A Grammar of Dissent: The Case Against “Cafeteria Catholics”

Dissenting Catholics are often accused of practicing “pick and choose” Catholicism. This immediately raises the question: Is there some unified point of view that is adopted by dissenters? At first glance, it would seem not. Different dissenters select not to believe in different doctrines, presumably for different reasons. It is sometimes said that the problem of dissent in the Church is a resurgence of the Modernist crisis from the turn of the century. Sometimes, again, dissent is compared to Protestantism, as if it represented a Reformation in miniature. There is some truth to these comparisons, but they strike me as not quite to the point.

Dissent is certainly not a resurgence of Modernism. Dissenters differ from Modernists in two important ways. First, dissenters dissent, in the beginning, at least, from orthodox Catholic belief on a relatively small number of points—abortion, contraception, homosexuality, euthanasia, indissolubility of marriage, and ordination of women. Dissent begins from these focused points, though it can, and often does, spread outwards to affect all aspects of a person’s faith. Dissent is over particular issues. It cares little for the principles it may disparage. In this sense it is, like the culture in which is originates, pragmatic in tone.

In contrast, Modernists altered and distorted Catholic teaching at every turn. Modernism was in its first inspiration a philosophical system, and, like such systems, it aimed to present a unified and comprehensive vision. For this reason it represented a rival to Catholicism, which aimed at being similarly encompassing. Modernism was framed by intellectuals of great learning and subtlety, such as Father George Tyrell and the scholarly Alfred Loisy. It was propounded as a movement, a philosophy, and it required a religious devotion of its followers.

The true modern analogue of Modernism is Marxian liberation theology, not American dissent. Modernism appealed to the head; American dissent is preoccupied—to use Daniel Macquire’s phrase—with “pelvic issues.” Such dissent has no system, no positive teaching; its followers subscribe to no engaging philosophical program, but merely agree to disagree.

It was sometimes said, wrongly, of the leading figures of Modernism that they held to their erroneous opinions about, say, the origin of the Church or the development of doctrine, because they were in some serious way ignorant or misinformed about Church history or about the theology of the Church as the body of Christ. This was not the case. The Modernists were, by ordinary standards, quite well informed about these things. They knew “the facts.” They understood the traditional teaching. Their mistake was deeper, and thus harder consciously to avoid, than one about “facts.” The Modernists were in the grip of a philosophical illusion, which seemed to them perfectly true and perfectly coherent with all of the acknowledged facts.

American dissent seems like Modernism only because it stimulates it. The American dissenter can justly be charged with the ignorance the Modernist never had. Talk to one, you find he is attacking the authority of bishops—though he has never heard of, never mind read, the epistles of Ignatius of Antioch or the first letter of Clement. Talk to another, he gravely scolds the Church for having failed to present its case against artificial contraception—but he knows of Humanae Vitae only third-hand, and it has not occurred to him to read Wojtyla, or Suenens, or von Hildebrand, or von Balthassar, or Grisez, or May, or Noonan. But the ignorance of dissenters is not merely historical; they know as little about the last council as they know about the first. In the American dissenter, we find a Modernist malgre lui; we find a bourgeouis gentleman who doesn’t know he has been speaking Modernism all his life.

And it seems to me contrary to the ecumenical spirit of our day to disparage our Protestant brethren by likening dissenters to them. Luther certainly misunderstood Church teaching, but at least had the good sense to see that you cannot call the Pope an ass and claim to be a faithful Catholic at the same time. He also realized that you need a fairly high authority—the Bible—if you are to have any chance of justifying a quarrel with the Church. Our dissenters, in contrast, hold fast to Tom Brokaw or the New York Times. Or they think it makes sense to follow their professor of moral theology over the Pope, not realizing that two can play that game, since the Pope is a professor of moral theology as well.

It is true that, if their position were intellectualized, the dissenters could be said to be advocating the doctrine of “private judgment,” to use Newman’s phrase, which is what essentially distinguishes Protestantism from Catholicism. Yet, unlike Protestants, dissenters are set against the consequence to which private judgment must inevitably lead—separation from the Church. On this last point, we must take the statements of dissenters themselves to be sincere, and they are, I think, significant. There is a kind of residual witness to the singularity of the Catholic Church in the unwillingness of dissenters to leave her for other Christian communities whose creeds are superficially more genial. Hypocrisy here is the tribute dissent pays to submission.

Dissent, then, has more of the character of a negation, a pulling back, a failure of nerve, almost. It must be criticized, therefore, as a coalition of views, not as a unified position. This is what I shall now do, yet I’ll also suggest how we can probe deeper and uncover the underlying reason for dissent. But first let’s consider the various arguments given in favor of dissent.

