Authority and Dissent in the Church: Two Opposing Views

Editors’ Note: On October 16, 1986 Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahony and Rev. Charles E. Curran of Catholic University presented their views on the nature of authority and dissent in the Catholic Church. They spoke to an overflow crowd of 1,700 at the University of Southern California, under the sponsorship of the School of Religion and the Loring Leadership Lecture. We present the two addresses here in their entirety.

The teaching office of the bishop has been strongly emphasized by the Second Vatican Council and is briefly but clearly set forth in the new Code of Canon Law. Canon 386 declares:

(1) The Diocesan Bishop is bound to present and explain to the faithful the truths of the faith which are to be believed and applied to moral issues, frequently preaching in person; he is also to see to the careful observance of the prescriptions of the canons concerning the ministry of the Word, especially those concerning the homily and catechetical formation, so that the whole of Christian doctrine is imparted to all. (2) Through suitable means he is strongly to safeguard the integrity and unity of the faith to be believed while nevertheless acknowledging a rightful freedom in the further investigation of its truths.

Notable in this canon, as in the teaching of the Council, is the primary emphasis given to the preaching ministry of the bishop. As a preacher, he has the responsibility to proclaim the good news of the Gospel and to present the person of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Savior, in an engaging and challenging way.

In my ministry as a priest and a bishop I have become increasingly convinced that authority in the Church is best served when we Bishops focus our attention on Christ and on God, and allow juridical rights and obligations to flow from our discipleship with the Lord. The Synod of Bishops that met in Rome in the Fall of 1985 recognized this approach. In their final report the Bishops said: “Perhaps we are not free from all responsibility for the fact that young people, in particular, regard the Church critically as a mere institution. Have we not put the idea into their heads by talking too much about reforming external Church structures and too little about God and Christ?”

I hope that in trying to adhere to my assigned topic I shall not be reinforcing the image of the Church as a merely juridical structure rather than presenting it as a community of men and women embarked together on an exciting journey of faith. Still, it must be recognized that the Church, as a visible society, must have institutional structures, and that they can be of great service for the proclamation of the Gospel and for preventing the message of Christ from being distorted by arbitrary interpretations.

One other point in the canon I have quoted deserves to be emphasized. When in its second part the canon turns to the bishop’s responsibility to safeguard the integrity of the faith it immediately adds that the rightful freedom of theologians to inquire into doctrinal questions must be respected. Although an authentic teacher of the faith, the bishop is not merely an “ecclesiastical policeman.”

His task is not only, or even primarily, to control. He must also facilitate. He must enable others to perform their ministries in the diocese. I think it only fair to say that bishops commonly enjoy a cordial and cooperative relationship with theologians and with others engaged in the ministry of the Word. Church history shows, if I am not mistaken, that authority functions best when bishops and theologians work in harmony, as they generally do.

I am pleased that here in our own Archdiocese of Los Angeles there is now a Theological Commission comprised of outstanding professional theologians — priests, laymen, and women — to guide and assist me with current theological concerns.

I cannot think of any major dispute in which the conflict has been between the hierarchy and the theologians as such. In every doctrinal quarrel known to me, there has been a division within the theological community itself. Very often the hierarchical Magisterium has found itself in the position of trying to mediate between rival theological schools. Occasionally, however, some theological opinion has to be ruled out as incompatible with the Christian message. Such a ruling has to come from the pope or the bishops.

Our American culture, quite rightly, puts a high value on freedom and has a corresponding distrust for any restrictive exercise of authority. Freedom is in fact closely related to human dignity as proclaimed in the Gospel. Jesus tells us: “If you live according to my teaching, you are truly my disciples; then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). In its teaching ministry the Church strives to liberate its members from domination by passions or worldly forces that would blind their minds or chain their wills. If the Church sometimes seems to be stern in its discipline, this is only for the sake of leading its members to that true freedom which Christ has purchased for us all.

