What are the proper roles and limits of dissent? What are the demands of orthodoxy? These have become, once again, basic questions for all Catholics.
“No longer can we speak about the perennial theology or the perennial philosophy,” writes one distinguished American Catholic theologian, whose work and practice I very much admire. “There are many different and acceptable theological approaches within the Catholic faith tradition.” He adds: “…some theologies are inadequate, but nevertheless the Church must recognize a plurality of possible theologies within one Catholic faith” (italics added). Thereby hangs a problem.
I agree with my colleague that there are many possible theologies. I also agree that “some theologies are inadequate.” Should these not be criticized accordingly?
I also heartily assert that theologians need elbow room. But bishops, and above all the Bishop of Rome, have as their own appointed task to “confirm the faith of the brethren,” that is, to make narrower judgments than the expansive judgments of theologians. It is important, even crucial, for theologians to have room to err. Bold and original investigations, even when admixed with error, uncover new ways of thinking and new angles for casting light upon the revelation of God entrusted to the Church. Tradition is not only a gerund — the tradita that are passed from generation to generation — but a noun: the traditio, the living stream, that grows with an inner principle of organic life.
Even the traditional view of heresy establishes this point. The heretic, it has always been said, has hold of part of the truth, often an important and neglected part, which needs to be recovered. It is, therefore, a crucial part of the teaching ministry to discern what is true from what is false, even in the most deceptive and attractive of heresies. Otherwise, the Church would merely stagnate or else be blown about by every “spirit of the times.” It is never easy to interpret “the signs of the times.” To fail in such discernment would render the Church regularly unfaithful to the Faith entrusted to it. Catholic life demands many sacrifices; if made in the name of a false faith, such sacrifices would represent sadly wasted human energies.
Theologians need room to err. That is why we do not base our lives upon the teachings of theologians. Their errors, despite themselves, can nonetheless be fruitful for the body of the Catholic people. The chances they take, the specific neuroses to which intellectuals are prey, and the odd angles of vision they assume, often serve the Lord’s ironic purposes. We theologians do our best, in the hope that even our errors will serve to shed reflected light upon the truths to which we struggle to be faithful.
In this sense, a pluralism of theologies and of philosophies is vitally necessary to the Church. In our own time, a good example is given in the life of Karol Wojtyla, the theologian. Trained profoundly in the work of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. John of the Cross, to whose work he dedicated the labors of his doctoral dissertation, Karol Wojtyla also studied closely the works of contemporary personalists and phenomenologists, then rather suspect in Roman circles. He also made Marxist thought, especially on work and on collectivism (ideas he found to be bogus), the object of intense and rigorous study. These pluralistic philosophical and theological efforts prepared him admirably for the teaching office he was eventually to assume, with such a commanding brilliance that even his foes, within and without the Church, have been compelled to admire it.
How could such a pope be against “pluralism,” of which he has been so admirable a practitioner? His own justification for private property, broader participation in workplace decisions, a regulated market system, and a personalist rather than a collectivist theory of work, is both faithful to the Catholic tradition and remarkably original in the annals of Catholic thought. Such originality could not have been reached if theologian Wojtyla had earlier worked solely in one intellectual tradition alone.
On the other hand, not everything about Thomism, St. John of the Cross, personalism, or phenomenology is to be mistaken for a full report on authentic Catholic faith. Discernment is indispensable. Discernment means, not only guidance by the Holy Spirit during a lonely intellectual struggle, amid conflicting currents and in darkness, but also a learned facility for singling out the felicitous expression closet to the true meaning intended by the Creator. Such discernment is a rare gift. That is why the prayer of St. Thomas Aquinas, a model for theologians, still touches us.
Creator, beyond any words of ours to describe! Most gloriously You have disposed all parts of the whole universe. You are the true source of light and wisdom; You are their first and final cause.
Pour out now, I beg you, a ray of Your clear light upon my murky understanding, and take from me my doubly dark inheritance of sin and ignorance. You who inspire the speech of little children, guide and teach my tongue now, and let the grace of Your blessing flow upon my lips. Grant me a sharp discernment, a strong memory, a methodical approach to study, a willing and able docility; let me be precise in interpretation and felicitous in choice of words.