Arguments for Dissent

I. Perhaps the most basic argument, what we might call “Kuengian dissent,” after Swiss theologian Hans Kueng, is this: there are errors in Church teaching and these need to be corrected; if the correction of these errors is incompatible with the doctrine of the infallibility of the Church, then that doctrine too is a mistake and needs to be corrected. This is a simple argument, and refreshingly honest. Although it is implied by much of what dissenters say, they rarely state it explicitly, probably because it is so blatantly heretical. Yet it would be good if the argument were openly discussed, since so few Catholics today understand either ecclesiastical or papal infallibility. Let the denial of the doctrine be considered, so that all that its affirmation entails may become clear.

Vatican II and Vatican I form an inseparable pair: Vatican I was cut short by a war and completed nearly a century later; Vatican II cites and presupposes the full teaching of the earlier council. The renewal of the Church sought by Vatican II cannot take place without the full appropriation of all earlier councils, and especially Vatican I. This appropriation entails, especially in the United States today, that the doctrines of Vatican I be neither forgotten nor submerged but rather more fully understood and followed.

II. Two common sorts of arguments for dissent are based on misinterpretations of the ecclesiology of Vatican II. The first employs the phrase “People of God.” (Ask yourself, have you ever once heard someone clearly and distinctly explain, by explicitly quoting the council, what this phrase means?) It is urged that the new realization that the Church is the “People of God” means that no longer should truths be taught “from the top down;” rather—and here the image gets fuzzy—each layperson grasps and teaches Catholic doctrine on his own. It is also usually suggested the “People of God” is a democratic, not an authoritarian notion, and hence Catholic doctrine should be arrived at democratically.

This is of course nonsense, as an actual reading of Lumen Gentium could disclose—especially if the reader makes it past chapter 2 (“People of God”) to chapter 3 (“The Church is Hierarchical”). To call the Church the People of God is, among other things, to stress the continuity between the Church and the Israelite nation, which was not a democracy. Furthermore, Israel’s identity as God’s people, as St. Paul urges, came through the Law, which was given by God; and its central religious acts were the domain of hierarchy of priests.

Another argument for dissent in the so-called “spirit” of Vatican II is based on Lumen Gentium’s remark that the Church always stands in need of renewal. On the surface, this remark gives no support to dissent: what if the continual task of renewal always includes rejecting and resisting dissent in its various forms? Yet at a deeper level we find in fact an argument against dissent: how can individual Catholics renew themselves according to the mind of Christ, if each determines for himself what the mind of Christ is? Renewal is something that comes from the outside: it entails, as its name suggests, that something new come about. But the dissenter rejects whatever is difficult to understand or fundamentally different from what he already believes. Let’s suppose that renewal for married Catholics comes about only on condition of their rejecting artificial contraception. The couple who dissents because they find the Church’s teaching on this matter odd or unreasoned or difficult will obviously be cut off from authentic renewal.

III. Every argument for dissent appeals to some true and legitimate value. This is not surprising since nothing is ever advocated or chosen except as a good. Thus, dissent is commended as reflecting a critical and mature way of believing the Catholic faith; or it is celebrated as healthy, as a sign of life; or it is said to be useful and good because it makes the truth better known; or it is said to be the means by which the Church can be pluralistic and thus embrace the full diversity of human life.

One should be suspicious of such claims. They are, I think, products of a “second-order reflection.” They are attempts to put a good spin on dissent—or perhaps they even constitute a veiled form of flattery. It’s difficult to believe that the New York Times, for example, is disingenuously recognizing an intrinsic good when it employs such appealing labels to characterize dissenters belligerent to the Pope.

It seems to me that these labels all have a very different meaning when we look at them carefully: they all count against dissent and the mentality that gives rise to it. For example, a critical and mature faith is admittedly good: but what is it that we should be critical of, and how should we be mature? Nowadays, “critical” often takes on a meaning derived from Immanuel Kant: we are said to believe something critically if we systematically reinterpret it according to some subjective standard—just as Kant systematically reinterpreted realist metaphysics as reflecting the structure of our minds. In this sense, to be a historicist about doctrine is to be critical; but to believe that St. Athanasius and we believe the exact same things about the Trinity when we affirm his creed is to be naive.

It seems quite clear to me that a Christian should be critical of this sense of “critical.” It’s unclear whether to believe something critically in this sense is to believe it at all.

