Disagreement and Dissent: the Devil’s in the Details

Martin Luther's 95 Theses Ferdinand Pauwels, 1872

Martin Luther’s 95 Theses Ferdinand Pauwels, 1872

My father passed away in 2005, but every time I read articles like this one I think of him. The article, by Donald Cardinal Wuerl, is all about dissent, and my father was one of the most obedient Catholics I’ve ever known. But he knew the difference between disagreement with a Pope and dissent from Church teaching. Cardinal Wuerl, however, makes little distinction in his article between the two.

Not that I always understood the distinction myself. My attendance at Catholic schools for 12 years did little to provide me with substantial Catholic teaching. “Be nice and don’t do drugs,” is how one priest my age summed up his childhood religious education.

During my college years, then, it was with a sense of totally new discovery that I began to understand the depth and the beauty of the Catholic Faith. Pope John Paul II played a huge part in my transformation from ill-formed semi-feminist cultural Catholic to… well, a slightly better-informed practicing Catholic. The watershed moment was reading his Mulieris Dignatatem. Finally, everything made sense; all the longings and questionings of my heart were stilled as I could at long last see God’s beautiful design for womanhood that I had sought but never found elucidated in a way that rang true. The pope became my hero. I hung on his every word, followed his travels, his audiences, and his writings. I felt overwhelming gratitude to him, as if he personally had reached a hand into my dimness and brought me into beautiful light. I will never forget seeing this Saint in person at the 1993 World Youth Day in Denver. In some mysterious way he seemed to bring the very love of God with him wherever he appeared, and to hand it to each of us as a personal gift.

Newly zealous for my faith, I quickly divided the people around me into two neat groups: the faithful and the dissenting. We enthusiastic, prolife, orthodox Catholics were a small but vocal minority. Then there was everyone else in the pews – poorly catechized Catholics picking their beliefs from what seemed to appear to them a mostly unappetizing smorgasbord. Thank God we faithful could at least point to John Paul II as clear evidence that we were right! Everything he said glowed with truth!

As I grew in knowledge of the Faith I began to look about me. I noticed my dad. Here was a man who’d never strayed, even when tempted to do so after the tragic death of his own father a week after his high school graduation. He prayed his rosary faithfully, loved the Mass, and was devoted to all the observances of the liturgical year. I asked him once what it had been like for him when the Mass changed after Vatican II. He told me how disconcerting it was and how he’d felt a little lost. It had been painful. How could he be sure, I asked, that the Church was still THE Church? “Christ promised us,” he said, “that the gates of hell would not prevail against it.” When the Church spoke, he obeyed. He knew that whatever else might happen, this course could not ultimately fail him.

As the years passed it became more and more clear to me the firm stuff my father’s faith was made of. Diagnosed at the young age of 61 with Alzheimer’s Disease, he turned to prayer and his rock-solid marriage. He stood firmly grounded in his faith and accepted the suffering he foresaw. Now when he prayed the rosary it was always the sorrowful mysteries, every single day.

Back to my two groups. Dad needed to fit in with us Faithful Catholics, of course. But, er… He didn’t agree with the pope sometimes. Dad disagreed with JPII’s statements about economic policy and nuclear disarmament. Having majored in international affairs and Russian, I was familiar with the issues. While I knew most of my professors would agree with JPII’s views on these matters, I knew Dad didn’t. But… How could this faithful Catholic possibly disagree with the pope, my hero? The cognitive dissonance was painful.

The dilemma lay in the back of my mind for years; I could no more let it go than make sense of it. The strength and beauty of my father’s faith only became more apparent as the final sufferings of his life intensified. It had rarely been necessary to think about it much when we had a pope that most of us Faithful Catholics found it easy to agree with, even when he wasn’t speaking authoritatively. But this could change, and what such a change might mean bore some contemplation. I realized that agreeing with the pope on matters that do not touch faith and morals is no litmus test for faithfulness. The simple fact that most Faithful Catholics DID agree with everything John Paul II said did not prove that such complete acceptance — on statements in no way authoritatively delivered — is mandatory.

Maybe I was a little ahead of my peers in coming to this conclusion. Maybe most of us had been lulled by the good fortune that the only pope we could remember was one with whom we shared a worldview. But given the staggering number of papal interviews, speeches and statements made, recorded, and translated in modern times, it is no surprise that a faithful Catholic might disagree with the pope’s statements on non-essential matters like foreign policy. And that didn’t need to rock my faith. Only fear had caused it to do so. I was afraid for anything to shake up the neat, tidy lines I’d drawn. But with deepening faith comes the loss of fear. The Faith is bigger than diplomacy, economics, and foreign policy. We need not fear to disagree with a pontiff on such matters, because no such temporal matter can alter the truth of what the Church has taught and handed on for centuries.

The main theme of Cardinal Wuerl’s article is that, in recent times at least, there has always been dissent, and there probably always will be. True enough, and perhaps a balm for people concerned that the sky is falling because there’s been so much doctrinal dissent in recent years. However, Cardinal Wuerl goes on to note the various currents of papal “dissent” he’s witnessed in his adult life. While he could perhaps be applauded for taking seriously the dissent from authoritative teachings like Humanae Vitae, I stop clapping as soon as I see that he equates such dissent with disagreeing with John Paul I’s habit of smiling a lot. Something is amiss.

Whenever Cardinal Wuerl is described in the press or elsewhere, you can be sure the word “teacher” is going to come up eventually. He has, whatever else one might notice about him, a remarkable gift for explaining points of faith. That’s why I was shocked to read in his article the conflation of the “doctrinal, pastoral, canonical, … [and] simply matters of clerical vesture.” Careful as he is to categorize the different types of “dissent” he’s enumerating, he fails to make clear the serious difference for the faithful person who disagrees with the mind of the Church on a matter of doctrine and one who disputes a change in the vesture of bishops. Apparently, it’s all one and the same. Didn’t Jesus say, “The dissenters you will always have with you”? We just have to put up with them.

How unfortunate that Cardinal Wuerl put aside the opportunity he opened up for himself: to catechize the faithful about the duties we owe the Holy Father, to outline carefully the meaning of the term “dissent,” and even to discuss areas where the faithful may legitimately demur from a statement of the pope, including our responsibility to consider such matters with prayer and a firm footing in Catholic teaching.

Looking back on the lack of content in my own Catholic education, I’ve always hoped we’d start giving something more to our people today. On this issue, my husband and I have carefully made clear for our children the reverence, honor and love due the Holy Father. We have also helped our older children understand what the word “dissent” truly means – and what it does not. I had hoped our bishops, by this day and age, would be doing the same.

What are we afraid of?

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