No Longer Groovy: Catholic Dissent Is Going the Way Abbie Hoffman

Will Herberg, the Jewish philosopher, once remarked that no reform movement in the Catholic Church through 2000 years had lasting success if it was opposed to, or unsupported by, the Holy See. In other words, dissent may arrive flashily on the scene, but it eventually withers away or is splintered into pieces against the petrine rock.

It is an open secret that the Catholic Church today faces enormous dissent from within. The cases of Kueng, Curran, Boff, and (more absurdly) Matthew Fox are merely the tip of the theological iceberg. This was hotly denied by Archbishop John May in his recent speech to the Catholic Theological Society, but everybody else—orthodox and dissenter, Rome and clergy and laity alike—knows it is true.

Yet if this is the depressing news, there is reason to be optimistic, for we are witnessing the first signs that American Catholic dissent is withering, indeed disintegrating, following the very path outlined by Herberg, and previously followed by innumerable false theologies and heresies and blunders. Although contemporary dissenters give the impression that their woes are entirely caused by an inquisitorial Vatican, the fact is that their main problems come from the Catholics in the pew—everyday Catholics who find all this dissent to be spiritually unsatisfying, intellectually unimpressive, and often lacking in gospel inspiration and moral purity. Young people especially are turning away from what they consider the outdated vapidities of the 1960s, which once claimed to be “relevant” but are about as much the “in thing” as wide collar shirts or long sideburns. The dissenters are discovering, to their horror, that “groovy” ain’t so groovy anymore.

Division and Fragmentation

Modern dissent has never been coherent or unified, but now it is fragmented to the point of disintegration. A being, any being, is one or not at all. A tree cut and fashioned into a million toothpicks is no longer a tree. A body separated from its soul is no longer a man.

Similarly, contemporary dissent is not one thing. One of the reasons the idea of a “parallel magisterium” completely failed a few years ago is that it simply would not be possible to create a dual magisterium (one official, one unofficial). Dissent is so divided that five magisteria would not be enough to represent all the shades of thought, all the manners of rejecting Catholic teaching. To see this one only need pull down from the library shelf the proceedings of the last 10 or 20 conventions of the Catholic Theological Society of America and see firsthand how the speakers react to the views of their colleagues of the immediately preceding years.

The polarization in religious life, even at the popular level, presents a second example of theological fragmentation among those who reject the conciliar and canonical vision of what the spiritual life entails. It may come as a surprise to some to learn that there is no alternative theology of religious life aside from that found in the whole Catholic tradition and summarized in Vatican II and the new code of canon law. What we find instead of a vision is a series of specific rejections of selected elements in the traditional corpus, but we do not discover a cohesive alternate vision rooted in Scripture and the charisms of the great founders and foundresses.

This theological vacuum among dissenting religious may be the chief reason why they seldom discuss in their conventions anything dealing with a theology of the evangelical counsels as lived in community. They probably sense that their views are so diverse, scattered, and ill-founded that attempts to discuss them would be chaotic, perhaps even vacuous. I think it is not unkind to remark that their chief unity may be an opposition to the essential elements of the canonical vision as the Vatican recently summarized for American religious.

Nor are biblical commentators united in their views of Scripture. Even among proponents of historical criticism we find one group strongly faulting another for excessive abuses in the use of the method. Given basic differences of outlook and often hidden agendas (which candid scholars admit are only too often present), it cannot come as a surprise to find that explanations of specific texts are rife with contradictions. Even a theologian as open to historical criticism as Edward Schillebeeckx has spoken of his frustration with the fragmentation in biblical studies. He spent two or three years studying New Testament commentators as background preparation for his theological studies in Christology. In the introduction to this two-volume work, he refers to the frustration he felt in finding not a single text in the New Testament on which the commentators agreed.

An authentic methodology in any field ought obviously to yield at least some consistent agreement in results. If biblical scholars wonder why other academics are not much impressed with their work, they need not look much further to find at least one plausible explanation. After all, who takes seriously the pronouncements in any field when the practitioners themselves disagree repeatedly on the most basic tenets of the field.

Strangely, some theologians and even some bishops hold that these widespread disagreements, fragmentations, and confusions are normal and even desirable. Perhaps they are “normal” in the sense of being statistically frequent, but they are certainly not “normal” in the sense of reflecting the Catholic norm—the standard upheld by the Church through the centuries.