Championing freedom in the world, the Church fosters freedom in its own household. The Second Vatican Council taught that freedom is to be respected as far as possible and curtailed only when and insofar as necessary (cf. Dignitatis Humanae, 7). This principle, as I understand it, applies as much to the Church as to the political society. Because of our esteem for freedom, we bishops generally prefer to say “yes” rather than “no” to any serious request. In spite of our negative image in some minds, we are not over-inclined to be restrictive. The greater danger, I suspect, is that we may be too permissive. From time to time we need to be reminded of Paul’s admonitions to Timothy and Titus that they must correct and reprove false doctrines and defend the faith against any abridgement or contamination.

To set the right context for any discussion of teaching authority and dissent, it is crucial to keep in mind that the Church differs in many ways from secular societies and agencies. Although debate and exploration surely have their place in the Church, the Church is not a debating club or a society of explorers.

Most fundamentally, it is a community of faith, and witness, one that worships God in Jesus Christ and seeks to live in close union with its risen Lord. The Church is sent into the world to bear witness, both by word and example, to its divinely given message. It cannot justify its existence unless it remains solidly rooted in the faith that gave it birth.

From the earliest days Christians recognized the importance of an authoritative teaching body for the maintenance of inner unity. Christ imposed upon the Apostles and their successors the tasks of disseminating his full doctrine and making disciples of all nations. He assured them that he would remain ever present to assist them in their work. Paul continually exhorts his converts to submit humbly to the teachers set over them and to avoid every trace of factionalism. The dangers of partisanship and polarization were manifest in Paul’s day, as they are in ours.

In the first three centuries the unity of the Church continued to depend on its structured hierarchical leadership. Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus, and Tertullian all insist on the authority of the bishops who stand in the apostolic succession. Where this authority was maintained the Church exhibited a remarkable unanimity which was, to the early apologists, a sign of its divine origin. Let me illustrate this with several characteristic quotations.

Irenaeus, writing late in the second century, speaks as follows:

Having received this message and this truth, the Church, although scattered through the whole world, keeps them carefully, as if she inhabited a single house. She unanimously believes them as if she had but one heart and one soul; she preaches them as if she had but one tongue. The languages of the world are many, but the force of tradition is one and the selfsame . . . . The sun, God’s creature, is one and the selfsame in the world. So likewise the preaching of the truth is the light that shines everywhere and enlightens all who wish to know it (Adv. haer. 1.10.2; SC 264: 158-60).

Tertullian, a generation later, describes the Church as “a body all of whose members are conjoined by the bond of a single faith, unity of discipline, and concord of hope” (Apol. 39: 1; CC 1:150). In spite of the wide diversities between East and West, he declares, Christians are not divided. “They and we have one faith, one God, the same Christ, the same hope, and the same baptismal sacrament. Let me say it once and for all: We are one Church” (De virg. vel. 2.2; CC 2:1210).

Irenaeus and Tertullian both explain the marvelous unity of the Church by pointing to the role of the bishops who stand in the apostolic succession. Cyprian, my third witness, is of the same mind. Writing toward the middle of the third century, he anticipates the modern doctrine of collegiality. He writes:

The episcopate is one; it is a corporation in which each member possesses title to the whole (cuius a sigulis in solidum pars tenetur). The Church is likewise one, although she is spread abroad and multiplies with the increase of her progeny. Even so the. sun has many rays but one light; a tree has many branches but one life, drawn from a single tenacious root; and, when many streams arise from one source, unity is preserved by reason of the origin even though many diverse bodies of water flow from the abundance of the spring (De cath. eccl. unit. 5; CSEL 3:214).

In all these metaphors, Cyprian is insisting that the unity of the Church depends upon that of its episcopate, which is itself grounded in the See of Peter as the source from which unity takes its rise.

