Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

How Dissent Became Institutionalized in the Church in America

by Kenneth D. Whitehead

Descriptive Title

How Dissent Became "Institutionalized" In the Church In America


Mr. Whitehead argues that dissent in America has become institutionalized and shows why dissent has been and is so widespread.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review



Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, July 1999

Among the notable anniversaries marked by the Church last year in 1998—the 20th anniversary of the election of Pope John Paul II and the 30th anniversaries of Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae and Credo of the People of God—there was another 30th anniversary that passed mostly unremarked and indeed unremembered, just as the event it marked was itself largely unheralded and its significance not understood at the time that it occurred. Yet, as things have turned out, the event in question was destined to be of simply incalculable significance for the future of Catholic faith and practice in the United States.

The event in question was the publication, on November 15, 1968, of the Pastoral Letter of the U.S. bishops entitled Human Life in Our Day. As its title suggests, this Pastoral Letter was issued by the American bishops primarily in support of Pope Paul VI's Humanae Vitae, a papal encyclical which was greeted with instant dissent and vociferous public protest coming especially from educated Catholics and led by Catholic theologians— dissent and public protest that were virtually unprecedented in the history of the Church up to that time.

Yet, contrary to the general impression at the time, especially the impression purveyed by the media, the U.S. bishops were really neither hesitant nor ambivalent in defending Pope Paul VI's reaffirmation of the Church's traditional teaching that each and every marriage act had to be open to the transmission of life. This Church teaching meant, of course, that resorting to all the forms of contraception provided by modern technology was gravely immoral.

By 1968, however, contraception had come to be almost universally accepted in our society at large: it was considered one of the great boons of modern technology and science; one could no more question the value of contraception, it seemed, than one could question, say, the utility and convenience of modern air conditioning.

Only the Catholic Church continued to maintain that contraception was nevertheless morally wrong. Most people could no longer see what was wrong with it, however, and so, prior to the issuance of Humanae Vitae, it had come to be almost universally taken for granted that the Church too would eventually back away from a teaching considered to be an anachronistic and irrational holdover from an ignorant past; it was assumed that the Church would drop her moral condemnation of birth control, just as she was believed to have quietly dropped her earlier absolute condemnation of usurious interest taking or her earlier toleration of slavery.

Instead, Pope Paul VI ignored popular opinion and came out with Humanae Vitae, thereby maintaining the Church's traditional moral condemnation of any intervention which altered or interrupted the human generative process, before, during, or after the marriage act. Those immersed in the assumptions of modern society and culture concerning what was considered the obvious desirability of birth control—which included practically everybody—were stunned and incredulous at the pope's action; the dissent from the pope's conclusions was immediate and massive. The sense of grievance and resentment against the Church's teaching office in the person of Paul VI was especially marked among Catholic theologians who had put their professional reputations on the line in favor of a "necessary" change in the Church's moral teaching. Perhaps understandably, the beleaguered pope appealed to the bishops of the world to support the teaching of his encyclical— which, after all, incontestably did represent the Church's constant and invariable teaching on the subject of the transmission of human life. The bishops' conferences in many countries responded with pastoral letters prepared in support of the encyclical which, in some cases, turned out to be rather less than forthright and unambiguous in the support they offered for the pope's "hard sayings" in the encyclical. Even the Catholic bishops in many countries, it turned out, were finding it hard to swim against the strong modern cultural current in favor of birth control. By all indications, not only large numbers of their laity, but many of their priests as well, were already swimming with that same birth control current.

The U.S. bishops' Pastoral Letter Human Life in Our Day was actually one of the stronger countercultural episcopal statements made in favor of Humanae Vitae. In it the American bishops explained carefully and at times eloquently the Church's teaching—and Pope Paul VI's—on the transmission of life; and they stated very plainly that "united in collegial solidarity with the successor of Peter, we proclaim this doctrine." The bishops thus declined to grant the modern cultural assumptions favoring birth control and opposing the encyclical; they even found themselves able to assert that:

The encyclical Humanae Vitae is not a negative proclamation, seeking only to prohibit artificial methods of contraception. In full awareness of population problems and family anxieties, it is a defense of life and of love, a defense which challenges the prevailing spirit of the times. Long range judgments may well find the moral insights of the encyclical prophetic and its worldview providential. There is already evidence that some peoples in economically under-developed areas may sense this more than those conditioned by the affluence of a privileged way of life.