Instruct my beginning, direct my progress, and bring my work to its proper finish: You, who are true God and true Man, living and reigning forever!
If St. Thomas, a Teacher of the Church, renowned seven hundred years after his death for his calm, unruffled clarity of thought, could not trust his own work to “hit the mark,” how can any of the rest of us?
It is not disgrace for a theologian to err in half or more of his sentences, or to misstate again and again the essential heart of the matter. On the contrary, it is a great joy to hit the bull’s-eye only once or twice in a lifetime, and in that small way to make an original and genuine contribution to the life of the historical community of which one is so small a part.
Why, then, should a theologian or a philosopher be distressed to be found in error here or there? What else ought mortals to expect? In the sight of the Lord, intellectuals are not giants. Clear fidelity to the truths we seek to express is such a rare achievement that we must be content to have achieved, as Aristotle put it in another context, a “tincture of virtue.” For the most part, even at our best we merely repeat, more or less well, what the great minds of the past tutored us to discover on our own. Particularly in matters of human nature and destiny, it would be astonishing if we were to discover something wholly original, beyond the ken of the greatest of our ancestors.
This is not to say that knowledge does not progress. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, far more clearly articulated the workings of human “will,” which Aristotle only darkly grasped, if at all. A thousand other fresh and illuminating distinctions have been added to our patrimony by hundreds of our predecessors. Yet knowledge in matters of faith and morals, unlike knowledge in modern sciences, has a remarkable constancy, even in the clearer light of new distinctions and new methods. To simplify the reality only a little: in medicine and other modern scientific work, new breakthroughs into the unknown occur constantly; in the humanities, by contrast, movement is rather from the known to the more accurately known. Progress in the sciences is quite different from progress in the humanities. The sciences constantly overturn earlier scientific classics. Humanists constantly cite the humanistic classics for evidence that they are on the right track, still retaining their indispensable universality.
To the one side, in matters of faith, there is the danger of “non-historical orthodoxy.” This is the failure to respect the concrete texture of human history, with all its angularity, new points of view, and new “horizons” of intellectual insight and judgment. The grip of a certain “non-historical orthodoxy” was decisively broken at Vatican II. But to the other side lies the opposite danger, “neo-doxy,” the failure to respect what is abiding in human nature and history, in the hot lust for what is “new.”
“Historical consciousness” is a relatively new discovery. It must not be forgotten, though, that Aristotle explicitly recounted the historical narrative of Greek philosophy of which he saw himself a part, and Thomas Aquinas often recounted how and where he differed from his predecessors. On the one hand, then, in the humanities, one must be constantly aware of one’s roots and one’s true place in the history of inquiry. On the other hand, historical consciousness must not be surrendered to “historicism,” in which there lies nothing but a “diversity of approaches based on historical and cultural differences.” That way lies pure relativism. If the human mind is not capable of rising above the subjectivity of individual thinkers and the prejudices of the spirit of its times, then fidelity to God’s Word is impossible across the ages, and philosophers can enjoy no real communion across cultures and down the centuries. Even “the development of doctrine” would then be only an illusion.
At the high point of Vatican II, it was my lot to coin the phrase “non-historical orthodoxy” in my report on Vatican II, The Open Church (1964), and to write an early article on “Catholic Education and the Idea of Dissent” (Commonweal, April 27, 1962). In self-criticism, I must now note that at that time (more so in the article than in the book) I concentrated upon what was new, underemphasizing what was traditional, in the search for light.
If one re-reads T.S. Eliot’s pregnant essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” one sees how what is true for the humanities in general, and for the poet in particular, is also true for the theologian and the philosopher. Humanists try to shed light that is both original and highly individual — but upon the human condition as it was, is, and will be. In this sense, their work is always both individual and traditional. Were we only to illuminate what is new, our work would speedily become “dated” and “old-fashioned.” It would not rise to the level of the classics, and would have failed to plumb the depths of what is universally human. To write only of our own culture or of our own age is not to write of humankind, but only of a passing moment. In Rome, the jesters of the fountains smile because they have seen many generations come and go before those mocking mouths of theirs that spew ever- flowing streams of water.
