A Profound Examination of Orthodoxy & Dissent

Sometimes, it is helpful to step back from the discussion of Catholic LGBT issues and look at some of the broader issues in the church which affect how LGBT issues are treated.

dissentJerry Ryan provides some profound perspectives on church governance in an article in Commonweal magazine entitled “Orthodoxy & Dissent:  Truth & the Need for Humility.” (This link to the full article may only be available to Commonweal subscribers.)

Though Ryan takes the raging debates in the church about sexuality as his starting point, he is not focused on studying these questions, but instead examines the larger questions of orthodoxy, authority, dissent, and the development of doctrine.  His article provides an insightful analysis of the tensions between the Catholic episcopacy and Catholic lay people when it comes to retaining the status quo and proposing new paradigms.   He states:

“To understand dissent, you first have to understand authority. Authority in the church must be based on truth. Episcopal authority is not the source of truth, as some would have us believe. ‘What is truth?’ The question posed by Pilate was left unanswered by Truth Himself who stood before him, humiliated, in the praetorium. We too humiliate Truth when we abase it to our level and pretend to have power over it. Truth is a divine name and to pretend to possess it, individually or collectively, is to manufacture an idol. We can no more claim to possess truth than we can claim to possess justice. And this holds for the church’s pastors, as well as for their flock. For Christians, truth is Someone who possesses us, Someone who reveals as much of Himself to us as we can bear. It is this self-revealing Truth who founds authority in the church. The role of the magisterium is to maintain the purity of revelation by warning against aberrations without denying or minimizing the elements of truth behind them. The magisterium might be infallible in what it affirms, yet what it affirms is often just one aspect of a complex reality whose components are still not fully understood.”

There is enough material for reflection in that paragraph to last for a week-long retreat! And even longer!

Ryan doesn’t mince words when he makes the case for continued discussion of topics of controversy, and yet he has an obvious deep respect for Catholic tradition:

“The church, individually and collectively, is forever docens et discens, teaching and learning. To deny the possibility of further elucidation of doctrine is blasphemous. It is tantamount to pronouncing the church dead, no longer vivified by the Spirit nor tending toward an ultimate manifestation still to come, when all that has been hidden will be revealed. The reception and assimilation of God’s word by the pilgrim church will forever be partial and variable. It will depend partly on psychological, social, and historical circumstances. Every cultural cycle, every scientific advance, can serve to deepen our understanding of revelation, to illuminate one or another of its aspects. There is, however, an objective deposit of faith, constantly elucidated through the ages, to which the blood of martyrs has borne witness. Any development in the church is made possible only by what has preceded it, yet the intoxication of a novelty often leads to a rejection of what went before.”

For Ryan, dissent is not a sin or a crime, but can be a sign of the Spirit:

“Dissent can be a sign of vitality; it can draw out the latent riches of revelation. The scribe versed in the affairs of the Kingdom will continually bring forth old things and new. Rather than automatically suppressing it, therefore, the magisterium should treat it with cautious respect, remembering that the Spirit is still at work, and the church still a work in progress. Rigidity and narrowness of vision can lead to the sin against the Spirit—and this sin can be a collective one.”

Though sexual teachings are not his focus in this article, Ryan uses them as an example, revealing a compassionate, intelligent heart:

“Traditional Catholic moral theology generally abstracts from concrete historical and social contexts and considers not particular men and women, but ‘human nature’ faced with hypothetically clear-cut options. Human nature, however, does not exist apart from real human beings, who must act in situations full of ambiguity. Very often we find ourselves in ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situations, where even the best option may not seem to be a good one. Pastoral common sense usually (but not always!) takes this complexity into consideration, but the official teachings of the church continue to define good and evil in terms of black and white, with little nuance or compassion, thus alienating many from the sacramental sources of grace.”

The previous excerpt reminded me of something which the late Bishop Kenneth Untener of Saginaw, Michigan, said when he addressed New Ways Ministry’s Third National Symposium in 1992.  The quotation is from the printed text of his talk in the book Voices of Hope:  A Collection of Positive Writings on Gay and Lesbian Issues, edited by New Ways Ministry’s co-founders, Sister Jeannine Gramick and Father Robert Nugent:

“We need to take seriously the evaluation that homosexuality is a complex question, yet I do not believe we always do. We have to be careful not to make life too simple.  The Pharisees made that mistake.  They made religion complex, but treated life as though it were simple. . . . .

