That is the title of Peter Berger’s latest provocative column, in which he considers four recent cases of radical dissent, three from the left and one from the right, from the official teaching of the Catholic Church by organizations and/or individuals within the Church. The question itself was put this way by Sister Pat Farrell, a Franciscan nun who is embroiled in one of the controversies discussed by Berger involving the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. I look forward to talking about the column with my students in our fall course, Catholic Social Thought and the Law.
Here is a bit from the conclusion of Berger’s piece:
[T]he four cases have in common to what is at the very core of Roman Catholicism—the authority of the papacy and its official teaching (the so-called magisterium). The Catholic Church has a long history of accommodation and compromise with deviant groups, from the radical Franciscans centuries ago who despised the worldly splendor of Rome and thus its civilization, to the Anglican converts of our own time who want to retain married priests and the use of the Book of Common Prayer. What the Church can never compromise on is obedience to the authority of pope and magisterium: If the Roman Catholic Church compromised on that, it would give up the very core of its identity—it would cease to be itself.
Back to Sister Farrell’s question: Can Catholic faith be combined with a questioning mind? History suggests an emphatic yes. Catholic civilization has nurtured some of the best minds ever, some very questioning indeed. But Farrell’s question is misleading: The issue is not what one thinks in private, but what one says publicly that is contrary to the magisterium. Roman canon law contains a very important proposition: De occultis non iudicat Ecclesia—“The Church does not judge secret matters”—such as the private ruminations of a questioning mind. What is more, when these ruminations are publicly advocated in opposition to the teachings of the magisterium, the Church has the authority to condemn them and to discipline Catholics who advocate them.
Many of the Catholic dissidents in these stories mention conscience as an authority. There is indeed a Christian tradition which puts conscience (though as guided by God’s Word) over the authority of the Church. This tradition is known as Protestantism. My late friend Richard John Neuhaus (while still a Lutheran, before what he called his “ecclesial transition” to the Roman Catholic Church) once put it very succinctly: There are Christians who view the Church as a vehicle for faith, others as an object of faith. Amicable ecumenical dialogue (such as the Catholic-Lutheran dialogue about the doctrine of justification) is useful and even admirable. But it neither should nor could deny this fundamental difference.
The dichotomy between private belief and public advocacy that Berger emphasizes doesn’t, at least to my mind, get things quite right, because it neglects several issues. First, it’s hard to know what “condemnation” consists in here. Surely it is appropriate for those with authority in any church — or for that matter in any association of civil society — to condemn (that is, to express public disapproval of) teachings or ideas that they feel run contrary to those of the church. Is there an additional sense of condemnation at issue in this context that is less congenial to the questioning mind? If so, I have difficulty seeing it. Second, the column neglects the issue of role. There are plenty of believing Catholics who have expressed disagreements with the Church’s views throughout history. The Church, as a general matter, does not discipline them. But there are other sorts of challenges to the authority of the Church which do merit greater attention. All of the examples cited by Berger refer to prelates or clergy within the Church itself who claim to be speaking on behalf of the Church (in the case of the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, the issue seems to be the “pontifical” imprimatur) (an aside: I am very curious how my students will react to the liberation theology reading on for our class on the economic order). An ordinary, lay case of dissent is not the same thing as dissent on the part of a cleric claiming the mantle of true Catholicism. One’s role and institutional position as a dissenter matters. Third, the nature of the challenge matters. A dissenting opinion on, say, the issue of the morality of abortion does not hold the same status as a dissenting opinion on, e.g., the morality of capitalist fiscal structures. Again, there is nothing unusual in this arrangement. Social and cultural institutions of all kinds look upon expressions of dissent differently depending on the subject matter at issue.