One reason why there is a perennial philosophy (and a perennial theology), in fact, is that some thinkers have managed, in an exemplary way, to observe both the permanent and the passing in human experience. By contrast, others manage to grasp only the passing or only the permanent, testifying so to their own incompleteness. Some texts do live perennially.
Among these are both the Word of God and those philosophies fashioned most like unto it. These are precious to the human race. It is one of the disgraces of the intellectual life of our era that the very existence of a perennial philosophy is now denied.
There is a second vein of difficulty. An ironic feature of contemporary American life is that many intellectuals who deny the legitimacy of liberalism in economics affirm it in intellectual commerce. They desire “pluralism” and an “unfettered intellectual marketplace of ideas,” while railing against “unfettered markets” in the exchange of goods and services. They are liberal in intellect, illiberal in economics. They are not wrong to note that, in order to function at all, economic markets must be regulated both by morality and by law. But they are wrong in failing to observe the difference between the free marketplace of ideas in some realms, and crucial constraints upon the liberty of ideas in other realms.
Note, for example, the crucial difference between those fields that serve pure inquiry and those that also serve the human community in some significant institutional embodiment. Just because some medical doctors stand ready to testify that laetrile is a cure for cancer, it does not follow that medical science so affirms. Freedom of thought is indispensable to scientific investigation. But so, also, is stringent and authoritative peer review. And so, also, even allowing for excessive rigidity on some occasions and excessive leniency on others, is the Food and Drug Administration. In medicine, there are enthusiasts, quacks, and profiteers, whose practices require a certain fettering. Why should it be different in theology? (I leave philosophy aside, for on the whole, blessed, philosophers do not institutionalize their teachings. They count themselves lucky to achieve tenure and a lively readership.)
Theologians, and philosophers who so choose, aim not only to have original thoughts but also to serve the indispensable intellectual needs of an historical community. These two aims are often placed in tension. In a living community, a community (in Newman’s phrase) of “real assents,” there is typically a lag between fresh notional clarity and its real appropriation in the lives of members of the community. This “time lag” becomes a crucial factor in realistic community life. That is why original genius is often not widely recognized until generations have come and gone. New ideas must be assimilated until they have become as common as common sense.
During their lifetimes, original minds typically face resistance, are sometimes hated, and may be persecuted even in petty ways. Such a fate is not easy for the timid. A desire to be in tune with the up-to-date spirit of their age, to be respected by their peers (and competitors), is very strong. Often even great minds try their best to make concessions, to phrase matters in ways not too shocking, to coax their peers along. For many decades, Bernard Lonergan made a practice of not answering his critics, and not publishing his exploratory essays, in order to avoid such temptations.
On matters of dissent, furthermore, as culture differs from culture, so temptations differ. Our own culture highly values the “new” and the “improved,” not only in the “news” industry, but also in an intellectual community driven by imperatives of invention, discovery, and creativity. North American culture is based upon the premise that the cause of the wealth of nations is intellectual creativity. In American universities, as legislation establishing the land-grant colleges shows with particular clarity, the purpose of inquiry is to discover new knowledge. In most fields a doctoral dissertation must be justified in terms of the new knowledge it aims to produce. This conviction is natural to a biblical people; it is the vocation of Christians and Jews to imitate the Creator by unlocking the secrets the Creator has hidden within creation. This conviction is not universally embodied in universities.
There are universities in Latin America, for example, that are 300 years old, yet cannot point to a single original idea that they have ever produced. Their purpose, on the contrary, a purpose quite noble in itself, has been to transmit a tradition of culture; and, in addition, to convey to students new knowledge discovered elsewhere. By contrast, the orientation of American intellectual life is a special hazard to theologians and to the “itching ears” of the news industry. There is a temptation to judge intellectual work less by whether it is true than by whether it is new.
In a liberal culture, then, it may be more difficult than in other cultures for theologians and philosophers to admit that they work within a tradition. It may be harder for them to admit that even their original achievements are, in the end, no more than a new angle of light upon perennial- reality. They face a pervasive temptation to disguise what is traditional in their teaching, to pose as rebels or revolutionaries, and to stress what is “new” (or, these days, “prophetic”). Thence derives the cultural power of neo-doxy. Thence, too, derives the temptation to be dismissive towards even the idea of a perennial philosophy.
