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The Grammar of Dissent

Someone once complained to Thomas More about his use of the word heresy, arguing that it’s not a nice word. His response was that it’s not a nice thing.

Today we hear about fashionable sins, such as intolerance or sexism; or about publicized sins, such as child sex abuse or corporate theft; or about perennial sins, such as lying or cheating. We don’t hear too much about heresy-it’s not a nice word. In fact, we hear so little about it we might think that the thing itself no longer exists, having gone the route of other pre-enlightened concepts like limbo and indulgences.

But heresy is alive and well. The Code of Canon Law defines heresy as “the obstinate denial or doubt, after baptism, of a truth which must be believed by divine and catholic faith” (canon 751). The Catechism of the Catholic Church identifies heresy as a sin against faith and thus against the First Commandment (CCC 2089).

Over the past few decades heresy has become institutionalized in many Catholic institutions, from colleges and universities to hospitals, from magazines and periodicals to chancery offices. Many use the broader term dissent to express an attitude of opposition to official Church teaching on a spectrum of issues concerning discipline and governance as well as matters of faith and morals. But that which we call heresy by any other name would smell as rank.

Some intelligent people don’t understand their dissent as something sinful or otherwise adversely affecting their status as Catholics. Instead they see themselves as heroes, prophets, and scholars who are ahead of the doctrinal development curve. They believe that their “faithful dissent” will one day be vindicated, that today’s heresy will be tomorrow’s orthodoxy. They cite instances where purportedly the Church has reversed herself in the past, and they claim the mantle of Church luminaries such as Cardinal Newman and Catherine of Siena whose controversial views found favor with subsequent generations of the Catholic hierarchy.

How do we respond? Surely the best we can do for anyone whose faith is weak or has been poisoned by “faithful dissent” is to pray and make sacrifices for him, with the serene confidence that our Lord will lead him back to the fullness of faith. Yet we also know that those who dissent include our family members, friends, and colleagues. How can and does the Lord use us as his instruments of conversion? I’d like to propose seven ways we can reach out to the lost sheep in our midst.

1. Be a thinking Catholic.

I remember receiving a letter a couple years ago from somebody who wrote, “I think your organization is an embarrassment to all thinking Catholics.” Admittedly, I’m not a “thinking Catholic” on the order of a Frank Sheed or a Warren Carroll, but after many years of education and formation I can competently explain the Church’s teachings. What do I make of such a comment?

I have found that the term “thinking Catholic” is a code word to identify Catholics who consider themselves sophisticated enough to choose for themselves what Church teachings they accept. As the above letter illustrates, anyone who accepts all the Church’s teachings-even on issues such as contraception, abortion, homosexual activity, and women’s ordination-is, in their estimation, not thinking.

Engaging dissident Catholics on issues such as homosexuality and women’s ordination often leads to discussions of usury or religious liberty or slavery or some other issue where the Church purportedly has changed her position. It is important to understand these issues so as to make the necessary distinctions and corrections.

Organizations like Catholics United for the Faith and Catholic Answers are there to help provide solid information on these diverse subjects, and there are excellent web sites (e.g., www.kofc.org, www.ewtn.com, www.cin.org, www.vatican.va, www.catholiceducation.org) where one can have quick access to Church documents and other Catholic resources.

An articulate defense of Church teaching helps burst the stereotype that orthodox Catholics don’t think, while a dismissive, ad hominem response only strengthens the stereotype. We must stand up for the truths of our faith in the media, in the classroom, and in the public square, realizing that the best defense is not defensive.

Dissident Catholics try to rattle their opponents by calling into question firmly held beliefs. A serene, personal response, confident that holy Church does have answers, even when we might not have them on the tip of our tongue, goes a long way toward diffusing the air of intellectual superiority assumed by many dissidents.

2. Vatican II is a home game.

Several years ago I took a course from Scott Hahn where he posed an elaborate question about responding to a Protestant interpretation of a passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Students offered rebuttals based on the Letter of James and other teachings from Scripture and Tradition. Finally Scott interrupted, saying, “Wait a minute! Romans is a ‘home game’ for Catholics.” He emphasized that Romans is not a “Protestant” book that needs to be countered with a “Catholic” book like James; he wanted our class to understand Romans and claim it as our own.

