7. Dissent and the Rights of the Faithful

7. Dissent and the Rights of the Faithful
In the last chapter we discussed the right to dissent in the light of the principle, "rights derive from nature". The application of this principle to priests is of particular importance. It means that priests have the rights that are consistent with the nature of the Catholic priesthood, not those that go against. And the Catholic priesthood is ministerial in its nature; the Catholic priest is ordained for service.
The priest has been chosen, and has chosen, to serve. He has therefore the right to serve, and the right to all those things that enable him to serve God and his people better.
But just as the priest has the right to serve, so he has the obligation to serve. Rights derive from nature; so do obligations [21]. In freely accepting God's call to be a priest, he has also freely accepted the obligations that accompany the priesthood: for instance, the obligation of obedience (c. 273) or that of celibacy (c. 277). As regards the priest's teaching mission, the nature of the Catholic priesthood confers the right to teach, but not the right to teach anything, or to teach whatever one likes. On the contrary this right to teach is conditioned by the freely assumed obligation to teach what the Magisterium presents as authentic Catholic teaching. Under the title of"The Ministry of the Divine Word", Book III of the Code says, "The mystery of Christ is to be faithfully and fully presented in the ministry of the word, which must be founded upon sacred Scripture, Tradition, liturgy and the Magisterium and life of the Church" (c. 760).
Rights and obligations are interconnected. They condition each other mutually, not only in the same person but also as between different persons. If a priest has a special obligation to serve, this is because other persons - the rest of Christ's Faithful - have a special right to his service (cf. Chapter 3). That is why dissent, in the case of a priest, is never a purely personal matter. Dissent in a priest is bound to have consequences not only on his own personal faith and communion with Christ, but very particularly on the faith and life of the people whom he is called to serve. His dissent may violate their rights.
The right to guidance

Not all priests are law-givers. Properly speaking, only Popes and Bishops give laws; and even so their power as legislators is severely limited. They cannot enact laws that go against the natural law or the law constituted by Christ. They are basically custodians and servants of the law of Christ.
Not all priests are law-givers. All priests however are "law-guiders' in the sense that all priests have the mission to guide people in the law, and people have the right to find in each priest a sure and qualified guide in the law of Christ and the Church. This indeed is what they expect of a priest.
It can help if we take a few examples from secular fields. What do people expect from a doctor? Sound medicine. They expect a doctor to know sound medicine and to administer it. They do not expect him to treat them as guinea-pigs testing out on them the latest theories he has heard at some medical congress or read in a physician's journal.
Not only do they expect sound medicine from doctors; they have a right to it. If a patient goes to a hospital and puts himself in the hands of the doctors there, he has a right to sound medical treatment. If he were to be made a subject of medical experimentation without his consent, if his health were to be harmed by unsound medical practice, his rights would have been violated and he would have a claim in law for damages.
It is precisely in order to protect people's rights to sound medicine that medical schools are set up, and that the teaching there is in some way supervised so that they turn out true and well-qualified doctors and not amateurs or quacks.
Professional knowledge
Professional knowledge is highly rated today. People feel the need for qualified and specialized knowledge in areas where their own knowledge is inadequate or non-existent. People go to an architect and expect him to know about the construction of houses. They go to a mechanic and expect him to know about motor engines and how to make them work. They go to a lawyer and expect him to know the laws of the country. The lawyer's client, for instance, may have had an apparently profitable business deal put to him. He is attracted, but he has his doubts about aspects of its legality. Is it within the law? He goes to consult his lawyer and expects his lawyer to know. If his lawyer did not know, he would regard him as incompetent.
People expect to be told definite things by professionals. This house can be built this way or it cannot. This engine can be fixed or not. This is legal, or it is against the law. They expect professional knowledge. They expect professional competence.
"Ask the priests".
If people listen to a priest preaching or go to consult him personally, it is because they expect him too to have specialized knowledge. The priest, after all, is a professional in his own area. It is for this that he has gone through his priestly training: not just to satisfy his personal curiosity or intellectual hunger, not just to know for himself, not even just to come closer himself to God, but to be in a position to serve others within the specific area of his professional competence. And, in terms of professional knowledge, his area is the Gospel and the law of Christ and of the Church.
The priest, in his professional knowledge, does not regard everything as certain. But he should know what is certain in matters of belief and present it as certain; and know what is a matter of opinion and present it as such. In matters of conduct, he should know what is in accordance with the law of Christ and the Church, and what is against it.
People have their questions and problems in matters of faith and morals. They look to the Church and its priests for guidance. They have the right to ask, and they expect to be given an answer.
