06. Dissent

The conclusion of our last chapter was that law, true law, stands higher than conscience. Some readers are already probably protesting: but does this not undercut the rights of conscience, especially the conscientious right to dissent of which our modern world is so aware?

            Conscience, we have said, should follow true and just law. But what if it does not? What if it does not see the truth or justice of some Church law regarding faith or morals? Surely it then has the right to dissent? Here is a matter that merits thorough consideration.

            To begin with, let us clarify one point and recall another. We are not referring to "dissent" about what are in fact matters of opinion, within Catholic thought or life. In matters that the Church as not ruled on or taught authoritatively, each Catholic clearly has full right to form his or her own opinion and to dissent from other opinions, whether of bishop, priest or layman.

            The point to be recalled concerns dissent in a purely disciplinary matter. As we pointed out in the last chapter, a person may "dissent" from such a law in the sense that he thinks -and is entitled to think - that it is unwise or inopportune. He can express his dissenting opinion and advocate the modification or abolition of the law, provided he does so without causing scandal. But, for as long as the law remains in force, ecclesial order calls on him to accept it and to obey it. Not to obey would be personally wrong, and would easily be a cause of scandal to other members of the ecclesial community.

            With these two points in mind, we can put the question about dissent into proper terms. "Does a Catholic have the right to dissent in relation to the Church?" means "Can a Catholic refuse, in conscience, to accept or obey some major aspect of church law or teaching without thereby affecting his position as a Catholic?"

            It is evident that there are dissenting Catholics in the Church today, also among the ranks of the clergy. Two questions arise: 1) do they have the right to dissent? 2) what are the consequences of dissent?

The right to dissent

            Again let us be clear what we are talking about. The point at issue is not whether Catholics can lose the faith or leave the Church. They can and they do; history gives sad and constant proof of this.

            The point at issue is not that. It is whether a Catholic has the right to dissent from some major aspect of church teaching or discipline, and still call himself a Catholic.

            It is again evident that quite a few Catholics claim this very right nowadays. They dissent from some fundamental aspect of church teaching - regarding papal infallibility, for instance, or the true bodily Resurrection of Jesus, or contraception - and still insist on regarding themselves as faithful Catholics, entitled to share in the ecclesial communion, to participate in the Eucharist, etc.

            Do they have the right to do this? A proper answer to this question can only be given in the light of the basic principle that rights derive from nature[1].

            Man has the rights that enable him to live according to his human nature and fulfil its possibilities. He has the right to life itself, to worship, to nourishment, to education, to human society, to friendship, to marriage, etc. because all these make him more a man, they humanize him. He. does not have the right to steal or kill or commit adultery, because that dehumanizes and denaturalises him. If a woman has not the right to abortion, this is because - apart from violating the right of the child - abortion defeminizes and dehumanizes her.

            A Catholic, as a human being, has the rights of any other human being. But, as a Catholic, he has the rights that derive from the nature of being a Catholic. He does not have rights that go against that nature. He has the right to everything that makes him more a Catholic, but not to what makes him less. To claim rights incompatible with the nature of being a Catholic means to denaturalize oneself as a Catholic; one thereby begins to de-catholicize oneself; to "ex-communicate" oneself in the literal if not in the juridical sense.

            This principle is clear enough. But of course we cannot apply it unless we define what the nature of a Catholic is; i.e. what it means to be a Catholic. Some of our contemporaries within the Church balk at this question. They hedge about the answer. If pressed, their answer would probably amount to: "We cannot say what it is to be a Catholic".

            Such cases of lost identity occur. But if a person cannot say what is Catholic and what is not, he cannot logically claim to be a Catholic himself. The term, and the reality, are meaningless to him. Neither can he logically engage in any debate about Catholic things, except perhaps as an outsider. He is at most in search of the faith, he has not found it. By his own admission he does not possess it.

            If an anthropologist says, "I don't know what man is, I don't even know if I am a man", how can he engage in anthropology?

            To the vast majority of Catholics, however, being a Catholic is something definite, with a very precise meaning: a meaning so rich that it can be expressed in many different ways, though all ultimately mean the same thing.

The identity of a Catholic

            To be a Catholic means to have access to the life of Christ, the grace of Christ, the truth of Christ. More precisely, to be a Catholic is to participate in Christ's life through communion in and with Christ's Church. It is to be a sharer in Christ's life by sharing in the life of the Church in which Christ lives. It is to belong to a Body that lives with the life of Christ and communicates it to those who are its living members (cf. Eph 5:30).

            In words taken directly from sections 14 and 31 of Lumen gentium, Book II of the Code of Canon Law begins by defining who are Christ's Faithful: "those who, since they are incorporated into Christ through baptism, are constituted the people of God" (c. 204). This description applies to all Christians, Protestants and Orthodox as well as Catholics. The next canon defines who are Catholics: baptized persons who are "in full communion with the catholic Church here on earth (and) are joined with Christ in his visible body, through the bonds of profession of faith, the sacraments and ecclesiastical governance".