We have to understand that a similar dynamic is at work when it comes to dissident Catholics and Vatican II. In books such as Rome Has Spoken (Maureen Fiedler and Linda Rabben, eds.), we hear about the rigid, out-of-touch teaching of the pre-Vatican II Church. Vatican II came along and modernized-i.e., changed-the Church’s position. Now we’re enduring a pontificate that has forsaken Vatican II’s reforms and has retrenched in the old view.

The assumption on the dissidents’ part is that Vatican II is on their “side.” We have to realize that Vatican II, as a legitimate ecumenical council of the Church, is a “home game” for us. Rather than work around Vatican II, and thus play into the dissidents’ strategy of pitting Vatican II against older tradition or the current papacy, we must learn what Vatican II really taught-without all the spin or the well-documented misadventures in implementation-and actually use the Vatican II documents to our advantage. We’ll discover that Vatican II affirms teachings such as priestly celibacy, the inerrancy of Scripture, papal authority, and the need for moral conscience to be formed in accordance with Church teaching.

3. Make suitable accommodations.

One of Vatican II’s explicit goals was “to adapt more closely to the needs of our age those institutions which are subject to change” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 1). Unfortunately, in the Church’s laudable efforts to adapt to changing conditions and engage contemporary society, some of her members at times have been too accommodating to the world. Instead of being a countercultural sign-particularly in the area of sexual morality-the Church in some quarters has bought into secular and dissident thinking, with unhappy results, on issues ranging from seminary formation and homosexual activity to classroom sex education.

The response to this hyper-accommodation of the world should not be a separatism that quarantines us from the perceived infidels as we lob an occasional from our safe foxhole. Perhaps that same section of Sacrosanctum Concilium is instructive here: We should “strengthen whatever can help to call all mankind into the Church’s fold.” 

Here the way of the Church-the way of Pope John Paul II-seems to be one of dialogue. I’m not talking about a cordial but useless exchange of pleasantries. In particular, an interpersonal dialogue allows us to develop a relationship and ask probing questions. Neither a frontal attack nor avoidance is likely to provide opportunities for entrenched dissenters to change their views. But a friendly, respectful exchange that gets them to examine their motives and presuppositions might.

4. Be aware of backward reasoning.

In corresponding with an actively homosexual Catholic, I’ve been struck by the wedge he drives between God and the Church. He considers himself right with God irrespective of his relationship with and stance toward the Church, whose teachings, when they clash with what he’d like them to be, are suspect. He tends to trot out a number of issues that Protestant apologists and secularists have used to try to discredit the Catholic Church-Galileo, the Crusades, and the Inquisition.

The difficulty in this line of discussion is that I tend to assume a Catholic worldview on his part, when his ecclesiology is at best Protestant. In fact, if he were coming from a conservative Protestant perspective, I could at least argue from the Bible. What I’ve encountered is a brand of Protestantism that reasons backward: From his preconceived conviction that homosexual acts are not sinful he decides what religious and scientific data is credible.

Unfortunately, much of the more virulent dissent involves gender and/or sexuality issues in which the proponent is hardly an objective player. Given his vested interest in preserving a given lifestyle or agenda, often no amount of argumentation will work, and we’re left to the three Ps-prayer, penance, and patience.

Dissenters often don’t see the Church the same way we do. Even aside from the fact that they believe that the Church will eventually vindicate their position, many of the issues on which they dissent undercut our ability to find common ground. These issues include infallibility, the inerrancy and authority of Scripture, primacy of conscience, and even the manner in which the Church is constituted and governed. Dissent in these and similar areas affects not only what they believe but also how they assess challenges to what they believe.

5. Use word pictures.

Very often the best way to communicate abstract ideas is by means of analogies or word pictures. For example, I was told that how offensive it was to hear homosexuality described as a trial or suffering or cross (not to mention disorder) when my dissident friend experienced it as a gift.

I found that the best way to address this position, after affirming that all of us have significant crosses in life and expressing sincere empathy for all who struggle with the trial of same-sex attractions, was to emphasize that he might not experience homosexuality as a cross because he hasn’t yet received the grace to see it as such. A 300-pound glutton may not experience his desire to overeat as a cross but as something pleasurable because he likes the taste of food.