The unity in doctrine that resulted from these structures was never merely abstract or theoretical. It had a clear impact on the ways in which Christians behaved. One of the earliest apologists, the anonymous author of the Letter to Diognetus, contrasts the values and practices of Christians with those of their pagan neighbors. Christians, he says, marry and have babies as others do, but they do not destroy their infants. They share common table but not a common bed (Ad Diogn. 5: 6-7; PG 2: 1173).

Tertullian makes a similar point in his counterattack on the Church’s persecutors:

Now for us Christians murder is forbidden on all counts, and we are forbidden to terminate the life of the womb once the blood has been drawn for the conception of the child. To prevent the child from being born is merely premature murder: it makes no difference whether one takes the life of someone already born or stops it on its way to birth. What is to be born is already human; the full fruit is already present in the seed (Apol. 9. 8; CC 1.90).

I give these quotations not in order to raise the specific questions of extramarital intercourse and abortion, which are still relevant today, but to make the more general point that the Church, if it is to stand for anything, has to have some common doctrine that is respected and put into practice by its members.

The principles that governed the Church’s common life in the early centuries must continue to be operative in subsequent ages, for the permanence of the Church, as Cardinal Newman perceived, implies continuity in its doctrinal principles. From the very beginnings, Newman observed, Christians felt bound “to defend and to transmit the faith which they had received, and they received it from the rulers of the Church; and, on the other hand, it was the duty of those rulers to watch over and define this traditionary faith.” The truth of the faith, Newman goes on to say, is something independent of all the members of the Church; it is something definite, formal, and obligatory (Essay on Development, chap. 7, sec. 5, no. 3).

The vision of the Church that comes down to us from the Fathers through writers such as Newman is no longer unchallenged. It stands in some tension with the modern mentality, which favors freedom of inquiry, experimentation, and expression. Modern journalism, politics, and university practice all seem to be based on the premise that truth wells up from below, through a process of trial and error, and is not to be sought in any kind of revelation, authoritatively transmitted.

The Church is no stranger to the modern world. One of the main purposes of the Second Vatican Council was to establish a new and better relationship between the Church and that world. The aim was not and could not have been to blur the distinctive witness of the Church or to dissolve its unity and continuity. But it was felt that the Church, without detriment to its own proper identity, could achieve a better relationship with its present cultural environment. Just as Paul became a Jew to Jews and a Greek to Greeks, in order to gain all to Christ, so the Church could adapt its apostolate to a variety of cultures.

Quite evidently the Church today in a country such as our own cannot depend entirely on ideas and institutions shaped in other times and places. It needs open-minded scholars who, with full loyalty to the Catholic heritage, approach current questions with modern methods and techniques. While every effort will be made to reach solutions that harmonize with Catholic teaching, it will occasionally happen that a scholar may become convinced, on the basis of personal research and reflection, that certain past or recent statements of ecclesiastical authorities stand in need of revision. The question then arises: may the theologian dissent, privately or publicly, from the currently received doctrine?

This question admits of no simple “yes” or “no” answer. We have to consider in detail what is being challenged and how. Church pronouncements are not all on the same level of authority. They may be ranked all the way from the solemn dogmatic pronouncements of popes and ecumenical councils at the top to casual statements of bishops and curial officials at the bottom. To assess the obligatory force of a teaching one would have to consider carefully who issued it, in what kind of pronouncement, how emphatically, how frequently, for how long a period, on what grounds, and with what kind of support or reception from other authorities. It would be an oversimplification to say either that Catholics must submit to all the teaching statements of Church authorities or that they are entitled to dissent from anything not infallibly taught. But it would not be an exaggeration to state that as Catholics we are expected to give our internal and external, private and public assent to Magisterial teaching that is clearly within our time-honored tradition.

In practice it is very rare that anyone who claims to be a Catholic simply denies a dogma of the faith. Father Hans Kung, who had serious questions about infallibility, did not see himself as departing from the clear teaching of the First Vatican Council, and for this reason he has never been declared a heretic. Even though he is no longer an ecclesiastically approved teacher of Catholic theology, he remains a priest in good standing.

