LOYAL DISSENT VITAL TO LIFE OF CHURCH
By DR. INGRID SHAFER, Phd.
Christianity was born out of the courage to dissent. Jesus was both a loyal Jew and one who challenged the establishment. Indeed, he was silenced by execution precisely for being a dissenter. There is a long tradition in Judaism of "loyal dissent," and that tradition was carried over into Christianity first by Paul who challenged Peter and subsequently by seminal thinkers throughout the history of the church. Without dissent there would be no life and growth, and the very word "consent" would be meaningless. In the church the task of formulating doctrine has generally been carried out by theologians who arrived at decisions through a dialogical process of deliberating, questioning, weighing alternatives, and--rather frequently --getting themselves temporarily condemned and silenced. This even happened to Thomas Aquinas.
In fact, until this century, and in keeping with autocratic paradigms accepted in the secular sphere as well, the church has an appalling history of attempting to stifle all dissent from accepted teachings. Yet, dissent did continue, because without dissent there is no life. Rigid dogmatism came to an end with the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Liberty which states that "The human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all humans are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals, social groups and every human power" and insists that "Nobody is forced to act against his convictions in religious matters in private or in public." The framers of the document continued: "Truth can impose itself on the mind of humans only in virtue of its own truth" and that people "must not be forced to act contrary to their conscience, especially in religious matters."
The dismissal of Dr. McEnroy from a tenured teaching position at St. Meinrad's seminary represents a step back into the autocratic mindset of the past. It sends the message that future priests should be carefully protected from learning to think for them- selves. It is a sign of fear and weakness. As long as we are secure in ourselves, we see no need to denigrate or silence those who are different. We understand, with John Stuart Mill, that any truth worth the appellation can stand up to error and will prevail in the free exchange of opinions. To arbitrarily stop discussion is an admission of internal debility, something called "appeal to force" by logicians, and a fallacy.
This step is also particularly destructive because it further diminishes the already floundering authority of the church by forcing a confrontation, refusing to put power in the service of love, and building bulwarks that will not stand up. The post-Tridentine fortress church is gone and cannot be restored. For ultimately the church is not a completed entity but a process toward realizing God's presence on earth, and is perfect only insofar as it sees itself in dialogue with both Jesus and the world. Without that dialogue, without carefully reasoned, mutual, and respectful exchange of opposing opinions, the institutional church will isolate itself from the people of God. And that would be truly tragic.
"Reprinted with permission by the National Catholic Reporter" (1-800-333-7373)..
This article first appeared in NCR in 1995