In fact, as Julian Benda made clear in La Trahison des Clerques, intellectuals who spend so many hours within the world of their own minds are peculiarly prone to be the very first to abandon the living springs of the tradition that gave them life. We fall in love with our own creations. We are all too quick to find our predecessors wrong. We can hardly help imagining that we are the voices of “a new age,” as if the world of truth begins with our discoveries (or with Vatican Council II!).
A third strand in the cultural perplexity of contemporary intellectual life among Catholics in America is the confusion between the democratic virtues and the Catholic virtues. It is quite proper to be a strong supporter of the virtues of democratic capitalist societies. Such are the virtues necessary for and proper to societies at once democratic in their political institutions, capitalist in their economic institutions, and pluralist in their moral-cultural traditions. These are lovely virtues. They are as important to the human race, in the dimension of social life, as the Greek virtues of delight in intellectual and artistic form; the Roman virtues of law, administration and pietas; the knightly virtues of courtesy, compassion, and charity; the virtues of the gentleman articulated so brilliantly by Cardinal Newman; and the particular virtues of other peoples of the human race.
By contrast, the specifically American virtues are but poorly understood even by Americans themselves. As Jacques Maritain pointed out, we are better at doing what we do than in articulating it •as a theory. (Another French Catholic philosopher of culture, Alexis de Tocqueville, has probably expressed the American virtues better than any American.) The specifically American virtues add something precious to the patrimony of the human race and to the Church Universal. But they are not identical to the virtues specific to Catholic living.
To mention the obvious first, Catholics freely bind themselves to an authority over matters of faith and morals vested in the Bishop of Rome, in a way their fellow Americans (Protestant, Jewish, and other) do not. The American system permits Catholics freely to do so. Further, it grants them the liberties of free citizens to argue in public for their own distinctive views. Still, Catholics value “authority,” even in a general sense, in a way that for many of their fellow citizens it is a matter of honor to resist.
Each American, qua American, wishes to say that he or she is independent, autonomous, able to pursue individual happiness as each sees fit. It is no contradiction of this claim for some to choose to realize this independence, autonomy, and individual happiness in a communal, theonomous, and rooted way through fidelity to the Catholic (or any other) faith. Still, between the virtues of democratic capitalist living and the virtues of Catholic living, there is a healthy and fruitful tension. The two sets of virtues may impregnate and fertilize each other, but they are as likely to be in daily tension as husband and wife. They may be in union, but each is also distinct — as the other will be certain to point out.
It is the constitutional right of every American qua American, for example, to form his or her, own conscience, even in dissent from all other consciences. It is, in fact, the natural right of every human person to do so. (“Unless a man hate father, mother, wife, or children for My name’s sake, he is not worthy of Me. . . .”) Still, dissent in the American sense is different in character from the dissent of Catholics from the teachings of the Church. To become a citizen of the United States is not to pledge unity in faith, only to swear to preserve and defend the Constitution of the United States. But for a Catholic to dissent from the teachings of the Church is to cut a vital spiritual tie. To become an American is to accept outward institutions of political economy, and to embrace in one’s civil behavior the limited American “Proposition” (as John Courtney Murray, S.J., aptly called it). It is not to pledge one’s entire soul to a faith. By contrast, to be a Catholic is to tie oneself to a community based upon commitment to God’s Word, as defined and protected institutionally in a special way by bishops and by the pope. To dissent spiritually from this faith is, qua Catholic, by so much to die.
Thus, the commitment of a U.S. Catholic to abide by and to defend the Constitution of the United States is only analogous to his or her commitment to the Catholic faith. To breach the first is traitorous; to breach the second is to be unfaithful. The commitment of a U.S. citizen is but a temporal, worldly commitment, explicitly understood to be “under God.” By contrast, the commitment of a U.S. citizen to the Catholic faith is a commitment to God. The U.S. Constitution asks of its citizens a precisely limited commitment, allowing unprecedented room to dissent in every other sphere. By contrast, Catholic faith asks of its adherents that they love and serve God with their whole hearts, their whole minds, and their whole soul. Its teachings suffuse every aspect of life, as fire suffuses an ingot. To shield part of one’s life from that teaching is to leave part of the soul dead.