Of course, one might mean by “critical” some kind of finicky or negative frame of mind: there is hardly anything praiseworthy about this. Or perhaps the thought is that nothing can be truly accepted unless one has the power to reject it and has considered doing so. This is like saying it is impossible to appreciate holding a baby in your arms unless you are continually fighting off the suggestion to drop it. Why must your assent derive its value from the standing threat of dissent?

It seems clear that a properly “critical faith” is predominantly one that is critical of anything contrary to Christ. The person who adheres to Christian teaching will necessarily adopt a critical stance toward much of what is contained in popular and intellectual culture.

A mature faith is good, but so is a childlike faith: both are necessary, at the same time. How many dissenters, do you suppose, have names for their guardian angels and pray to them throughout the day? An unfair question, perhaps (though the fact that it seems ludicrous is significant). Try this test, then: explain to someone who dissents that the bishops are the successors of the apostles through the laying on of hands and that, in the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch, we can best obey Christ, whom we do not see, by obeying our bishop, whom we can see. Explain that the Holy Spirit miraculously preserves the bishops from falling into error when teach as a body in union with the Pope. Chances are, you’ll be greeted with a patronizing smile, and perhaps you’ll be told that you little understand the realities of power and politics.

Why is it that people think that dissent is healthy or a sign of life? Perhaps the thought here is just that dissent is at least better than total apathy. This is probably true, but it is a desperate position, to say the least. Imagine someone who congratulated himself on having a stomach ache, since it reminded him he was alive. Vitality, however, can be exhibited in more constructive ways. As in the case of a stomach ache, there is something inward-turning in the attention we give to dissent. Dissent in the Church paralyzes; it does nothing to benefit others, since corporate existence requires a common aim and agreement on means. Life is productive of good, but Catholics caught up in dissent over, for example, abortion do nothing to help anyone.

Some will argue that since life inherently involves conflict, dissent is a sign of life. Yet the inference is invalid: even if life involves conflict, it does not follow that every form of conflict is a form of life. This is like the childish notion that heaven must be boring, since no one does anything bad. One almost senses that those who are glad to hear about dissent feel this way because they are bored with assent. This explains why dissent typically makes it to the front page of the newspapers: it is another spectacle, another distraction.

Does dissent make the truth better known? Undeniably it does, in some cases. Father Curran has caused some to turn to Humanae Vitae in order to determine for themselves what it actually says. Hans Kueng caused this author at least, while a fresh convert, to acquaint himself fully with the venerable debate over infallibility. Yet these are the cases of what Aristotle would call “accidental” causation. There is nothing in dissent qua dissent that brings about a better knowledge of the truth. Dissent is generally ill-informed and frequently backed up by weak arguments. But there is a deeper consideration here. Some truths are difficult to acquire; a student must struggle to learn and become familiar with them. Only if someone is confident that there is some truth to learn, and that this truth is valuable, will he make the sacrifices necessary to acquire it. Yet dissent produces an atmosphere of skepticism and a lack of seriousness, which work effectively to block serious inquiry. After all, if the Church were to countenance a legitimate plurality of views, this would surely indicate that, in those cases, the truth has not been discovered or cannot be known; or that, even if the truth is known, it is not important. This is surely how the vast majority of Catholics have unconsciously reasoned about the use of artificial contraception: since our bishops are so reluctant to teach forthrightly about it, its deliberate use, it seems, does not constitute a mortal sin.

The Church of course wishes to embrace all legitimate pluralism in peoples and cultures. But why should this extend to doctrine? Is it about fornication that dissent should be recognized as legitimate, or also about the Trinity? Who decides? Obviously if each person decides for himself, there is utter confusion; this authority must be reserved to the Pope and bishops. “Pluralism” in its legitimate sense means variety within some common framework. The Church’s teaching on faith and morals constitutes this framework; dissent attacks the common background within which such variety can be shared and can have value. It is precisely because I worship and believe exactly the same as my Filippino brother across the world that I can share in his culture and authentically claim it as mine.

IV. These are a cluster of somewhat crass arguments for dissent, which are really not arguments so much as emotions, but which are no less attractive for all that. They involve inducing a mood rather than giving a reason. For example, we are supposed to feel that loyalty to the magisterium is stultifying, that it stunts the imagination, that it makes us narrow and constrained by causing us to dwell on old ideas. In contrast, dissent goes along with freedom, lack of constraint, and creativity. This is the mood that priests attempt to induce when they begin a homily, as we have heard so many times, with the line: “Back then we used to believe…but now we believe…” (This is the standard formula for substituting one misunderstanding for another.) The irony is that no homily on Friday abstinence was ever as unimaginative as these revisionist homilies are.

