In my last essay, entitled ‘Cafeteria Catholicism’ I tried to show that one has to accept the whole of the Catholic enterprise for it to make sense to the individual believer. A legitimate question though comes even if one accepts this premise: what if there is something that I cannot accept does it all sort of cave in?
Some historical perspective would be helpful. When Martin Luther challenged the Catholic Church over her teaching, he said, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” This powerful protest in which one man took on the vast Catholic universe ushered in a period of disunity and even violence that still affects us today. The Protestant Reformation is not only Luther’s stand; it is the very numerous other persons who took a stand even against Protestantism (all the different denominations). Luther did not only break the unity of the Church into two pieces but into hundreds of pieces (the earlier separation of the Catholic Church from Orthodoxy had different roots).
Protestants, who protested against the King of England and would not accept injustice at his hand, founded the United States. The Confederacy also tried to protest but, because of the Civil War, was not so successful.
Even today, many protest movements seek to change our way of life, some for the better, e.g. the civil rights struggle. So having different ideas and working to see them triumph, even if the cost is the loss of unity, is part of the DNA of being an American. To protest in favor of a new idea is part of the picture of this protestant country (both religiously and politically).
Not so in the Catholic Church, where unity is paramount and protest is discouraged. The Teaching of the Church is not the product of human deliberation. It is received from God and protected and developed by the inspired genius of her bishops and theologians. To challenge this process is to stand outside the bounds of orthodoxy (seen as right thinking or thinking with the Church). This can cause a heresy to develop, thus threatening that unity, and so must be condemned and avoided by every loyal member of the Church. In this viewpoint, the community becomes more important that the individual. Hopefully, we can now see displayed before us the Individualism of our age: an individual person’s rights and opinions matter more than those of our collective American society; here, it can be seen as the product of the Protestant principle.
Naturally, therefore, there are Catholics who apply that idea to Church Teaching and seek to choose what they want from the Catholic substance; but to amputate an arm and leave the rest might endanger the whole body!
What then does an individual Catholic do when he or she is confronted with something in their faith that they cannot in conscience accept? Firstly, we must say that the areas of conflict should be very rare. If there is a constant antipathy with Church teaching, one must either question one’s faith in the Catholic Church or ask whether one has a psychological impediment to belief (such as a general problem with authority). So let’s say that this troubled Catholic in question accepts all that is in the Magisterium of the Church except this one teaching. What should they do?
A person can stand with one’s conscience and dissent from that teaching provided they do three things: first, make an intellectual act of humble submission, realizing the possibility that the Tradition of the Church is correct and they are wrong (i.e. keep an open mind); secondly, read about why the Church believes the opposite in this matter; and thirdly, refrain from propagating their opinion on their dissent from the teaching in the interests of harmony in the Body of Christ. Now I know that this does not go down easily for an American suffused with the Protestant ethic, but it is a genuine natural possibility and a necessity.
To stand in opposition by contradicting a settled teaching of the Church, to put one’s opinion against the array of saints and scholars who have elucidated the teaching of the Church through the centuries, can be an act of pride. Dissent is an audacious act that must bring some doubt to even the surest person, even when the opinion is shared by millions of people.
Dissent from Church Teaching, while possible, should be a rare event done with great caution.