Nonetheless, there has grown up since Vatican II a new ecclesiology. Its aim is to protect dissenting Catholics from “death by slow degrees”; its aim is pluralism, if not individual choice. This new ecclesiology, usually informal rather than formal, holds that “the Church is the people of God, a community of equal disciples.” Here I cite the same theologian as earlier, who continues: “For example, the Holy Spirit dwells in all the faithful, and through baptism all share in the priestly, ruling and teaching functions of Jesus.” The consequence? “As a result, the teaching function of the total Church cannot be absolutely identified with only the hierarchical teaching office.” But what happens in practice? “In practice, there can be no doubt that the temptation is strong to reduce the Church to just the hierarchical offices that should exist in the service of the Church.”
In this new ecclesiology, the individual believer is master, while hierarchical officers are servants. The “community” is imagined to be egalitarian: “a community of equal disciples.” It is proper to stress the whole community, the whole people; but egalitarianism goes much too far. Catholic faith is not simply a Chinese menu, from which each selects a preference; nor is it the hierarchy only; but its unique separation of roles and powers in one Body is not well expressed as “equality.”
In this new ecclesiology, to recognize the unique teaching office of the hierarchy is regarded as a “temptation”; that is, as heresy. The new orthodoxy requires egalitarianism and decentralization. “The New Code of Canon Law does not really decentralize the Church.” The new national conferences and synods of bishops “have really not functioned as a true exercise of collegiality, for they have functioned merely as a consultative body to the pope.” The new ecclesiology is much more Catholic than the pope. “Collegiality will not exist in reality until a bishop or group of bishops can say publicly: `Holy Father, we love you. We respect you as a holder of the Petrine office in the Church. But in this matter you are wrong.’ ”
In principle, further deductions follow. What is true of the Petrine office in the Church must also be true, a fortiori, of the lesser offices of conferences of bishops and individual bishops. Now “the equal disciples” can say to their bishops: “Bishops, we love you. We respect you as holders of episcopal offices in the Church. But in this matter you are wrong.”
Further, the “equal disciples” are now entitled to say to each other: “Brother, sister, I love you. I respect you as holders of the priestly, ruling, and teaching functions of Jesus. But in this matter you are wrong.”
Thus the new ecclesiology outlines a church composed spiritually of a community of one, gathered in no ecclesia at all. The priestly, ruling, and teaching functions of Jesus have been located in each single dissenter. Each is his or her own priest, ruler, and teacher.
In the eyes of this “new” ecclesiology, the linchpin to the “old” ecclesiology is the authority vested in Peter. Take that away and the new ecclesiology is vindicated. Turn St. Peter’s Basilica into a museum, and hire “a servant of the people” to show up from time to time for the acclamation of cheering throngs, who have come to see the “dear Holy Father,” who is so often wrong, and for whom being right or wrong in matters of faith and morals no longer makes a difference.
“In a sense,” my admired exponent of the new ecclesiology writes, “the most crucial question today concerns the limits of pluralism and dissent.” He adds: “But the discussion of this crucial issue cannot take place until the hierarchical teaching office recognizes the possibility of dissent.” Unconditional surrender, then discussion.
But, of course, there is already immense room in the Catholic body for dissent. The U.S. Catholic bishops, e.g., painstakingly distinguished in their pastoral letters on nuclear arms and the economy between matters of faith and morals, binding on all Catholics, and matters of fact and concrete judgment on which, quite properly, persons of good will disagree.
Look. If to be a Catholic is to dissent on critical matters of faith and morals, what is the point of celibacy, strict Catholic teachings on chastity, Catholic social teachings, the Catholic tradition on peace and war, the condemnation of abortion, the difficult notion of Jesus as both God and man, the Petrine office, the Eucharist as the real presence of the real God, and the communion of saints? If our communion is really solipsism, covered over by the good fellowship of shaking hands in church, forget it. There are in this world more attractive communities. The communities that now meet in our parishes do not meet because we are in most important matters likeminded. On the contrary, we are in strenuous disagreement with one another’s politics, moral sensibilities, artistic tastes, and even manners. What unites us is a transcending, authoritative faith in an embodied Church, one Body with many different roles and functions, charisms and responsibilities. Ours is not an egalitarian church. It is a hierarchical Church, with one head, the Vicar of Christ. If we did not think that to be apart from that head were to be like an ingot without fire, who for a minute would get up to go to the seven a.m. Mass?
