A Matter of Honesty, Part II--The Virtue of Open Dissent

I have made the claim before that I disagree with everything Fr. Dwight Longenecker has written.  Well, I have to take that back now, because I more or less agree with this article that he has written in Crux.  I know--dogs and cats, living together, mass hysteria.


Before I get to the things I agree with, a couple of niggles.  First, I don't think the statement of Vice Presidential candidate Tim Kaine that "Catholicism will come around on same-sex marriage" is hypocritical.  Longenecker asserts that it is OK to "think the Catholic Church is just plain wrong about this or that," and publicly say so, while "stay[ing] in the Church as 'the loyal opposition.'"  If so, it seems to be a logical extension of that to say "and eventually the Church will come around to my way of thinking, because I am right and they are wrong."  That's a prediction about the future, not a claim about the current state of Church teaching.  Moreover, if one cares enough about the Church to stick it out, presumably one does so with the hope that eventually things will come around to one's own point of view.  Naive, perhaps, but not hypocritical.

Also, putting aside the offensive use of scare quotes around "ordained" and "bishop," Longenecker asserts that a woman who gets ordaining in another denomination is still part of the loud, fractious Catholic family.  Presumably, before one gets ordained by a Methodist bishop (to use his example), one must first become a Methodist, and thus is not longer "part of the family" (unless one says that everyone who professes that they believe in the "one holy catholic and apostolic church" in the Creed, as the Methodists do, is part of the family, which is a different discussion and a sentiment I doubt Fr. Longenecker would subscribe to).  Likewise, if we are talking about the Roman Catholic Womanpriests movement, all of those ladies are under latae sententiae excommunication.  I know that people who are excommunicated are still technically part of the Church, but that's pretty much the functional equivalent of being shown the door.  So, I don't think that's a great example of his point.

But his core claim, the people who dissent soto voce while claiming to be "devout Catholics" are hypocritical, speaks to an important truth.  Let's take Joe Biden and the gay wedding, which is a cleaner example than that of Kaine for the reasons mentioned above.  Look, I love Joe Biden.  I wanted him desperately to run for President.  I would, to repurpose a line from his speech at the convention, follow him to the Gates of Hell.  I applaud his willingness to marry that couple.  But, here is what the Catholic Church says about politicians and gay marriage:



If it is true that all Catholics are obliged to oppose the legal recognition of homosexual unions, Catholic politicians are obliged to do so in a particular way, in keeping with their responsibility as politicians. Faced with legislative proposals in favour of homosexual unions, Catholic politicians are to take account of the following ethical indications.

When legislation in favour of the recognition of homosexual unions is proposed for the first time in a legislative assembly, the Catholic law-maker has a moral duty to express his opposition clearly and publicly and to vote against it. To vote in favour of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral.

When legislation in favour of the recognition of homosexual unions is already in force, the Catholic politician must oppose it in the ways that are possible for him and make his opposition known; it is his duty to witness to the truth. If it is not possible to repeal such a law completely, the Catholic politician, recalling the indications contained in the Encyclical Letter Evangelium vitae, “could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality”, on condition that his “absolute personal opposition” to such laws was clear and well known and that the danger of scandal was avoided. This does not mean that a more restrictive law in this area could be considered just or even acceptable; rather, it is a question of the legitimate and dutiful attempt to obtain at least the partial repeal of an unjust law when its total abrogation is not possible at the moment.

One presumes that, if Joe Biden has a positive obligation to "express his opposition clearly and publicly vote against" gay marriage, he equally has some sort of obligation to not participate in such union, and especially not to be the officiant of such unions.  There is not a lot of wiggle room here.

One might say, "the Catholic Church says that gay marriage is wrong and I have an obligation to oppose it, but they are completely wrong about this issue, and so I am going to do what I believe to be right.  Oh, and that guidance from the CDF on how I should vote?  Yeah, that's crap as well."  In fact, Biden has said that, if perhaps not so directly.  But, once you take that position, you are not really a devout Catholic anymore--you are doing something the Catholic Church tells you explicitly not to do.  You are, as Longenecker suggests, in dissent.