Far more common is the case in which a theologian, on the basis of scholarly research and reflection, diverges from a doctrine that has been taught without the special guarantee of infallibility. Such a dissent may at times be justified, but the justification will be more difficult if the doctrine is taught by high authority, with great emphasis and deliberation. One may think, in this connection, of a doctrine taught by a succession of recent popes and set forth in encyclicals that were intended to put an end to previous controversy.

Even in cases such as this, dissent cannot be totally ruled out. Provided that the statement is not uttered with the unconditional guarantee of infallibility, which must be proved and not presumed, error cannot be excluded as out of the question. Dissent, consequently, would not involve a separation from the Catholic communion. But Church authorities might have good reason for placing restrictions on persons who try to use their position in the Church to gain credibility for the opposition.

In the realm of dissent one must distinguish between different cases. At one extreme one could imagine an individual who, in spite of sincere efforts, felt unable to assent interiorly to what the hierarchy was teaching on a given point. Such a person might remain silent or share his difficulties with a few friends or counselors. Private dissent of this kind is readily tolerated in the Church.

At the other extreme would be a dissent that was organized with a view to forming a party or pressure group working for a change in Church doctrine or for official recognition of an alternative position. In view of their commission as teachers, bishops who personally supported the current teaching would feel obliged to resist such an assault on the received doctrine. They would object to the formation of what amounts to a second, competitive Magisterium of dissenting theologians.

Between these two imaginary cases, representing private dissent and organized dissent, one can think of a whole spectrum of intermediate cases. I cannot discuss them all in the present context. Let me say only that there are certain circumstances in which the advocacy of dissent is clearly inappropriate.

One obvious case would be the sermon. Since preaching is a public act performed in the service of the Church, the preacher may not use the pulpit to contradict the official teaching. Much the same is true of catechists and catechisms, to the extent that their very purpose is to present the approved doctrine of the Church rather than the personal views of a particular author.

To this I would add that seminary teaching is another sensitive area. Without being overprotective, bishops will want to see to it that their seminarians receive formation for their future ministry under the most favorable circumstances. If major elements of Church teaching are contested in the classroom, seminarians may later find it difficult to support and implement that teaching in their pastoral ministry. On the other hand, it is well for seminarians to be familiarized with the objections against current doctrine so that they can deal sympathetically with Catholics who find difficulty in assenting.

If these restrictions on the expression of dissent are admitted, one may wonder whether the theologian is anything more than an apologist for whatever the hierarchy is teaching. To present and explain the actual teaching of the Church is indeed an important part of the theologian’s task, but, as I have already suggested, theology has a critical and creative role in grappling with new and unsettled questions. A new development of doctrine, when it begins to emerge, may be hard to distinguish from a deviation. What appears as dissent may eventually prove to have been a contribution to a more adequate formulation of the faith. In our own Catholic theological history, the example of usury is well known. Just as industries have chemistry laboratories and governments have planning divisions, so the Church needs a research arm in which difficult questions are raised and new ideas are debated. Normally, such proposals are set forth in theological conferences and written up in specialized publications for the scrutiny of peers.

If a somewhat venturesome theory is put before the general public in popularized form, the author would be well advised to warn the reader that the opinion is a personal one that is being submitted to the judgment of the Church. When certain Catholic theologians confidently assert the popes and bishops are teaching errors, they appear to put their own judgment above that of the hierarchical Magisterium and in so doing inevitably discredit the latter. Their attitude does not seem consonant with the reverence due to ecclesiastical authority and with the avoidance of factionalism. But the irresponsible behavior of a few should not prejudice the case. It is still possible for dissenting opinion, proposed in a positive and creative manner, and within the norms of legitimate dissent, to be of service in the Church’s quest for deeper understanding.