The principle of authority raises an urgent question for Catholic universities. A university, like the Church itself, has a vocation to universality. The ideas, habits, and values that animate it extend across times and cultures, as does the Church. Both the university community and the Church, however, depend on leadership, outlining current priorities and making wise decisions about boundaries. An institution is finite; no one institution can do everything. Insofar as a university is Catholic, it serves two historical communities: that of the university and that of the Church. The spirit of inquiry in the university must be free, but it must also include among its many inquiries those that clarify, defend, and advance the special pilgrimage on which the Church is launched. It would be odd if its purpose were to be served by abandoning the faith in whose name its inquiries have been launched. It would be odd if outsiders were to ask: “But how do modern eugenics, nuclear weapons, computers, theories of mind, etc. alter the Catholic faith?” only to be told that no one any longer cares to take that faith seriously enough to offer a thorough answer. The Catholic faith is also an historical and dynamic fact, whose importance to the future of this planet grows clearer every day. Even many who are not Catholic want the Church — need the Church — to be faithful to itself, and not simply buckle at every gust of contemporary wind. A Catholic university unfaithful to the Catholic faith does not well serve even those who are not Catholic. Catholic faith is itself a crucial voice in the universal pluralism.
For theologians, there must be elbowroom aplenty. Intellectuals must take intellectual risks. From time to time, some of us lose our way; others drink water poisonous to our brains. In all cases, ours is to propose. In any healthy community, there must be others who dispose. If the people of the United States were ruled by the faculty of Harvard rather than by all the other names in all the telephone books of the nation, and by the persons of common sense whom all elect, the nation long since might have perished at the Hudson. The faculty of Harvard ought to be dissenters from the rest of their fellow citizens. Their task is lonely exploration. Their service to the community is vital, which is why the community so heavily endows their labor. That, too, is why the Catholic community pays the salaries of its theologians, whose work so much nourishes the community, even when that work (as much of it necessarily must be) comes to be rejected over time. Intellectuals have a perennial habit of following two or three premises all the arduous way to an absurd conclusion. Even in this, they illuminate the crux of the matter. They themselves thus help the community to decide against them. To be an intellectual is a noble, but a fragile, task.
In some ways, furthermore, the American experience has blazed new trails for the Catholic experience. U.S. institutions of religious liberty turned out to be (although for John Courtney Murray, S.J., who mapped the way, after considerable personal pain) one such new path. In matters of political economy, American secrets are still blazing a trail for Catholic social thought, particularly in institutional matters: secrets of public-spiritedness; of voluntary cooperation; of economic creativity and unprecedented human enterprise; of the due balance among political, economic, and moral-cultural institutions, and of the new virtues appropriate to each. However that development may turn out, those involved need not believe their efforts have been in vain, even should the hierarchical offices of the Church, for our time or forever, reject their efforts.
The Catholic community, like every other living community, most urgently needs dissenters. It especially needs dissenters whose dissents are provisional. It needs dissenters who try to be as honest, as clear, and as broad of view as a person can, recognizing the while that it is the unequal office of the college of bishops, and the still more unequal office of the Bishop of Rome, to render practical judgment upon any dissenter’s efforts. We also serve who only err. Our intention, even when we seem to stand in arrogant dissent, is to serve the entire living Body, in which our function is but one of many, decidedly not the function of the Head. The God who made us made us to seek His truth. If His truth is what we serve, there is no possible way to lose, even if we are unfairly judged, or even if we err, along the way.
What has gone wrong in recent decades is that many dissenters have come to claim a certain quasi-infallibility, according to which they pass judgment and wait impatiently until the bishops and the popes docilely obey. Dissenters today conduct their own Inquisition in the press, pointing fingers at Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II for their mistakes. Dissenters have no call to be blushing violets. They should make good arguments and state them openly. But in the Catholic Church, as in the field of medicine, there is “peer review,” and in the Catholic Church the bishops and the pope have no peers. Theologians serve the whole community. To offer their service well, they must be free and bold, and have elbow-room aplenty. But they should also accept, in all humility, and with a sense of loyalty and affection, the lowliness of all they do, sub specie aeternitatis.