There is much else in this Pastoral Letter in the same positive pro-encyclical vein. In it the U.S. bishops dealt firmly with some other contemporary issues of morality and conscience such as abortion. They even got into the question of the morality of the then escalating Vietnam War, which was an even more burning issue at the time than the issue of birth control. Nowhere did the bishops lack either the candor or the courage to affirm the Church's authentic teaching on all these difficult questions, regardless of the very different assumptions that had already come to be accepted by most people today, including many Catholics. For the American bishops, in 1968, there was simply no question but that Catholics had an obligation to assent to and act on the renewed papal teaching concerning birth control. At least this is what the written record shows.

Yet it is from the publication of this 1968 Pastoral Letter of the American bishops that we are also obliged to date what became the virtual "institutionalization" in the United States of theological dissent from the teaching of the Church's Magisterium. Among the things the bishops addressed in Human Life in Our Day, there was the patent fact that Catholic dissent from the encyclical had indeed been massive and was still both belligerent and unrepentant. As they wrote, the bishops had to be aware that their words were unlikely to change many minds, at least in the short run. Nevertheless they certainly understood very well that they had to uphold the Church's teaching.

Unfortunately, they did not confine themselves simply to reaffirming and defending the Church's teaching on the contraception question and other moral issues. They went on to deal with the burning issue of the dissent from the encyclical as well. And it was the way they decided to address this issue of the widespread dissent they were contending with that would prove to have serious negative consequences for Catholic faith and practice in the United States from that time up until the present. We must examine how and why this occurred. But first we must examine further the phenomenon and logic and the effects of the dissent itself which had become so publicly manifest in 1968.

The inexorable logic of dissent

Even though the U.S. bishops' 1968 Pastoral Letter Human Life in Our Day contained a strong defense of the teaching of Humanae Vitae, few were under any illusion that the bishops' words would prove to be any more acceptable to large numbers of Catholics than the pope's words had been. Most people had already made up their minds that a change in the Church's teaching about birth control was "necessary"; and not a few reputable Catholic theologians occupying official positions within the Church's structure were being quoted in front-page stories and on the evening news telling everybody that there were indeed perfectly good "Catholic" theological reasons for opposing the pope's teaching—a teaching now officially adopted by the bishops as well.

The whole Humanae Vitae affair, which extended over many months in 1968 and after, very quickly established quite firmly in the minds of most people the proposition that the Magisterium of the Church could err; the pope and the bishops might reaffirm the Church's traditional teaching as solemnly as they liked, but they were nevertheless widely seen as simply being wrong about birth control. And if the Church's Magisterium could be in error concerning a matter taught as long and consistently as the Church's teaching condemning contraception, then the same Magisterium could surely be in error concerning other teachings, even those that the Magisterium might nevertheless continue to insist on.

The underlying logic of the situation escaped very few people. If the Church was wrong, dissent was not only permitted—it was imperative. It was on this basis that dissent quickly came to be nearly universal, in fact. In the minds of very many people, the dissenting theologians, not the pope and the bishops, had turned out to be right on the issue. Moreover, since most of the dissenting theologians continued to remain in place, and were neither removed nor rebuked by Church authority for their open dissent, the other thought that inevitably came to be lodged in people's minds was this: maybe the Church herself really had doubts about the teaching in the final analysis; surely Church authorities could not really be very serious about the birth control teaching, in spite of their verbal reaffirmations of its authenticity. Otherwise, how could all these open dissenters simply be left in place to go on publicly contradicting and undermining the teaching Church, as was the case?

Nor did it make any great difference as far as the underlying logic was concerned that, at least initially, the theological dissenters were claiming to be able to dissent only from nondefined, non-infallible teachings of the Magisterium. Defined, infallible teachings were still supposed to be incumbent and binding upon believers, according to the dissenters themselves. Many in authority seized gratefully upon this distinction as providing proof that the dissenters really were basically "loyal," except on something that probably really was "non-essential" to the faith anyway, namely, the whole birth control business.

But this position limiting permitted dissent to non-infallible teachings was inherently unstable and could not really be maintained. For the same logic underlying accepted and tolerated dissent would simply continue to work in the minds of those who had come to doubt or deny any of the Church's announced teachings on any subject. The only thing standing behind a defined, infallible teaching, after all, was the authority of the Magisterium—and the authority of the Magisterium had supposedly now been shown in the case of birth control to be capable of error.