            The nature or identity of a Catholic, then, is clear. Its essential feature, over and beyond baptism, is full communion with the Catholic Church, by which we are joined to Christ through the bonds of the faith, the sacraments, and the discipline of the Church. Each of these ecclesial bonds should be seen in terms of a link with Christ. Each represents a special encounter with Christ, and a special acceptance of Christ coming to meet us. They are not bonds that fetter us and hamper our movements, but bonds that join us to him, and so set us free.

            Full communion with Christ, therefore, is effected in the Church through:

            faith: because in the Church's teaching we meet the TRUTH of Christ;

            the sacraments: because in the Church's sacraments we meet the GRACE of Christ;

            discipline: because in and behind the Church's laws we see and accept the AUTHORITY of Christ.

            Just as each man has the right to breathe pure air, and eat wholesome food, and (more importantly) to think what is true and love what is good, because these are activities proper to man, so the Catholic has the rights which are proper to Catholics: the right to a peculiarly intense communion with Christ - the right to be taught by him, cured by him, fed by him, led by him, united to others in him - in and through the Church.

            Catholics have the power to reject that communion with Christ. They do not have the right to reject it. They may do so; but if they do, they do wrong. And, as we shall now see, they suffer in consequence.

            Particularly and very directly to our point, they do not have the right to "divide" Christ (cf. I Cor 1:13). In other words, they do not have the right to communion with Christ's life in the Church's sacraments, if they are not in communion with him - with his Thought and his Will - in her teaching and in her discipline.

The consequences of dissent

            But what if a person sincerely believes that a Church law or teaching on a fundamental matter is mistaken? Is he to steamroll his conscience and abjectly accept a doctrine or a law that he believes to be wrong?

            If he believes, in conscience, that the law or teaching is wrong, and that it would be wrong to obey it, then, as we saw earlier, he should disobey it; he must disobey it.

            But, the matter would not stop there. In following this course of action, he has not solved a problem of conscience. He has rather intensified one that already existed.... To explain this we must clarify a radical misconception that pervades the whole presentation of the dissenting position.

            It is inaccurate, it is self-deception, for our Catholic dissenter to speak of a conflict between Church authority and his conscience, as if these were two unconnected elements ranged in mutual opposition, as if the authority of the Church were a foreign element seeking to impose itself on his personal freedom.

            Church authority - belief in Church authority - is not an element opposed to his conscience. It is not an element outside his conscience. It is part of his conscience!

            Belief in the trustworthiness of the Church's authority is part of his conscience, because he himself has personally and freely chosen to make it part. The whole point is that the authority of the Church has no power over the mind that does not freely accept it, that does not freely believe that Christ stands behind it (Mt 18:18; Lk 10:16).

            If a Catholic does not believe in any way in the divine mandate behind the Church's authority, then he has totally lost his faith; he is no longer a Catholic, and there seems no justification for his wanting to call himself one. If he does believe in the Church's authority in some way, then he does so because he freely chooses to do so. Belief in the Church's authority is then part of his mental make-up. It is part of the elements in his mind by which he judges issues of right or wrong. In other words, belief in the authority of the Church is part of his conscience.

            So we are not talking about a conflict between Church authority and conscience, as if a man were fighting to defend his conscience against an external enforced principle. We are talking about a conflict inside conscience itself. Within himself a man finds two positions freely chosen and freely held, but (he feels) hard or impossible to reconcile; a personal belief, on the one hand, that Christ stands behind the Church's law or teaching; and a personal opinion, on the other, that an attitude or course of dissent - in regard to that law or teaching - seems licit. It is not conscience against authority; it is conscience against itself.

            It is a case, so to speak, of a split conscience; and it is the dissenter himself who has split it, setting up opposition between positions he himself chooses to hold. It is he who has ranged his "dissenting conscience" against his "Catholic conscience". Only he can heal that split. If he does not, the resulting tension will keep pulling and straining at his Catholic conscience until it tears it totally apart.

            After all, either one believes, or not, in the divine guarantee behind the Church's teaching. If one does not, one has not the Catholic faith. If one does, then to take a stand implying doubt or rejection of that divine guarantee, is to allow into one's mind opinions incompatible with those that are already present there. It is to become a house divided against itself.

            A person faced with conflicting beliefs or opinions within himself must choose which is to prevail. He may choose to conclude: since Christ stands behind the Church, in major points of her teaching and authority, then my mind, inclining to a dissenting position, must be mistaken. There is nothing unreasonable, nor should there be anything humiliating, in this conclusion: "It seems that I must be mistaken". The possibility of coming to such a conclusion must always be before the man who acknowledges the fallibility of conscience[2].

            But if he rejects this possibility and says, "No; I am not mistaken", he must necessarily conclude: "then the Church is mistaken". With that, his faith in Christ's presence in the Church begins to collapse.

            Because things do not stop there: collapse in one point is bound to be followed by further collapses. To begin to doubt some major point of the Church's teaching is to begin to doubt the Church's authenticity; i.e. it is to begin to doubt that Christ is effectively present in the Church. If Christ is not present in one major point of the Church's teaching or discipline, what grounds are there to believe that Christ is present in any of the truths or positions the Church maintains: present in its sacraments (especially in the Eucharist), in its worship, in any aspect of its life?