In the early church, no rejection of official teaching was tolerated whatsoever. St. Paul told a divided Corinthian community that they must regain “perfect agreement in mind,” that their dissent and fragmentation reflected their spiritual immaturity (1 Corinthians 10:3-4). If a dissident or even an angel taught something contrary to the ecclesial leaders, they were to be condemned, St. Paul said (Galatians 1:6-9). Jesus laid it down that a town or household divided against itself is doomed to failure (Matthew 12:25). St. Peter tells us in blunt language that deviant teaching in morals is accompanied by corrupt morals (2 Peter 2), which we have certainly seen. The apostles well understood that Jesus prayed for “complete unity” among his disciplines (John 17:23), not multiple points of view reflecting a healthy pluralism of theologies.

Among the basic suppositions on which human community is built all of us would include a mutual trust in the good intentions of our neighbor (unless he has proved himself unworthy of the trust): the soup does not contain poison… the airline does intend to fly this plane to the city posted at the gate area… parents aim at the welfare of their children… academics are pursuing truth. The sometimes harsh experience of reality, however, suggests that it is easy to assume and proclaim one’s love for truth but quite another thing to seek it single-mindedly. Yet without any intention of judging individual consciences, academics need often to examine just how much they do love truth, just how receptive they are to evidences that run counter to political agendas, especially hidden agendas.

Why is it, for example, that dissenting theologians do not study the question of the mandatory unity of minds with the leaders’ teaching so prominent in the New Testament? In the recent decades of dissent I have seen not a single article, not a single book addressing this issue and written by one who claims he has a right to reject magisterial teaching. Is it not remarkable that men and women who proclaim that they love Scripture and the Church, even while they question official teaching, do not investigate whether there are biblical grounds for the stance they have embraced? There are, of course, no such grounds. While it is not for anyone to accuse individuals of refusing to face evidence that destroys their position, yet they must ask themselves: If we love truth, why don’t we embrace it wherever it may be found? Why not renounce ideas that are shown to be without foundation? Why not answer criticism of the dissenting position if the dissenting view is intellectually sound?

When theologians attempt to justify their dissent, they commonly suggest that occasions of rejection are comparatively rare, that there really is minimal conflict with the magisterium. A typical statement would be, “On occasion a theologian may serve the Church by questioning a doctrine….” As a matter of fact, however, many theologians not merely question a doctrine, but openly deny it in print as well as in spoken word. Nor do I know a single dissenter, whether in oral conversation or in published work, who rejects one doctrine only. Invariably it is a pattern of dissent. It becomes with many a pastoral way of life in classroom and parish pulpit. It becomes a church within the Church. And laypeople sense this: they avoid parishes, retreats, lectures, periodicals, and confessors who offend against their Catholic sense. It would seem to me that love for truth, a genuine candor, would prompt dissenters to ask themselves whether it is honest to present themselves as Catholic and yet reject or question large segments of the Catholic enterprise. Governmental agencies prosecute corporations if they misrepresent on the labels of their products what the packages contain. Should academics and pastors be less honest?

It goes without saying that love for truth prompts one to welcome evidence no matter where it leads him. John Henry Newman loved his Anglican communion with its human associations so dear to him, but nonetheless he tore himself from it by sheer honesty and the force of his dogged pursuit of patristic roots: he followed the light wherever it led him. He loved truth, things as they are, not simply what he wanted them to be. In the same way, martyrs love objective reality so much that they shed their blood rather than slight or deny it.

I find it disturbing both in private exchanges and in biblical and theological literature that only too often dissenters turn a deaf ear to polite and competent critiques of their positions. I can, for instance, point out to a religious that the secularized version of his life is a mere wish devoid of all credible evidences, that it has no foundation in the New Testament or in patristic literature, that the saints neither held it nor lived it, that Vatican II, canon law, and numerous papal statements rule it out. I can add that young men and women are for the most part voting with their feet by entering congregations that are faithful to these normative sources, while they are avoiding those that are not. I can spell out this rough outline with specific details.

What response do I get? Usually none at all. If there is a reaction, it is dually a pejorative labeling of my “views,” even though what I have presented are hard facts, not views at all. Or I may hear a discourse on what modern men and women find “meaningful.” This, of course, is no answer at all to what I said. Hence, it is correct to say that one is greeted by evasion, evasion either by silence or by a refusal to come to terms with a critique. Neither evasion supports the idea of a love for truth.