I have often felt that one’s approach to many issues in the Church is shaped by how easy (or difficult) one thinks it is to get to heaven. Do most people make it? Obviously on this side of the divide we can’t take a head count. We know about God’s immense mercy, and we also know the many scriptural passages that urge us to take the narrow road to salvation.

My intuition, borne out by many contemporary Catholic funerals (a.k.a. mini-canonizations), is that most people assume that everyone-except maybe for the occasional Hitler or bin Laden-goes to heaven. If that’s true, then imposing rigid standards of sexual morality, from contraception and divorce and remarriage to homosexuality and cohabitation, unnecessarily limits one’s freedom. More to the point, why should someone change his lifestyle when the conduct in question doesn’t affect his salvation?

Here something along the lines of Pascal’s wager would be in order: What are the ramifications of my being right versus the ramifications of your being right? I have used the analogy of a man in an office near the top of a tall building who likes to throw his empty soda bottles and other trash out his window. He can’t see the ground below, so he’s banking on there being no one on the sidewalk when he throws the debris. Leaving aside the litter issue, that person is obviously taking a criminally reckless approach that could have severe long-term consequences. On the flip side, throwing this garbage into the wastebasket in his office may not provide the same momentary level of fun, but there’s no risk. 

When it comes to issues such as the Church’s moral teachings, are we so sure that the Church is wrong that we’re willing to stake our salvation on it? That, it seems to me, is the question that anyone who dissents from Church teaching-and acts upon such dissent-must honestly face.

6. Lighten up.

One of the best icebreakers is a good sense of humor. Humor is attractive and can build bridges. It also inoculates us from the temptations to take ourselves too seriously or to let our righteous hostility toward error make us angry with those in error. Another one of the dissenters’ favorite stereotypes of faithful Catholics is that we’re mean-spirited or angry. A light-hearted, smiling demeanor goes a long way toward destroying this stereotype.

Fordham University sociologist Michael Cuneo wrote a book a few years ago called The Smoke of Satan that attempted to make Catholics United for the Faith and “conservative” Catholics look like a small, dying group of octogenarians who have nothing to say to the next generation. The best response, I think, is pointing (with a big smile on my face) to our favorite octogenarian, Pope John Paul II, and the 800,000 youthful, exuberant pilgrims who flocked to World Youth Day in Toronto earlier this year. Contrast that with a Call to Action convention, which looks like an AARP meeting after social security has been cut-an aging, seemingly joyless crowd.

7. Take the high road.

When I practiced law, I always made a point of playing fair. It was the right thing to do, and it also gave me the ability to assume the high ground when I appeared in court. I remember appearing once before a judge who frequently ruled against me on points of law. During oral argument, the other attorney started to accuse me of lying to the court. This judge stopped counsel in his tracks, telling him in no uncertain terms that she knew me well enough to know that his allegations were false. She actually ruled in my favor that day.

When we stand with the Church-especially when we defend her moral teachings-we are taking the high ground. This is the right and noble thing to do, but also it singles us out as targets. If there is any discernible inconsistency between what we say and how we act, we’re dismissed as hypocrites and held up to ridicule (or worse). Clearly we have to lead lives worthy of our calling in Christ, not only for its powerful witness, but because that’s what the Lord expects of his disciples. 

In a special way we need to purify ourselves of any vestiges of homophobia, preconciliarism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and other sins routinely applied to us for no other reason than because we stand with the Church. Until the last dissenter is converted, we’ll be called such names and worse. All the same, we need to examine ourselves to ensure that there aren’t elements of truth in these outrageous personal attacks. Yes, we hate the sin-but do we manifest the same zeal and commitment in loving the sinner?

The havoc wreaked upon the Church from within in recent decades by dissenting Catholics is distressing. Through the eyes of faith we must give thanks for any opportunity to grow in our own faith and to bear witness to our Lord and his Church in the face of persecution and ridicule. We cannot be truly committed to ecumenism, to interreligious dialogue, to missionary activity, if we’re not serious about bringing back our own Catholic brothers and sisters who have gone astray-even when they don’t think they have left. We cannot give up on them. Indeed, we may just be the ones who are supposed to welcome them home.

In all of this we must walk the path of charity. This is the virtue that allows us, as the Catechism, quoting Pope John Paul II, says, “to discern the often narrow path between the cowardice which gives in to evil, and the violence which under the illusion of fighting evil only makes it worse” (CCC 1889).


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