"Interroga sacerdotes legem", we read in the prophet Haggai (2:12): ask the priests for an answer on points of law; and the priests gave an answer. So, canon 762 affirms that "the people of God are first united through the word of God, and are fully entitled to seek this word from their priests" (cf. c. 213).
People are not favorably impressed, but just the opposite, if a priest says, "I do not know what is right or wrong", in areas where he should know, because he should possess the knowledge that Christ revealed and communicates for men's guidance through his living voice in the Church. People expect that priests, like Christ himself (Mt 7:29), will speak authoritatively in matters where the Church speaks with Christ's authority.
Taking decisions for others?
Some priests seem reluctant to give clear guidance on the grounds that this would mean imposing a view on people or taking a decision for them. An architect does not impose a view on his client when he tells him that it is possible or not to build a ten-story building on a particular site. A lawyer is not imposing a decision on a client when he tells him that the business deal he is thinking about is against the law. Nor does a mechanic impose a view or take a decision for his client when he tells him that his car brakes are worn and may fail at any moment. In each case it is the client who will make up his mind to accept the professional opinion given or not. It is the client who will take his own decision. But when he freely went to the professional man or the expert in the first place it was precisely in order to get more information - reliable information - so as to be in a better position to come to a mature and well-informed personal decision.
When a traveller, at a road junction, asks an A.A. guide which is the road to a particular town, he does not feel imposed on when the A.A. guide tells him; nor does he think that any decision has been made for him or the responsibility of deciding taken out of his hands. On the contrary, he feels relieved, he feels freer to travel, because he now has information he lacked before. Now he can make up his mind more freely than in his previous state of uncertainty [22].
If the A.A. man were to reply to the traveller's question, "The way to Camden? Sorry, I haven't the slightest clue", the traveller would probably feel strongly tempted to write a letter to the A.A. complaining about Officer So-and-So's ignorance and asking them to please ensure that their guides can guide.
Follow your conscience

Imagine what sort of letter would be written if the reply was, "The way to Camden? Yes, I know. Or at least my Association says it knows. But I wouldn't dream of conditioning your freedom by giving you any directions. After all, you are mature enough to decide for yourself. Just follow your conscience; that's my advice ..."
I do not know if this is an unfair parody of how some priests today fulfill their role as preachers, teachers and guides, in homilies and talks, or in person-to-person counselling in the rectory or the confessional. But I would like to make a few points about the not infrequently given pastoral advice, "Follow your own conscience":
a) when a person is told to follow his conscience he is not being told to do anything he chooses. "Follow your conscience" is not an equivalent to "Do whatever you like". In no way! "Follow your conscience means: "Do what your conscience, listened to in all sincerity, tells you to be right. Avoid what your conscience, listened to in equal sincerity, tells you to be wrong".... And, since the experience of all of us is that what we would like to do is quite often judged by our conscience to be wrong, following one's conscience can be a very demanding matter indeed [23]. The person who sincerely follows his conscience will often have the impression of going in a direction that a large part of him does not in the least feel like following.
b) "Follow your conscience" is, in any case, a non-contribution, as far as advice goes. It solves nothing, precisely because it says nothing new. The Church has always taught that people should follow their conscience - that they are morally bound to do what they think is right and morally bound to avoid what they think is wrong;
c) and that is what people are not sure about; that is precisely why they seek advice. Hence their constant questions addressed to priests: "What is right? What is wrong?", they keep asking. "What pleases God and what displeases him? What leads to heaven and what leads away from it? Does the Church not have anything to say, any guidance to give me on this matter? ... I have come to you because you are a priest, and I suppose you are knowledgeable in this field. Or have your studies taught you nothing?"
If the stock answer of priests consulted about moral problems becomes "Follow your conscience", why should people go to consult them at all? It is an answer not worth having.
"But, Father, how can you tell me to follow my conscience? My conscience brought me to you! What is the use of your clearly telling me to follow my conscience if my conscience does not clearly tell me anything?! My conscience is in doubt; it is perplexed. I am not sure what is right or wrong in this matter, and I came to you because I thought you would know"....
When all is said and done, the non-contribution of "Follow your own conscience" can be a cover-up formula, a handy way of evading one's duty to give people the guidance they have a right to.
"But - a priest is not supposed to make people's minds up for them". True, if by this is meant that a priest has no right to take decisions for others. But, if a person comes to a priest precisely because his mind is "unmade", i.e. because he cannot put the elements present in it together in a way that makes sense and enables him to see the moral issues clearly, then the priest can and should help him distinguish the right and wrong aspects of the matter. Once the person has sorted out his mind and found his moral bearings, then he takes his own decision. The priest has taken no decision for him. The priest, in his qualified consultant's capacity, has simply given him the technical information he sought as a prelude to his personal decision.