Thus, three decades after theological dissent came into its own, and came to be tolerated in practice as a result of the Humanae Vitae affair, it should not have been surprising to anyone that dissent had now become almost universal, not least among professional theologians. For example, the formal theological dissent which greeted Pope John Paul II's declaration in his 1994 Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis to the effect that the Church had no power to ordain women to the sacred priesthood proved to be at least as far-reaching as the dissent which had greeted Humanae Vitae in 1968.

In vain did the pope declare that the teaching forbidding female ordination was to be "definitively held by all the faithful." In vain did the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in November, 1995, insist that this nonordination teaching actually belonged "to the deposit of faith," i.e., that it was in effect, infallible.

For the judgment that it was infallible was simply held to be itself fallible—all too fallible!—as a paper approved in June 1997, by a voting majority of the members at the convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) did not fail to point out— a paper which the CTSA had the chutzpah to send to the heads of the U.S. and Canadian bishops' conferences. According to the theological establishment, the authority behind the statements of the pope and the CDF on the ordination issue had come to be considered as erroneous and as unwisely proposed as Pope Paul VI's reiteration of the Church's teaching against birth control had been back in 1968.

More or less the same negative reaction from large segments of the Catholic theological community and the educated laity greeted Pope John Paul II's solemn condemnations of abortion, euthanasia, and the killing of the innocent in the present pontiff's 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae. No doubt the pope wished to place all the authority of his sacred office behind the moral condemnation of these terrible contemporary evils. However, solemn condemnations by the pope no longer count for much in the era of accepted and tolerated dissent—and perhaps especially at conventions of the CTSA. Perhaps many dissenters even continue to oppose these obvious evils themselves—but they no longer do so because the pope has solemnly condemned them. Solemn condemnations by the pope no longer count for much at all in theological circles—since the papal Magisterium was shown to be capable of such an egregious error back in 1968 in the issuance of Humanae Vitae'.

Thus has the inexorable logic of dissent worked itself out over the past generation in the Church in the United States. There no longer effectively is any accepted Church Magisterium in the traditional sense of the word today—a Magisterium that teaches "with authority" and sees its pronouncements accepted on the basis of that authority. Not a few, perhaps especially in the ranks of the theologically trained, have even apparently lost their Catholic faith entirely as a result of the same inexorable logic of dissent: certainly many of them no longer assent to the faith in the sense that the Church has not ceased to propose it; they may go on calling and considering themselves Catholics, but they have for all intents and purposes really joined the ranks of Fr. Andrew Greeley's famous "communal Catholics"—those who continue to consider themselves "Catholics," even though they no longer believe the faith enshrined in the Creed they still recite on Sundays and Holy Days.

Evidence abounds, in fact—as regularly encountered, for example, in the pages of America, Commonweal, and the National Catholic Reporter, and, certainly, in the pages of Theological Studies—that many such "name Catholics" no longer apparently subscribe to the traditional faith at all in the same sense that the Church proposes it for belief; they have simply jettisoned significant portions of the traditional credenda and they pick and choose among what remains on the basis of what used to be called Protestant "private judgment." And even when some things in the Catholic tradition nevertheless do continue to be accepted and affirmed by such people, they are no longer accepted and affirmed on the authority of the teaching Church, but rather merely on the basis of what modern scholars or experts—or simply "modern" people in general today—are prepared to affirm as acceptable and affirmable today. For them the Church may well continue to be a community, a tradition, a way of life, an ethnic heritage, even a "culture"; but she is certainly no longer believed to be the "teacher of truth" described in Vatican II's Dignitatis Humanae #14, a teacher setting forth credenda which are binding upon the belief of her members as a condition of their membership.

In 1987, Pope John Paul II told the American bishops in San Francisco that it was a "grave error" to imagine that "dissent from the teachings of the Magisterium is totally compatible with being a good Catholic and poses no obstacle to reception of the sacraments." The presumption of the pope's words had to be that dissent from established doctrines is not "compatible with being a good Catholic" and does pose an "obstacle to the reception of the sacraments," if words mean anything.

By the time the pope got around to making this statement, however, the underlying logic of the dissent that had come to be tolerated in practice after Humanae Vitae had long since done its work. It is no exaggeration to say that, by 1987, this theological dissent already had become "institutionalized," at least in practice, in the Church in the United States. And responsibility for this state of affairs, at least in part, must be laid at the door of the 1968 Pastoral Letter Human Life in Our Day.

