A teaching on responsible dissent


“Pray, pay, and obey.” It wasn’t too long ago that this was, at least tongue-in-cheek, a definition of what the laity was supposed to do. The clergy, especially bishops, taught, and the laity listened. Information flowed in one direction. Vatican II changed that. It called us to be a more adult church, a pilgrim church “on the way” together, a church of dialogue. Pope Francis, in his recent post-synod, apostolic exhortation to young people, Christus Vivit (Christ Lives), reminds us of this calling. When the Code of Canon Law was revised in 1983, a lot of attention was paid to the rights of the laity as full and active members of the church, including, for example, the right to — in accord with their knowledge and expertise — make their opinions known (cc. 212, 218).

However, with adult rights come adult responsibilities. As members of the Body of Christ, our first responsibility is to maintain communion with the church, promote its growth and well-being, and spread the Gospel in word and deed (cc. 210, 211, 217). We have the right to make our opinions known, but in doing so we must always consider the integrity of faith and morals, have respect for the teaching of the church, and be attentive to the common good and dignity of persons (c. 212). In other words, disagreement is one thing; how we disagree is another.

Far from being necessarily a bad thing, disagreement (or, in church talk, dissent) can be a way to help the church formulate its teachings in ways that are more convincing or closer to the mark. But dissent must be done in a respectful manner. It is never an issue of “I am right and the church is wrong.” Rather, it is an issue of: “Faith and reason must work together, and I find the reasons given for a particular teaching unconvincing. Therefore, in good conscience, I cannot accept the teaching as formulated, but will continue to study and pray about the matter.” This is a question of adult ownership, of mature faith.

How does one travel down this road responsibly? Theologians who specialize in ecclesiology (such as Richard Gaillardetz) or in moral theology (such as Richard Gula) write in more technical ways about this, but here are some guideposts, based on their work, that I think are helpful to keep in mind:


First, we must begin by affirming the teaching authority of the church. The church, especially through its bishops, has the right and responsibility to teach. The church has been around for 2,000 years; to dissent responsibly is to admit the probability that I, not the church, am wrong. The church enjoys the benefit of the doubt.

Second, responsible dissent distinguishes between the degrees of authority of different teachings. Not every teaching has the same weight. To deny a core dogma or doctrine of the faith is very different from disagreeing with a church rule about liturgical postures or clerical celibacy.

Third, responsible dissent follows only when, after careful and ongoing study and prayer, the rationale for a particular church teaching remains unconvincing. It is not a question of not “liking” the teaching. It is a head thing, not a gut thing. The right to follow one’s conscience follows the responsibility to form that conscience well, which takes considerable time, effort and prayer.

Fourth, responsible dissent is concerned about the means, with how we disagree. We need to remember Paul’s admonition: don’t do anything to weaken the faith of another. Actions have consequences. How far I can go with publicly expressing disagreement or dissent has to do with my competence and expertise in the area I am questioning.

On one end of the spectrum, keeping my struggle with a particular church teaching essentially to myself is “internal dissent” (or withholding assent). Sharing my struggles or questions with some close friends is “private dissent” (or external expression of internal dissent). Those who are experts in a field in theology may go a step further, and make their questions public in scholarly literature (theological books and journals). That is among the tasks of theology: to challenge us to articulate what we believe more completely, convincingly or faithfully; to ask tough questions.

On the other end of the spectrum, public, non-scholarly dissent (such as publishing in the secular press, where there is not the peer review found in scholarly literature) is an extreme step, and one that can be especially confusing to the faithful and harmful to the church. Internal/private dissent is one thing; going public is another, particularly if the dissent is perceived to be sensationalistic.

Finally, if we take our adult responsibilities seriously, then it is our task not only to disagree but to contribute toward reformulating the teaching in question: to be constructive, not destructive. Why dissent? How are the questions that I am asking helpful to the church? Or am I just focused on tearing everything down? Is it about love or anger?

Some may long for the days of “pray, pay, and obey” — of everything being black-and-white. But if we live long enough we learn that there is a lot of gray out there! To be an adult in the church is to take responsibility for our life of faith — not just individually, but for our life together as a community.

So, what happens when we find ourselves either confused by or disagreeing with something that the church teaches? Are we “bad” Catholics? Hardly. How does one disagree appropriately, constructively? The guidelines above are helpful. The bottom line is this: discernment as a church is about listening together, as the baptized, to the Holy Spirit. The technical phrase for this is sensus fidelium (sense of the faithful). It is not about feelings, or likes and dislikes, or power politics, or even majority rule. It is about being faithful to Christ. And humble. And joyful.

Bishop Thomas Zinkula
Diocese of Davenport

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