Quite a number of priests seem to have thought themselves into a tangle on this point. They justify their refusal to give concrete moral guidance with the argument that they want people to be "mature" Christians, unafraid to face up to their personal responsibilities. It is a pseudo-argument. A truer analysis of the matter suggests that it is the priest who is not facing up to his personal responsibilities and who seems afraid to exercise the function of a qualified guide that people expect to find in him.
A compassionate ministry
This is not meant to suggest that the Church or its priests should have a ready answer for each and every moral situation. Of course not. There certainly are occasions when a priest can and should decline to give concrete advice, and can and should say, "I cannot tell you exactly what is right or wrong in the particular case you have put to me. You will have to judge that for yourself'. This occurs frequently enough in finer matters of justice (cf. Lk 12:13f), where the exact measure of right or wrong is hard to determine. For instance, an employee has been embezzling money from the company he works for, and now he wants to make restitution. But he is not sure of the exact amount to be restituted since he feels (rightly so, it seems) that his firm has unjustly denied him certain salary increments. The priest does not have to determine the precise amount of restitution. In such a case he can and should tell the person to decide for himself to follow his own conscience.
But such advice can never be rightly given in major and clear matters of morality. No priest can tell a person "Follow your conscience" if that person is consulting him about committing murder or rape or adultery, for instance. The same holds good when the consultation is about pre-marital sex. And the same, when it is about contraception.
Faithfulness to every aspect of his pastoral ministry demands that a priest be clear with people: "This is wrong. That is a grave sin". Where is compassion in all of this? It is emphatically present precisely in that if people are helped in this way to be truly aware of their sins and to be truly sorry for them, they can be forgiven time and again; time and again. And so, in the Sacrament of Pardon, they continually meet God's unfailing mercy. Compassion in pastoral ministry is perfectly compatible with clarity in doctrine. Jesus gives us the example: for instance, in his compassionate but direct way of dealing with the adulterous woman (Jn 8).
For a priest to silence the objective gravity of a sin is false compassion. It could be compared to that of a doctor who, in order to spare a patient mental distress, does not tell him that he has a serious disease.
The doctor's compassion might be justified if the disease in question were incurable. But his silence would not only be unjustified, it would be irresponsible, if he were not to tell a patient he has a serious disease that can be cured; that can be cured provided precisely that the patient is prepared to undergo the proper treatment.
Sin can be forgiven. And gravely sinful habits can be cured. But they will not, if people are led to believe that they are not sinful, or that they are not grave. They have to be told clearly: that is a sin; and (if it is so) a big sin. But God's mercy is bigger still. Keep on fighting, keep on trying, keep on struggling to avoid the occasions, keep on confessing, and in the end you will see how God's grace enables you to conquer.
The priest's compassion does not mean pretending to people that the effort and burden of following Christ are not there. It means showing them how trust and docility make the burden lighter, and faith and hope make the effort seem more and more worthwhile.
The priest's professional competence
When a priest passes on the certain knowledge that comes from faith and proper theological study, he is not showing arrogance or self-assurance. He is showing assurance in Christ, and in Christ's Church. And this, I repeat, is what people expect of a priest and are surprised if they do not find. Just as people might be surprised if they ask a person with a watch for the time. "The time? Sorry. I just couldn't tell you.... You see, I trust my own watch so little..."
Since the priest whose advice in a major matter is, "I can't say. You just follow your conscience", is letting people down and disowning his professional competence, perhaps we should say a few more words about that priestly competence to which people have a right.
The priest's competence is of course a unique thing. It derives in part from his ordination and mission; and in part from his personal formation and training.
Ordination makes a priest competent, i.e. makes him able, to consecrate and to forgive sins (cf. PO, 2), and at the same time gives him a special competence to teach and lead people in the way of Christ.
His competence in relation to the sacraments is essentially God-given. For instance, he does not have to learn how to consecrate [24]; it is a power given to him from above.
In order to teach and to lead, however, he does have to learn the way of Christ, the mind of Christ, the law of Christ. What he has to learn comes also from above. It is also given, with an objective content, which his mind needs to assimilate, through study based on faith (which is what is meant by theological study). Only if he studies and learns in this way will he be competent to pass on the truth and the law of Christ to others.
Proud and intolerant?
A priest should be aware of his competence. He should be sure of his principles. He should be conscious of the clarity and beauty and power of the way he has to teach.
But, is this not pride? ...
Why should it be pride on a priest's part to present himself as one who knows the teaching of Christ? Do people call a doctor proud because he professes to know medicine? Do they expect him to be so humble that he disclaims all medical knowledge?
