“Speak Freely - but watch your back”
Dissent and dissenters in the Catholic Church today
This is one of a series of lectures in St. Mary's RC Church, Haddington Road. The lectures are open to all and are of a high quality. They were instituted some years ago by the Parish Priest, Fr. Paddy Finn, and the series will henceforth be known as the Patrick Finn Lectures in his honour.
Fr. Corkery's talk was subtle and complex and I would need a lot of time and a script in front of me to fully come to terms with it. He was walking a tricky line on a subject that is controversial, sensitive, and positively dangerous for those dealing with it from within the current Roman Catholic Church.
So I am not going to attempt to convey what he actually said. Instead, I will confine myself to setting out what I took away from the lecture. So this is a subjective account for which Fr. Corkery can not be held entirely responsible. [CDF please note]
Traditionally "dissent" has involved people who wish to bring down the institution from which they dissent. But there is now a new kind of dissent within the RCC which aims at redeeming, or improving, the institution itself. The term has occurred with increasing frequency in official church documents from only as recently as the 1990s.
A careful analysis of church documents suggests that it is in order to freely undertake research into matters doctrinal and theological provided this does not result in public dissent. However, in the modern age of mass communications and intrusive journalism, it is very hard, if not impossible, to keep things under wraps, so the private eventually becomes the public.
You might therefore think that the instruction injuncts complete silence where the results of any such research appear to conflict with the current teaching of the church (the mysterious magisterium).
However, if you really put your mind to it, it's not that simple.
In the first place, what is the magisterium. There are varying levels of certainty and compulsion involved in church teaching. There's the truly infallible stuff, requiring the presence of 5 conditions, including the formal declaration of the infallibility of the teaching concerned. The Pope can teach infallibly, under these conditions. And this has only been resorted to twice in church history (the immaculate conception and the assumption). Ecumenical Councils of the church can also teach doctrines infallibly. Then there are the secondary objects of infallibility, which I would term infallible derivatives, which must be firmly accepted and held. And finally there is a whole lot of other stuff, which is less important. This last category would arguably include Humanae Vitae which is an encyclical and belongs to the ordinary papal magisterium.
So if you have a problem you can have a go at limiting the range of the compulsory magisterium. To assist you here, you should bear in mind that earlier church teachings on the acceptability of slavery and on there being no salvation outside the church itself, which were vehemently imposed on the faithful, have, in fact, changed over time. Also, from being forbidden to engage in serious theological conversation with our heretic Protestant brethern, we are now encouraged to enter positive dialogue with them.
If challenging the breadth of the magisterium doesn't work, you can quibble over the question of public dissent. This is where the principle of double effect comes into play. As long as you can show you didn't set out to create a public fuss, you just might be able to construct a workable defence.
As the lecture was given on the 50th anniversary, to the day, of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, I had better not leave that out. One of the features of that Council was substitution of the hand me down hierarchical model of the church with a more inclusive and broader concept of the discerning of truth, with the Holy Spirit not simply revealing the divine will to the Pope in the privacy of his study, but rather operating in a more diffuse manner through the whole church. This is the idea of the church as the People of God and it carries with it the dangerous idea of reception (ie widespread acceptance) as a criterion for establishing truth. Tricky stuff, you'll have to admit. And it was sufficiently vague at the time to allow the Curia and the Pope to effectively ignore the Council and slide back into the old ways. However, now, 50 years later, questions are being asked.
So where does all this leave us. Some brave souls feel that the spirit of Vatican II is capable of being reclaimed and they are attempting to lead the church (including the ordinary faithful) along this path. Sadly, the silencing of many in this community of optimists suggests that those who currently hold the reins of power will not give it up without a bitter fight. They are already resorting to the modern equivalent of the inquisition.
So, in an attempt to confuse the enemy, I have awarded myself a NIHIL OBSTAT and an IMPRIMATUR. I understand, however, that, these days, even possession of valid versions of these splendid artifacts may not be a sufficient defence against Holy Supergag Orders from Vatican HQ.
So, speak freely, but watch your back.