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Chapter 36: A Critical Examination of Radical Theological Dissent

Appendix 4: Causes of the successes of theological dissent

This chapter has argued that the dissenting theologians were in error. If one agrees that they were, one wonders: What does such serious and widespread dissent mean? How could so many intelligent people—most of whom had enjoyed long formation in Christian faith and spiritual life—have gone so far wrong? This question is a deep and important one, which probably has no simple answer. I suggest some partial answers.99

First, the culture of the time was a factor. Secular humanism was dominant. In some respects, it developed aspects of Christian truth and goodness previously only partly appreciated in the Church. It also had the attraction of denying evil, thus ridding people of guilt without contrition. The secular humanist atmosphere made Catholics forgetful of heaven, reluctant to take up the cross, neglectful of the duty to live redemptively, and resentful of authority.

Second, the Church and Christian life were not all they might have been. In the doctrinal domain, important theological mistakes blocked full appreciation of human goods and a proper commitment to the building up of the human. Pervasive legalism also blocked understanding and adequate response to the great truths of faith. In this context, many poor arguments were used to defend received teaching and many questionable motives urged for obeying it. When the defects of such arguments and motives became apparent, the teachings themselves seemed to be called into question, although logically the truth of a conclusion is untouched by the weakness of arguments offered for it, and although historically the style of life proposed by Christian morality originated prior to the legalist emphasis upon sanctions as a motive for living it.

Some dedicated persons and groups in the Church had been too crafty, too concerned with good consequences. Such a concern led to a temptation to compromise the gospel and the rigorous demands of Christian life when this seemed necessary to obtain or hold the commitment to the Church of those who were most active, articulate, and influential in the world. If some of the Church’s societies of religious in the past had catered to the needs of the nobility and rising merchant classes, in the twentieth century they strove to serve the leadership which emerged in mass society. No doubt, the intent was to exert in this way a benevolent and apostolic influence on society as a whole. Nevertheless, the question remains: Who was working to help bear the burdens of simpler believers who faithfully struggled to live according to the gospel?

The diocesan clergy did this to some extent. But the effectiveness of secular priests was limited insofar as they adopted contemporary expectations and values. Every confessor should have helped his penitents to bear the burden of confronting sin; a lazy priest spoiled by his own comfortable life was tempted to shrug off this burden. Celibacy should have freed priests for communion with the whole body of the faithful; but sometimes, at least, it was abused by being taken as an opportunity—and an excuse—for a more or less self-indulgent way of life, freed from certain irksome responsibilities and lived within the confines of a clerical fraternity which, good in itself, nevertheless tended to take on the characteristics of a club which obstructed rather than facilitated the communion of the Church as a whole.

Separated in spirit from their penitents, confessors in earlier times often had been harsh with them. After Vatican II this same separation led too many priests to accept misformed and troubled consciences as adequate Christian consciences, although these were consciences no father who is holy should have found acceptable in children he truly loved. Priests who were more genuinely fatherly would have been more like St. Paul.

In many ways, then, members of the Church were not bearing one another’s burdens. The social dimension of living the Christian life had been emphasized insufficiently. Christian life must be possible. When individuals left to struggle alone seemed to make little progress, the temptation was very strong to suspect that the burdens were too great. The moralist does not want to make anything more difficult than it must be. Any possible way of lightening the burden of Christian life began to seem attractive. For this reason, theologians were drawn into dissent. They were trying to lessen the burden of faith.

One must admit that the attitudes of the theological community toward the magisterium were partly the fault of the magisterium. Unfair and harsh treatment by the magisterium of many theologians prior to Vatican II led to solidarity among Catholic theologians in a bond of common resentment. After Vatican II, the magisterium perhaps moved too far in the other direction. Bishops who absolutely rejected radically dissenting theological opinions nevertheless found it impossible to bring themselves to oppose dissenting theologians in any effective way.

In modern times, the Church provided many opportunities for the laity to become educated in the faith. But some of the laity were unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to seize these opportunities. Many others, having received a more or less adequate Catholic intellectual and spiritual formation, no sooner left school than they ceased thinking about their faith and its practical implications. When challenges to difficult teachings began to seem acceptable, many lay people were all too ready to put to use their superficial theological knowledge to rationalize setting aside the moral truth taught by the Church. All too often, those most active in various Catholic movements appropriated the works of dissenting theologians and transmitted their opinions to wider audiences.

In addition to all the other factors which help to explain why so many joined the radically dissenting theologians, there is one which hardly can be discussed without giving offense. Once one adopted proportionalism, one no longer regarded willful deception of others as intrinsically evil. Deception became lying only in the absence of a proportionate reason to justify it.100 It followed that when theologians adopted proportionalism, they could begin to feel justified in deceiving others when this seemed necessary to promote the greater good—for example, to bring about changes they considered necessary in the Church’s teaching.101

Scholars usually trust factual statements of their colleagues and even assume, when there is too little time for critical reflection, that the arguments of colleagues are valid. For this reason, scholars who were neither proportionalists nor dissenters were impressed by the statements and arguments of their dissenting colleagues. Thus, the work of dissenters had a disproportionate force upon nondissenting theologians, especially those not immediately concerned with the moral field. In this way many basically sound theologians in other areas, such as Scripture and canon law, were persuaded to go along with dissenting colleagues.

99. Although not directed toward answering the question proposed in this appendix, a work which in fact does so at some length, with clarity and sound historical scholarship: James Hitchcock, What Is Secular Humanism? Why Humanism Became Secular and How It Is Changing Our World (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Servant Books, 1982), esp. 61–79 and 115–38.

100. For some examples, see McCormick, Notes, 315 and 694.

101. A sign of a changed attitude toward the truth is the ease with which it was assumed that the magisterium itself might speak deceitfully. Such an assumption was implicit in the demand that the bishops “publicly admit” the falsity of the received teaching on contraception (see Curran, “Ten Years Later,” 430) and also in the thesis of Joseph A. Selling that Paul VI simply did not mean what he says in Humanae vitae (reported without criticism by McCormick, Notes, 776).