Handling dissent

In 1985, as the opening up of the Roman Catholic Church in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council was gradually being wound down, the Vatican imposed on the Brazilian priest and liberation theologian, Leonardo Boff, a one-year sentence of ‘obsequious silence’. While I adored the term, and have often been tempted to find worthy subjects for such an order, in reality I was horrified by the idea that curiosity, analysis and open-ended thought could be stifled in this way.

And of course this particular approach to theological dissent has not gone away. In recent days the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (a vaguely Orwellian sounding body) has newly silenced an Irish priest known for his (relatively) liberal views, Father Tony Flannery, and has restricted the freedom to publish of the editor of a religious magazine, Father Gerard Moloney. Fr Flannery has now also been told to get himself to a monastery to reflect on his unorthodox views and (presumably) come up with something more on-message. The views he is expected to lose include support for married and women priests.

It is tempting, at any rate for me, to find this development appalling.  For anyone who is committed to a search for truth and for open-minded analysis, the idea that a group of elderly (and clearly out of touch) men in Rome could order someone – anyone – to stop all this open thinking is simply abhorrent. The consolation may be that the Vatican’s move seems to have unleashed much wider dissent in the Irish RC church.

But nevertheless, let us for a moment look at it from the perspective of the elderly men in the Vatican. For them, the church never changes. Of course in reality it has changed often and will do so again, but the institutional culture is that absolutely no change can happen or even be discussed until it, well, happens. So for them, the issue is simple enough. Fr Flannery is a Roman Catholic priest, and in that capacity he has signed up to a number of key doctrines, and as priest he needs to represent these to the faithful. The church is not a debating club, and while its members may turn ideas around in their minds, the clergy need to be steadfast.

Nor is the Roman Catholic Church alone in having such issues. A few years ago the then Dean of Clonmacnoise in the Church of Ireland, Andrew Furlong, declared he did not believe Jesus was the son of God, and expressed other views incompatible with the creeds to which Anglicanism and other denominations of Christianity subscribe. He was suspended from his ministry and eventually left the priesthood. The point made then was that you could not expect to be paid as a priest if you disagree with the central tenets that you are supposed to represent.

Perhaps the key to all of this is that while Dean Furlong was pretty far removed from almost any principles of Christianity as commonly held, Fr Flannery is looking to have some organisational rules of the church reinterpreted in the light of spiritual reflection, while holding on to the key doctrines and principles.

Dissent is an important support in any search for the truth. Dissent offered from within the fold, from someone committed to the life and health of the institution, is an asset rather than an impediment. A culture of blind obedience, or of ‘obsequious silence’, is far removed from today’s values. If the church is to thrive in the future, it needs to show an understanding of this. In short, Roman Catholicism needs to rediscover the spirit of the Second Vatican Council.

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6 Comments on “Handling dissent”

  1. cormac Says:

    I wonder if we are witnessing the beginning of a new split within the Church. It seems a conservative Pope and his supporters are on a collision course with a significant population of priests that are better educated and more progressive than ever before, and will not tolerate an undoing of the reforms of Vatican II.

    Perhaps the real surprise is that this hasn’t happened before now. It could be argued that societal changes during the 20th century surpassed anything in previous centuries, yet Catholic priests remained loyal to the dictates of the Curia. Until now.

  2. Ernie Ball Says:

    Why would anyone think that the Roman Catholic church in the 21st Century has any interest in the search for truth in any area?

  3. James Fryar Says:

    In Ireland we have, maybe, Roman Catholicism, Church of Ireland, Methodist, Presbyterian and Baptist congregations. All of which espouse the same beliefs but differ over what is effectively the interpretation of documents that are at least a millennium and a half out of date.

    To be honest, I don’t particularly care what the Vatican has to say on any issue. What worries me more is that people are unwilling to switch religions.

    Huge numbers in Ireland call themselves ‘Roman Catholic’ yet their beliefs are actually more in keeping with those of the Church of Ireland. Why whinge about the Catholic church not ‘being in touch’ when there are other religions you can join that suit your beliefs better?

    Oh wait, I get it. It has nothing to do with ‘beliefs’ or ‘doctrine’ or Vatican II or being progressive. It’s about people wanting to label themselves as ‘Catholic’ whilst, hypocritically, disagreeing with aspects of that religion. The reason they want ‘reform’ is so they can hold *shock horror* Protestant beliefs without having to use that phrase to describe themselves.

  4. Anna Notaro Says:

    Several reflections can be drawn from the issues raised in this post, first of all it is no surprise that silence has been imposed on dissenting voices, a constant practice throughout the church’s history – obsequious silence occasionally imposed via the burning at the stake – moreover, it might be worth remembering that Pope Benedict has been for several decades Prefect of that Orwellian body, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. During his papacy, Benedict XVI has made his conservative views clear on a number of occasions with his call for a return to fundamental Christian values (or at least what he considers as such), his criticism of relativism’s denial of objective truth, and by revived a number of traditions in the Catholic liturgy. What is a bit more surprising is that this same Pope, who participated in the Second Vatican Council as a theological expert, promised in 2005 that Vatican II would be the “compass” of his papacy and acknowledged that what hurt the church in the decade following Vatican II was “not the council but the refusal to accept it”. http://tinyurl.com/d99fyud
    Clearly, the Pope must have lost his compass since then!

    Other considerations might go beyond the specific case in question and focus on the power of ‘institutional culture’ and the ways in which free speech and dissent are dealt with in any institution (universities included). The point about the Dean of Clonmacnoise and the fact that ‘you could not expect to be paid as a priest if you disagree with the central tenets that you are supposed to represent’ resonates in different contexts as well in terms of the constraints implicit on the views of the individual when s/he is a representative of any institution.

    Finally, I have always been partial to ‘liberation theology’, a fascinating definition which brings together the philosophical treatment of Christian doctrine and its huge potential as a force for human emancipation, not surprisingly the current Pope, again in his function as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was very critical of the movement and of its Marxist influences, this has become a familiar narrative in America where religion takes centrestage in the public arena particularly at times of presidential elections. In 2010 conservative commentator Glenn Beck sticked the ‘liberation theology’ label on Obama’s Christianity claiming that he held views akin to ‘Marxist-aligned liberation theology’. To emphasize the point he then went on to play a clip of Pope Benedict strongly condemning liberation theology http://tinyurl.com/26mq9u7
    The Pope and Glenn Beck sharing the same views, that’s a true triumph of postmodernist culture!

    Personally I think that what Roman Catholicism needs is not only to rediscover the spirit of the Second Vatican Council (in the immediate term), but to embark upon a new Council, something for the next Pope to consider, ideally somebody from that part of the world the theology of liberation originated from.

  5. Vince Says:

    Had he been writing in Latin or Greek nothing would have been said, I expect, for then he would have been speaking to those within.

    There was a comment on RTE the other morning when the stats came out. It seems 80% of the Irish population wants to be Protestant😀. Well they want everything that’s CoI but to remain culturally Roman Catholic.

    Belated Happy Easter. I forgot earlier.


  6. I suffer a lot from Catholic guilt. Particularly about the pleasure I take from watching someone repeatedly shooting himself in the foot.


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