“Jesus did exactly the opposite.  His religious teachings were very simple. He said that all the commandments of the law came down to two:  love of God and love of neighbor.  When they asked Him enormously complex questions, he would say, “Let me tell you a story. . . ”

“On the other hand, Jesus treated life as very complex, as His parables show. . . .

“We need to be careful that we do not say on the one hand that homosexuality is a complex question, and then treat it as though there were simple solutions.”

Ryan concludes his essay with reminders of the communal nature of the church, and the need for humility to reign in our debates:

The safekeeping of the deposit of faith and the upholding of the Christian moral code are confided to the church’s hierarchy. The bishops are not, however, the exclusive owners of the spirit of discernment. Historically, this gift has often been manifest in the little ones of God, in the “sensus fidelium.” It is precisely this charisma that stimulates the church’s growth in wisdom and in grace. There is a necessary tension between the function of the hierarchy and the prophetic instinct of the people of God. That tension could and should be fruitful, but in reality it is often bitter and sterile. It might well be that the prophetic élan in the church is especially at work in the poor and the unrecognized, in the little ones to whom is revealed what is hidden from the wise and mighty. One of the great contributions of liberation theology has been to remind the church of the privileged place of the poor in the Kingdom of God. . . .

“It is not enough for the church’s hierarchy to praise the fidelity of lay Catholics; it must also be willing to learn from them. And that requires bishops to acknowledge humbly that they don’t yet know everything about the will of God—that it is still revealing itself to us, and sometimes surprising us. The bishops, like their flocks, are still pilgrims on the way. Like the rest of us, they should be looking for signs ahead.”

I found so much wisdom in this article.  I encourage you to read the entire piece.  Even if you have to subscribe to Commonweal online to do so, it will be worth it!

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

0 replies
  1. Terry McCloskey
    Terry McCloskey says:

    I also read this article a few days ago and found it to be very thought-provoking, and it would be great for some of the hierarchy to have their thoughts “provoked” by it. I truly believe the sensus fidelium is alive and well.

    Terry McCloskey, CSSR

  2. Thomas F. Luce
    Thomas F. Luce says:

    Thanks for this groundbreaking piece! This is the ground work I’ve been looking for in my campaign. What I’m trying is putting his amazingly positive, but utterly true and authentic foundational doctrine into practice on the ground level. Utter respect for governance and authority figures, but utter respect for truth telling by the communion of the faithful. So when I get home on Tuesday I want to confer with Mr. Ryan. Yes the “senses fidelium” is a reality. But without a unified, connected network truth won’t get told. We need to be part of parish and diocesan structures. Wow. I’m excited.

  3. Thomas F. Luce
    Thomas F. Luce says:

    Oops! Just went and paid the $34 to subscribe to Commonweal. But Mr. Ryan’s piece is extremely short and doesn’t have anything to get the dissent and dissenters on the ground in such a united, transparent way that would achieve much. Maybe Mr. Ryan has more in the offing. I hope so. The history is all there about getting Truth spoken, but we have no good model from inquisitions, crusades, burning at the stake, etc. We don’t really have the way to effect a Vat II mode to get the out-of-control silence back into control.

    My campaign –“The Least Harm” –is the practical, organizing piece needed. Using the weight of numbers and non-violent love tactics we put out the 21st century dissent model: enact decisions to do the least harm to each other in dissent. No name calling. No excommunication, no killing silence, no pronouncements that incite evil consequences ( hierarchy telling the world with no evidence that we are a major cause for the destruction of society). We don’t succumb to disorder, schism, but rather we adhere to loving communion. Just, it would seem, Paul was able to dissent with Peter.

    We cannot continue being silent dissenters (birth control, et) and especially because we LGBTQers suffer excruciatingly from this silence. But without the weight of numbers we kept on the sidelines if not thrown out by the current approach. In my diocese I haven’t obtained one person for this campaign. This is in spite of the majority of Catholics who support us. Why are Catholics still afraid to take stands as the historical champions did? Yes people could lose jobs and assignments. But if we stood up ( or sat down?) in large numbers utilizing non-violent, loving pressure, we definitely could achieve important steps.

    Anyone up for this?


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