Inviting rebellion

How could a bishops' Pastoral Letter which so strongly affirmed and supported Pope Paul VI's Humanae Vitae be in any way responsible for helping to "institutionalize" theological dissent in the Church in the United States? Surely the intention of the bishops was to defend and justify the pope's position, not permit dissent from it.

Yes, but the bishops unfortunately went somewhat beyond merely endorsing the pope's position. They evidently thought that they had to reach out to and accommodate in some fashion the large numbers of those working within the Church's official teaching and educational structure who turned out to be open dissenters from the pope's encyclical. They accordingly included in their Pastoral Letter a short chapter entitled "Norms of Licit Theological Dissent."

Without citing any other theological or ecclesiastical source beyond their own say-so, the bishops declared in this short chapter of their Pastoral Letter that:

. . . there exist in the Church a lawful freedom of inquiry and of thought and also general norms of licit dissent. This is particularly true in the area of legitimate theological speculation and research. When conclusions reached by such professional theological work prompt a scholar to dissent from noninfallible received teaching the norms of licit dissent come into play.

What the bishops were faced with in 1968, of course, was hardly mere "theological speculation and research," whether or not "legitimate." Rather, it was widespread public dissent from and disagreement with a solemnly proclaimed papal teaching, led and indeed egged on and orchestrated by well-known theologians, who had also evidently convinced large numbers of the clergy of the justice of their position. These theologians were hardly engaged in "professional theological work"; they were engaged in a politicized mass-media campaign frankly intended to discredit the teachings of the Church in the eyes of the faithful and the world as a whole.

In a situation such as this, to be drawing up and publishing "Norms of Licit Dissent" supposedly to be applied to "theological research" was at best an exercise in unreality (at worst it was yet another indication that the bishops had simply been ignominiously defeated in the media campaign by the dissenters). The situation the bishops faced had nothing to do with scholarly work at all; it was rather a situation of open, public rebellion against Church authority that just happened to be led by "scholars." "Lawful freedom of inquiry and of thought" was probably the last thing on the minds of the latter; they were concerned rather that the whole world should understand that Catholics should henceforth be following them instead of the pope and the bishops.

In this climate, mere episcopal statements that the encyclical indeed represented authentic Catholic teaching and needed to be taught and enforced by priests in classrooms, pulpits, and confessionals diverged wildly from what nearly everybody understood the real existential situation to be, namely, that the teaching of the encyclical was being rejected on a huge scale by both clergy and laity alike, who were meanwhile being assured by theologians speaking through the mass media that this dissenting position was perfectly justified and even more "Catholic" than what the pope and the bishops were trying to say.

Moreover, the dissenters were mostly left in place in the positions they occupied, and they were thus able to go on asserting with much credibility that their positions were legitimate; nor was there ever any effective denial of this by the official Church. In only three or four dioceses did the bishops even attempt to impose what earlier would have been considered normal discipline upon those who were openly denying and denigrating Church authority. These disciplining efforts, in any case, uniformly failed—spectacularly so in Washington, D.C., where the late Cardinal Patrick O'Boyle—who had the theological ring-leaders of the dissent at the Catholic University of America on his hands— seriously tried to impose discipline and remove dissenters, but received no visible support from any of his colleagues.

Nor did Rome itself provide any tangible support to Cardinal O'Boyle, as far as anyone could see. It was not until three years later, in 1971, when it was too late to do any good, that the Congregation for the Clergy issued a statement more or less vindicating the disciplinary actions taken by Cardinal O'Boyle.

What occurred in 1968 unfortunately constituted a pattern that would recur over the next three decades: the Church's authentic teaching, whether on birth control or other subjects, would be strongly and regularly reiterated by the pope in various documents and actions; and the bishops, meanwhile, would never fail in any important instance to adopt stances openly supportive of the pope's teachings.

At the same time, few below the level of the bishops themselves were ever strictly required to uphold and enforce these official Church teachings as a condition of continuing to be considered a "good Catholic" and even to hold official positions. In fact, there is very little evidence from anywhere that what was being regularly taught at Catholic institutions at all levels was anywhere subject to any very serious episcopal oversight. As a practical matter, open dissenters were largely left in place in their university faculties or institutes, and this was often true of other types of educational institutions as well. It was perhaps not always the case with regard to, e.g., a few seminary professors—yet dissenting professors continued to hold even seminary posts in more than a few instances.

