!), instead of being possessed by (like God!); something totally knowable and without mystery; something that can be handed on like a family heirloom, instead of being, in large part, discerned and discovered in the context of one's own unique spiritual journey in union with fellow seekers.

In short, it’s a term that can make us easily lose sight of the Church’s teaching of a living, growing tradition, a living and ultimately mysterious God.

Because of this, I like recalling what Pope John XXIII once said: “We are not on earth to guard a museum, but cultivate a flowering garden of life.”

He’s talking about our faith, our living faith, and thus about revelation. (And he talks about it in such a way that it doesn’t feel static or lumpish.)

And, of course, once we’re in the realm of revelation, then scripture and tradition are joined by experience as our primary sources. Actually, I think human experience is the primary source.

I mean, think about it: scripture and tradition are dependent on human experience of the sacred. How else did scripture come to be written and how else does tradition continue to develop? These things don’t just fall from the sky.

Rather they emerge in and through human experience. Accordingly, maybe we should start talking about the “spark of faith” or “seeds of faith” instead of a “deposit of faith”! Just a thought.



Anonymous said...

I am a devout Catholic and apologist. The Catholic Church simply cannot and will not ever change its position on homosexual union. Here is why: IT CAN'T.

The Catholic Church is the Church founded by Jesus Christ himself, as a Catholic you should know this. The Church is founded by Christ protected by the Holy Spirit and is loyal to God and HIS laws, HIS truth, not my truth or your truth.

I am in continual contact with people of other faiths, both Christians and atheists in an attempt to bring them into the fullness of Christ. You should know that in many cases one of their problems with entering the faith is dissenters like you claiming to be Catholic, "slandering" the name Catholic while all the while you are not. They get confused on what the Church truly teaches so they just give up. Ask yourself how you are going to justify this on judgment day.

There is no such thing as "faithful dissent" dissent is dissent. Open public dissension against the Church and the Pope is an attack on the Church of Christ and on every FAITHFUL Catholic around the world, including myself.

You should be ashamed of yourself. You are all heretics. Therefore I cannot support your cause, it is dividing the body of Christ. If you ever come to my city you will be faced with fierce, open opposition. We have the sword of truth and we will use it.

kevin57 said...

My point(s) would be a point-counterpoint:

On the one hand, calling people "heretics" whom neither the pope nor a bishop has done so is, to say the least, presumptuous. Of course, there is faithful dissent. Faith must be appropriated within the lives of individuals. It's not a neat, clean, absolute product or process. There are far too many in the Catholic Church who have control issues. They hide behind "unity" and "orthodoxy" in their real pursuit of fundamentalism. Any "truth" without "charity" is not suitable for the name of Christ.

On the other hand, while I agree that both scripture and tradition have the religious experience of the people of God as their base, I am not comfortable with having the Church be guided by experience as the ultimate criterion. That's because the experience of the people of God here and today is necessarily provincial and limited. Our experience, yes, must be taken seriously and be incorporated into that larger and richer vein of spiritual wisdom that is the scriptures and tradition. It is not fundamentalism on the one extreme or relativism on the other.