            If a person, faced with what he feels is opposition between church authority and his own conscience, "sides" with conscience in one particular issue, he will soon find the same opposition appearing in all sorts of other issues. If birth control can be licitly practiced in certain extraordinary circumstances, why can extraordinary circumstances (and, eventually, even ordinary circumstances) not justify homosexual conduct or extra-marital sex? If a man concludes that Christ does not uphold the Church's teaching on contraception, then he has no reason to put faith in its teaching about divorce or euthanasia or abortion...[3]

Conscience v. conscience

            These reflections may help those Catholics who feel themselves to be in a painful dilemma. Conscience, they say, tells them one thing; and the Church tells them another. In their dilemma, they follow the Church - but reluctantly, with a sense of coercion.... As I have written elsewhere, this sense of conflict is self-induced. "It derives not from a real collision, but from superficial thinking, from a lack of self-awareness, of grasp of one's own values".

            "Such Catholics need only to reflect a little on their sense of coercion to realize that whatever force they are aware of does not come from outside ...; the force comes from within. They are not being forced by the authority of the Church; they are being forced by their own belief in the authority of the Church. The teaching of the Church, after all, gains its force only from personal conviction. It holds sway only over the mind that is convinced of its truth. They are being forced, therefore, by their own free conviction, or whatever remains of their own free conviction, that the Church's teaching is divinely guaranteed. They are in effect being forced by their own conscience!.

            "If there is a conflict of conscience, it is precisely because conscience is divided against itself It is not conscience against the Church, but conscience against conscience. The consequence is clear: if a man wishes to protest about an interior conflict brought about by principles which he has personally and freely accepted, he should really protest to no one but himself"[4].

            Such Catholics are not being true to themselves, or consistent with themselves, or analyzing themselves properly. Self-analysis - of their own freely-held principles as Catholics - should enable them to resolve the problem that they sense within their own conscience.

            May we insist: the problem they are aware of is not a problem created by authority. It is a problem created by themselves: by their attitude towards authority. Only they can solve this problem: by a new understanding of authority: seeing Christ behind it. And by a new reaction to it: accepting it as an expression of Christ's will.

            Analysis of what it means to be a Catholic - free adherence to Christ in the Church - highlights the tragedy of the dissenter's position. He is dissenting from his own birth-right. He is dissenting from what he has the right to be. His dissent is a refusal to assent to the fullness of Christ's program for his Christian development.

            We cannot know Christ's mind in everything - more is the pity. But in matters that have a major bearing on our salvation - matters of belief and conduct - there we can know the mind of Christ. "Lord, what do you say on this: birth control, euthanasia, abortion ...?" And the Lord answers us in the Church[5].

            Allegations that there is "repression" within the Church of the "freedom to think differently" should be seen in this light. As we pointed out earlier, there is complete freedom to think differently in the many areas which Christ has wished to leave to the free debate of theological opinion. But once Christ has spoken his mind clearly (and only the Magisterium has the charism of the Holy Spirit to communicate to us the clear thinking of Christ), then one indeed remains free to think "differently"; but if one does so, one is no longer free to think in harmony with the mind of Christ.

            One is always free to think "on one's own terms". One is not free to be united to Christ on one's own terms. One can only be united to Christ on Christ's terms.

* * *

            This, then, is our conclusion. The Catholic has not the right to dissent; not without destroying the heart of his own Catholic faith and losing his Catholic identity. Dissent means to refuse to acknowledge or accept the authority of Christ - of his mind and his will - present in the Church. It means to refuse to commune with Christ.

            Further, it means to refuse to commune with others - the great body of the faithful - who remain, as Christ willed, united in the one faith; one in heart and one in mind (cf. Acts 4:32). It is to begin to withdraw from the Christian communion, setting in motion a process of "self-excommunication" by which one separates oneself from the "community of faith and charity", from the common Christian belief and life (cf. Chapters 16 and 17).

            Dissent is indeed to think "on one's own". It should be noted that I here use the phrase "thinking on one's own" in the literal sense of thinking in isolation. I am not for one moment suggesting that each Catholic should not think for himself. Rather, taking thought for oneself is what I would like each Catholic, especially dissenting Catholics, to do, so that they measure the consequences of their thinking; so that their thinking does not rupture the bonds that link their mind to the mind of Christ and the mind of the community of the faith.


[1] Cf. p.40 and p. 217ff.

[2] Naturally he should not let himself stop at this conclusion. He should start a positive process of investigation to see where his mind may have been mistaken. He should especially try to investigate, and to reflect more deeply upon, the positive arguments behind the Church's position.

[3] To choose to dissent, on conscientious grounds, from major church teaching, is to put one's conscience higher than Christ, and so make one's conscience the sole guide to own's actions. The person who does so attributes infallibility to his own conscience, and denies infallibility to Christ. In other words, he attributes to his conscience what is not due to it, at the same time as he denies to Christ what is due to him. He puts his trust not in Christ but in himself.

[4] Conscience and Freedom (Sinag-Tala, Manila, 1978), pp. 84 and 87.

[5] Cf. ibid. pp 105ff; and below, Chapters 14-15.