A Church that opened its pulpits and theological chairs to persons of every opinion would lose all credibility. It would have surrendered jts claim to be the body which Christ has commissioned id teach in his name.

In my opinion, the Church must exercise its most responsible and diligent teaching authority when a single theologian or group of theologians propose their personal theory as “pastoral practice” for the members of the Church community. I believe that in these cases the theologian/theologians have seriously moved beyond their role of “theologian” and have usurped the role of “pastor” held by the bishops and the pope. In my opinion, it is this blurring of roles in the realm of pastoral practice that has resulted in the current tensions between the Magisterium and some theologians.

The Church, then, recognizes that in the course of scholarly theological work it is possible at times for legitimate dissent from non-infallible Catholic teaching to arise. When such dissent occurs, however, it does not replace authentic Catholic teaching but remains dissent from it. Nor does the dissenting opinion reduce the authentic teaching to being itself just another opinion. Confronted with a dissenting opinion, authentic Catholic teaching remains what it is: authentic Catholic teaching.

It is misleading and wrong, therefore, to describe a situation of dissent, even legitimate dissent, from authentic Church teachings as if it were only a matter of diversity or plurality of opinions in the Church. Because of the apostolic origin and the hierarchical structure of the Church, the teaching of the Magisterium is not simply one theological opinion alongside others; it is, rather, Church doctrine. And if proper respect is to be paid to Church doctrine, it must first of all be acknowledged as what it is.

In individual cases Church authorities may find it difficult to decide whether a given opinion may be taught under ecclesiastical auspices. If an unfavorable judgment is reached after long and painstaking investigation by competent authorities, the faithful should accept it very seriously. They should not assume without solid evidence that the theologian’s rights have been violated.

The importance of the Church’s pastoral office becomes more evident day by day. The press and electronic media are often not able or willing to express all the sensitivities, nuances, or distinctions necessary in the issues explored. Thus, many times they express ideas in catch phrases or titles, such as “conservative” or “liberal.” Or they attempt to explore all issues only in a confrontational way, rather than an objective difference of opinion. So often our Catholic people do not read religious journals or publications. Thus they unwittingly begin to consider these questions in oversimplified terminology.

Even theologians in university situations are likely to be overinfluenced by the reigning ethos of academic freedom. It therefore becomes more necessary than ever for the Church to have firm authority structures so as to preserve its rich and ancient heritage, and to address new problems in the light of Christ.

Let me conclude by echoing the message of our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, to the theologians of the United States during his pastoral visit in 1979:

And here I want to say a special word of gratitude, encouragement and guidance for the theologians. The Church needs her theologians, particularly in this time and age so profoundly marked by deep changes in all areas of life and society. The Bishops of the Church, to whom the Lord has entrusted the keeping of the unity of the faith and the preaching of the message — individual Bishops for their Dioceses; and Bishops collegially, with the Successor of Peter for the universal Church — we all need your work, your dedication and the fruits of your reflection. We desire to listen to you, and we are eager to receive the valued assistance of your responsible scholarship. [October 7, 1979, Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.]

The Holy Spirit continues to be very present within the Church, and the tensions which arise from time to time in the history of our Church cannot lessen the power of Christ’s promise: “And know that I am with you always, until the end of the world!” (Matthew 28:20).

I am optimistic about the continuing working relationship of the pope and bishops with our theologians, and as a member of the body of Catholic Bishops I feel privileged to share in this challenging and sometimes demanding mission. I do so with the humble realization that I shall have to render an account of my service to the Lord himself.


  • Most Rev. Roger Mahony

    Roger Michael Mahony KGCHS (born 1936) is an American cardinal and retired prelate of the Roman Catholic Church who served as Archbishop of Los Angeles from 1985 to 2011. Before his appointment as Los Angeles archbishop, he served as Auxiliary Bishop of Fresno from 1975 to 1980 and as Bishop of Stockton from 1980 to 1985.

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