Another mood is induced by adopting a posture of sophistication, of loss of innocence: “Don’t you know that there are no unchanging Church teachings? What the Pope is doing is trying to fix and make prominent what just happens to be the Church’s teaching at the present time.” We’re supposed to concede that it’s “unrealistic” to think the Church could or ever did teach the same thing for very long.

A related mood is a spin-off of the Seamless Garment approach. The goal here is to show that everyone, in fact, dissents from some Church teaching or other, and the suggestion is that we should do well simply to be honest and explicit about this and acknowledge dissent as a reality of life. Thus, challenge a “liberal” Catholic with cafeteria Catholicism and you may get the retort that most Catholics who think they are loyal to the Pope really are not, since they support SDI.

One last technique appeals to the truly Catholic tendency to favor the normal and the balanced, over the fanatical, the sectarian, the unbalanced. One simply points to that small minority of Catholic couples who do not use artificial contraception and asks: “Aren’t they easily identified as narrow and sectarian? How could that difficult and extreme way of life represent Catholic truth?” The best answer to this also appeals to naturalness: the widespread acceptance of artificial contraception in our country is itself aberrant, given the views of most other cultures of the world even today; and, of course, viewed historically it is abnormal to the extreme.

V. The final set of arguments for dissent all trade on the idea that there is a distinctively American way of being Catholic and that this essentially involves dissent. The American approach to issues—so this reasoning goes—is to be feisty, independent, and democratic. This, then, will also be the way an American approaches Catholicism.

The argument is false, since there are many good Americans who consider it inappropriate or misguided, to say the least, to be feisty with the Pope. (In fact, there are very few authority figures with whom most Americans would think it is appropriate to be feisty. How would “feisty dissent” be received by the chairman of a corporation, or by a foreman on a construction site?) Could it be that “feisty dissent” is of a piece with the easy moralism of student protests against authority? For Catholics, is it student activism in the ’60s and “feisty dissent,” but with yuppie demeanor, in the ’80s?

Anything that poses as a distinctively American form of Catholicism today ought to be immediately held suspect. For if one views our country from an objective, Christian point of view, it is impossible not to conclude that the United States in the ’80s is an unlikely source of great Catholic insight.

If evaluated against its traditional strengths, our country is in a very serious condition. We have traditionally championed human rights, but we now deny evident rights (as by abortion) and manufacture spurious rights. Again, our country has championed the value of individual autonomy and independence, but, traditionally, independence was anchored in family, town, and neighborhood. Now, however, these communities are all under serious attack, so that independence has become twisted into selfishness.

Traditionally we have been a refuge for ethnic pluralism and religious freedom, but in our time we have seen a steady attack, largely through the media, on the values of the working class and the poor by the rich and educated; and we have witnessed the perversion of our public culture into one openly hostile to religion. Finally, we have traditionally promoted education as necessary to democracy; since the ’60s there has been an erosion of intellectual seriousness, an increasing illiteracy, and a vanishing devotion to the use of leisure time for culture and study.

Consider now that all of these grave changes, all of them harmful to our country and contrary to Catholic principles, have occurred during the time in which, as the dissenters themselves urge, Catholics as a group have risen to the highest positions of status and influence in our society. It is impossible not to conclude that dissent has been little more than a rationalization by which Catholics can hide from themselves their general capitulation in and compromising with these unwelcome trends.

The Deeper Reason for Dissent

It is often said that the problem of dissent today in the United States is a direct consequence of the rejection of Humanae Vitae by prominent theologians and the reluctance of American bishops to take firm and steady action against such dissent. Dissent over Humanae Vitae established the principle that it is permissible for Catholics, in the name of “conscience,” to explain away difficult teachings to suit their own belief and practice. The arguments set down for this case have now been extended to many others.

However, theologically it is more correct to say that the rejection of Humanae Vitae and the phenomenon of dissent are two aspects of the same underlying problem. The reason for this is that the marriage union mirrors the union of Christ with his Church. In the use of artificial contraception, as in dissent generally, we see a holding back from the total giving of oneself; we see, furthermore, in both cases a twisting of the objective structure of the relationship into an instrument to suit individual preference.

It is no coincidence that dissent typically involves precisely those teachings that require commitment and self-giving: the fact of dissent is of a piece with that over which there is dissent.


Michael Pakaluk is a philosopher who lives in Hyattsville, Maryland, with his wife and their eight children. His most recent book is Mary's Voice in the Gospel According to St. John (Regnery Gateway).

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