There were some exceptions to this pattern of tolerated dissent, of course, notably the case of the leading theoretician of dissent in the United States, Fr. Charles E. Curran of the Catholic University of America's theology faculty. At the insistence of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Fr. Curran was eventually removed from his teaching position (after 18 years!). For the most part, however, open dissent from Humanae Vitae, and, later, from other doctrines as well, has not been a notably evident disability among the professional classes in the Church in the United States. As in our contemporary "non-judgmental" culture generally, the idea that people might ever be removed from official positions if unwilling to uphold the authentic teaching of the Church has seemed to be rather far from the typical mindset of those in authority in the Church.

If anything, it has been those who have attempted to call attention to the deleterious effects of dissent who have been the ones most readily criticized; often they have been marginalized for insisting on the Church's authentic teaching.

This is the state of affairs that has roughly obtained in the Church in the United States from 1968 up until the present day. And it has often been justified—and, in one sense, even made possible—by the presence of the "Norms of Licit Dissent" in the Pastoral Letter of the U.S. bishops' Human Life in Our Day. Merely to characterize dissent as ever possibly "licit" was perhaps already to give the game away; once this point was conceded, it inevitably became merely a question of what specific cases of dissent were therefore "licit."

Of course, the bishops attempted to limit and circumscribe in their Norms the kinds of dissent that could be considered licit. They specified that "the expression of theological dissent from the Magisterium is in order only if the reasons are serious and well founded, if the manner of dissent does not question or impugn the teaching authority of the Church, and is such as not to give scandal"—but the whole purpose of the Humanae Vitae dissent was to question and impugn the teaching authority of the Church, and a good deal of scandal was regularly given in the process.

The bishops also tried to insist that the theologian who found it necessary to dissent should exhibit "respect for the consciences of those who lack his special competence or opportunity for judicious investigation"—as if the rebellion against Humanae Vitae had in any important sense stemmed from any "judicious investigation." Dissenting theologians were also required by the Norms to set forth their "dissent with propriety and with regard for the gravity of the matter and the deference due the authority which has pronounced on it." "There is always a presumption in favor of the Magisterium," the Pastoral Letter went on. "Even non-infallible doctrine, though it may admit of development or call for clarification or revision, remains binding and carries with it a moral certitude . . ." (emphasis added; but if it "remains binding," how can it ever be "licitly" dissented from?).

The Norms included yet other requirements, namely, that "even responsible dissent does not excuse one from faithful presentation of the authentic doctrines of the Church"; and that priests were supposed to heed "the appeal of Pope Paul that they 'expound the Church's teaching on marriage without ambiguity."'

In the minds of the bishops in 1968, these Norms of Licit Dissent were perhaps drawn up and included in their Pastoral Letter in order to try to re-impose some measure of episcopal control and oversight over a situation of dissent that had literally already gotten out of hand. Whatever the original intention, however, the Norms only made a bad situation worse. It was simply unreal to speak about dissent that did not "question or impugn the teaching of the Church" when it was the object of the dissent from Humanae Vitae to question and impugn the authority of the Church. Similarly, it was idle to attempt to require that dissent could only be expressed "with propriety," when the favored method of the dissenters was precisely to challenge the pope's teaching with maximum publicity, hopefully in or through the mass media.

In short, the Norms were fundamentally misconceived and incoherent; and even if it could be shown that they were in any sense valid, they certainly did not apply to the kind of dissent the Church was facing. Virtually none of the dissent of 1968 and after was carried out in accordance with these Norms or with anything resembling them.

Yet the fact that such Norms could be found in an official bishops' document served to create the illusion and the justification that, yes, dissent from Church teaching could somehow be "licit." By admitting that dissent could ever be licit, the bishops simply invited dissenters in all cases to assert that their particular dissent was licit. Any bishop even contemplating disciplining or removing a dissenter henceforth had to admit the plea that the dissent of the latter was, after all, at least arguably licit, according to the bishops' own criteria. In practice, virtually all dissent was thereby enabled to be considered licit.

Tolerated dissent thus fostered widespread disloyalty to the Church. It fostered dishonesty too, since the pretence had to be maintained that those who were disloyal were not to be judged disloyal under the regime of the Norms.

It was in this fashion, then, that theological dissent from magisterial teaching became virtually "institutionalized" in the Church in the United States. That this was hardly the intention of the bishops does not alter the fact that it was the almost inevitable result of their unwise attempt to lay out official "Norms" for what amounted to simple rejection of the Church's teaching.

Kenneth D. Whitehead is a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education. He has authored or coauthored nine books, as well as many articles, and is the translator of some twenty published books.

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