But, here's the thing.  There is power in dissent.  If you believe that the position of the Catholic Church on, for example, same-sex marriage, is wrong and unjust, publicly and unambiguously saying so, and being willing to take the consequences that come from that, is a witness to what you believe is the truth.  If public dissent means that some priest somewhere, maybe Fr. Longenecker, will deny you Communion, then that is the cost of taking a stand and an opportunity to stand up for what you believe.  (And if you believe, as I do, that Communion should never be used to enforce compliance with doctrine, then you are in dissent about that as well, as Canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law says otherwise).  A principle isn't a principle until it costs you something.

All of the power of that stand is voided the moment you insist that you are "really" a completely 100% swell Catholic.  By saying you are a 100% swell Catholic, you preemptively blaming anyone who would call you out on your dissent for being a jerk.  "What do you mean I'm in dissent?  I'm a 100% swell Catholic; you're just a hater."  All of the power of the dissent gets lost, because the argument turns into whether or not so and so who is mad is a hater, as opposed to the substance of the matter that forms the basis for the dissent.

The thing is, there is a method to this madness, and it is (unintentionally, I think) revealed in Fr. Longenecker's last couple of paragraphs.  There is one thing that open dissent forecloses or severely limits, and that is the ability to use the doctrinal cudgel against others in another context.  I have come around to the idea that one of the big reasons why so many people of the "Catholic left" go along with some of the harsher methods of the Catholic right is that they hope to be in the position to use the same methods against their opponents if the "worm turns."  Witness how quick people were to call out those that had issues with Laudato Si (as an aside, witness also Fr. Longenecker's attempt to weasel out from under the encylical).  If the endgame is to turn the guns of doctrine on the George Weigels and Acton Institute's of the world, you have to maintain at least a colorable case that you inside the pale before you cast them into the outer darkness.  The moment you admit you are in dissent from Catholic teaching, it becomes much harder to go after others on explicitly Catholic grounds.  That truly would make you a hypocrite.  So, to avoid that, you need to chum the waters a bit, and some of these bobs and weaves work to accomplish that.

The other dimension to this, and I say this as someone who has been guilty of this in his own mind from time to time, is to define "the Church" to which we are "devout" to be the one that exists in our own minds as opposed to the one that actually exists.  It is certainly the case that "the Church" is more than the people who make it up and the edicts that come down from the Vatican.  But the Church that actually exists, well, actually exists.  It might be comforting to think of the Church as being in the midst of a Babylonian Captivity while you hold on to your loyalty to the Once and Future King that is just over the horizon.  But that can easily turn into a delusion, especially if your loyalty to the Once and Future King causes you to muffle the voice of dissent.  And it doesn't really reflect the way things actually are.  There are a number of issues in which the Catholic Church doesn't provide much in the way of nuance or wiggle-room.  Better to acknowledge that fact and openly dissent from it than pretend it isn't true.

So, in the spirit of Fr. Longenecker's piece, let me say publicly that I am a dissenter.  I am a dissenter on contraceptionI am a dissenter on women's ordination, I am a dissenter on same-sex marriage and gay rights.  I am a dissenter on abortion, insofar as I don't believe that human personhood begins at conception.  I am a dissenter on who should be allowed to receive Communion.  I am a dissenter with regard to the authority of the Catholic Church generally, insofar as I don't really believe it has been consistent over time.  There are probably other areas of dissent that I am not thinking of.  And I will continue to be a dissenter unless or until I decide to leave the Catholic Church for another denomination, which is a very real possibility.

I am not under any illusion that my dissent is going to affect much or be particularly meaningful--which is a significant part of why it is a very real possibility I might not be a Catholic at some future point.  But it is what it is and it is honestly arrived at, and to the extent it has any impact on others it is a result of being open and public and unafraid.  If some priest somewhere thinks I shouldn't take Communion as a result of what I think and what I have said, it might impact my decision making on whether to remain Catholic, but such a priest is not being a "hater" or oppressing me unjustly.  That's the cost of being a dissenter.               

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