Dissent Matters

Not long ago I was asked, “Is there anywhere a list of the definitive moral teachings of the Church? Would it be correct to call anyone a dissenter who dissents from a teaching in the Catechism even if it not on a list of definitive teachings?”

Probably the closest thing to a comprehensive list of definitive moral teachings, in the context of offenses against human life and dignity, would be [more]this passage from Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), no. 27:

“Furthermore, whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator.”

The problem is that “dissent” or “dissenter” is not really a technical term as much as it’s a popular term used to describe someone who doesn’t accept one or more significant Church teachings.

Fr. Peter Stravinskas gives a good definition of dissent in the Catholic dictionary he wrote several years ago for OSV. Therein he writes: “In theological language, dissent refers to the rejection of authentic Church teaching in matters of faith and morals. Such dissent cannot be justified according to Catholic teaching, whether the position in question has been proposed by the extraordinary Magisterium (a solemn definition by a Pope or ecumenical council) or by the ordinary Magisterium (i.e., the constant teaching of Popes and bishops). Persistent and radical theological dissent places one outside the bonds of communion with the Catholic Church.”

Looking to the Catechism to ascertain what Catholics believe in the moral realm is a legitimate approach. In his apostolic constitution approving its publication, Pope John Paul II called the Catechism a “sure norm for teaching the faith and thus a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion.” So placing ourselves outside of what the Church teaches in the Catechism on matters of faith and morals would mean that we would be lacking in one of the visible bonds of unity in the Church (see CCC 815).

And while we don’t like to use the h-word (heresy) today, there is some overlap. Often we use the word “dissent” as a relatively palatable alternative for heresy, just as it’s more acceptable to refer to someone as a dissident or dissenter than as a heretic. Yet the meanings are similar. The Code of Canon Law does define heresy as “the obstinate denial or doubt, after baptism, of a truth which must be believed by divine and catholic faith” (canon 751).

Since dissent is essentially a synonym for heresy when used in the context of the Catholic faith, of course we have to be duly “pastoral” in our use of the word, especially when assigning it to others. And surely, like heresy, “dissent” can be material or formal, and we can’t judge the state of a dissenter’s soul. Even beyond that, if we don”t speak the truth with complete charity, then our use of words like “dissenter” is not an act of mercy, but rather a harsh label or insult. 

Yet the point remains that a Catholic who rejects the Church’s teaching in matters such as abortion, contraception, euthanasia, homosexuality, and the like is a “dissenter” who needs to be patiently brought to the fullness of the truth.

For more on this subject, see my 2002 article “The Grammar of Dissent,” published by This Rock magazine.

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