In some church circles, nevertheless, there exists an impression that any claim to certainty in matters of faith and morals is a sign of a proud and intolerant spirit, while the attitude that everything is a matter of opinion shows humility and a liberal approach full of respect for others.
The fact of the matter is just the contrary. The act of faith - that Christ stands behind his Church's teaching authority - is an act of humility. It is the humility of the mind that is prepared to look up to a Truth that is greater than itself.
The maximum regard for others and respect for their freedom is shown in setting that Truth before them: not as my opinion; as Christ's! Each one will then decide whether he or she accepts that teaching as coming from Christ, or not.
I like faith; and common sense. I dislike judging any person; that is something that can be properly done only by God and, hopefully, by the person concerned. With that in mind I would add a comment which is meant to be helpful, not harsh. That attitude of superior open-mindedness with which some members of the clergy turn any and every point of Church teaching or authority into a matter of opinion...: it makes one wonder whether what parades itself under the guise of liberal spirit and humility is professional ignorance (they did not learn what their profession required), or moral cowardice (they are afraid to say what they believe), or simple loss of faith (they do not believe what they learned).
Wanting to be certain
Each Catholic, then, will and must decide in the end according to his personal conscience. Each one must take his own decisions. But he has the right (and the duty) to make an informed decision. And so he can and should look for guidance to the Church, as teaching and ruling in the name of Christ; and to the Church's priests as competent teachers of the law of Christ and the Church. He is not ignoring or renouncing his conscience in seeking guidance. He is informing it so as to be able to come to a mature personal decision based on the maximum available certainty.
The "search for certainty" is of course also under fire today. Disparaging references are often made about it as if to seek certainty denoted a lack of character, and were a sign of psychological or intellectual immaturity; and the suggestion is frequently put forward that each one should be mature enough to face up, on his own, to the uncertainties of life, and to work out his own problems.
Of course each one must work out his or her own problems. But most people do not prefer to solve them "on their own", if they have a source of trustworthy information to hand. They prefer to consult.
Most people do not prefer uncertainty. They prefer certainty - if it can be obtained. If it cannot and one has to move in the dark, one does so. But it is not the situation most of us prefer to be in.
People moving in the dark grope along with their hands outstretched before them, or shuffle hesitatingly forward with their feet. They want to be certain what is there, and yet their eyes do not tell them. They want to be certain there is an open road, not a brick wall or a precipice. Their eyes don't give them information, and so they have to rely on their hands and their feet. If they had someone beside them so familiar with the road that he could walk it in the dark - or could see in the dark - they would probably be happier to rely on him and to be led by the hand. Would it be immaturity to let oneself be led so?
Self-reliance is a virtue - up to a point. Self-reliance to the point of not being prepared to accept any outside advice is no longer a virtue; it is a sign of unthinking stubbornness, or of pride: which are of course themselves proofs of immaturity.
Few people push self-reliance to the extent of refusing to consult maps or road-signs when they are travelling along unfamiliar roads. Yet quite a number of people who will readily let themselves be guided by an inanimate road-sign, balk at consulting or listening to a living source of information; basically, they just don't like "being told" what to do by someone else....
Whether it is reasonable and a sign of maturity to follow someone else's advice depends evidently on the grounds one has for trusting that person. When the "Someone Else" telling us what to do is Christ, then the greatest reasonableness and the greatest maturity are shown in wanting to listen to his Voice and to follow it.
The living Voice of Christ, speaking to us in the Church - in Scripture, in Tradition, in the Magisterium - is our surest guide. People have the right to hear that Voice. Priests have the duty to echo it. * * *
In summary, then, the priest's role as guide and teacher binds him:
- firstly, to know and communicate the mind and law of Christ, of the Church, as taught by the Magisterium, without obscuring or casting into doubt what the Magisterium itself presents as clear and certain; and without communicating his own personal difficulties or doubts (just as a doctor seeks not to communicate to his patients any germs of illness he may personally have). "The lips of the priest ought to safeguard knowledge" (Malachi 2:7).
- secondly, to realize himself, and to point out to others when necessary, the consequences of not accepting some important point of Church teaching or discipline; i.e. the rupture of full communion with Christ, the undermining and the danger of eventual collapse of one's whole Catholic faith and life.
If someone says that all of the above reasoning is based on insecurity, on not being sure of oneself, I agree. I am not sure of myself, not at least where salvation is concerned. But I am sure of Christ. I am sure that he speaks to us in the Church, and sure too that if we make every effort to follow his voice, we may yet make it to heaven. And that is what matters. Making it to heaven is the one unresolved problem in each of our lives that we simply have to work out correctly. We cannot afford to flunk that one. And we won't work it out on our own.