Cheers for Losers

Among the more bizarre positions taken in secularized religious congregations is their reaction to drastically reduced numbers of young men and women entering their version of the vowed life. A popular conclusion is that numbers no longer matter. Sister Joan Chittister wrote in the National Catholic Reporter that to assess the vitality of religious life “we will have to get over the numbers game.” It is the quality that counts, she insists, not the quantity. The image of religious among the general public makes debatable the degree of quality supposed in this odd view, but there is no debate about what businessmen would think of a drastic drop in sales. They would laugh at the observation that they ought not to be concerned about selling large numbers of cars or television sets, provided the quality is good. Significantly, in her discussion Chittister says not a word about the faithful orders (such as Mother Teresa’s) who do accept Vatican II and canon law, and who continue to attract large numbers of vibrant young people. Well-populated novitiates are facts, and they explode the misty view of the religious left.

A second concrete illustration may be drawn from moral theology. Everyone in this field knows that the undergirding principle par excellence of dissent from Catholic sexual morality is proportionalism, a form of consequentialist ethics. A few years ago Germain Grisez of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and John Finnis of Oxford University separately wrote highly competent, courteous and devastating critiques of proportionalism. An independent observer would expect to see much of the dissenting movement in the United States profoundly disturbed, indeed shaken, by these two studies. One would have supposed that love for truth would have prompted from the proportionalists either a frank admission of error or competent refutation of Grisez and Finnis. So far neither has been forthcoming. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, on this crucial issue, the dissident position is bankrupt, but no one is openly admitting it.

Bypassing unpleasant evidences shows itself in other ways not always obvious to unreflecting people. Even when they hold different perspectives or positions, dissenters are not known to be keen in pointing out deficiencies in each other’s arguments. What seems important is that they uphold one another’s alleged right to question magisterial teaching, not whether their cases are well supported or not. Again, it would seem that a love for truth would prompt a man to point out a fallacious argument whether it is found in one’s own camp or not.

Evasion is widespread among those who theologize “from the American experience,” and in the process coolly ignore the ideas and aspirations of the most faithful members of the Church in the United States: the men and women who raise their children in the fear and love of God, who love the teaching office Christ established, who venerate and try to imitate the saints, who confess their sins regularly and live a contemplative prayer life along with their frequent reception of the sacraments. Dissenters seem to talk mostly to one another and to nominal Catholics who hardly fit the above characterization. No wonder that while they may impress one another, they have little positive influence on the solid faithful or on the universal magisterium.

Radical feminists and secularized religious show the same inclination to ignore the millions of women, many of them highly intelligent and academically competent, who reject the extreme views they hold. Officers of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious give the impression that the organization represents 90 percent of American religious women, when, of course, it only speaks for itself. It may represent a majority of major superiors (and even that is doubtful), but the impression given does not reckon with the large numbers, even within the secularizing congregations, who reject what their superiors have brought about. Nor does it reckon with superiors who belong to the organization merely to keep abreast of what is going on but who do not accept the group philosophy.

Further, feminist theologians (as feminists generally) are among the most dogmatic and intolerant people one could ever hope to encounter in an argument. One seldom sees them grant even a grain of truth in opposing arguments. Strident denunciation is the order of the day. In such an atmosphere, is rational discourse possible? The feminist strategy—successful with many clergy—is to intimidate kindly hearts into submission by threatening an ugly scene.

Rejection of Normality

A final point about dissenters is that they confuse norms and normality—what is the Christian standard with what is in fact practiced. Especially in the area of sexual morality, they imply that what people do should dictate what is right, but this is tantamount to saying that sin should define virtue!

Recently I read in the notes of the Catholic Theological Society a description of a paper by Richard McCormick, criticizing a paper by the more orthodox John Farrelly:

McCormick criticized Farrelly’s sexual anthropology as act-oriented, essentially deductive, marginalizing experience as a source of theology, unconnected with specifically Christian realities, and using language that does not resonate with married Christians’ experience.

What is wrong with this statement—a kind commonly used by dissenters both in moral theology and matters of religious life? For one thing it implies a naive reliance on “experience” as a theological source. Experience, as should be obvious on a few moments’ thought, is by nature extremely ambiguous, for its significance depends on the quality, or lack of quality, of the one experiencing. The experience of celibacy, of being unmarried, varies tremendously according to whether one is a playboy, a work-oriented priest with a tenuous prayer life, a more or less worldly religious, or a mystic after the fashion of a Francis of Assisi or a Catherine of Siena. The experiences are not worth more or less than the qualities of these people and their “lifestyles.”

So also with husbands and wives and their experiences of the wedded state. Are these spouses such that God is primary in their lives? Are they devoted to forming prayerful children? Do they gladly carry their daily crosses in union with the Crucified? Do they share in Mass often, even daily? Do they devote ample time to contemplative prayer? Do they love the teaching office given by Christ to his Church even to the point of a willingness to die for it? All of these traits are found in married saints like St. Thomas More and St. Margaret Clitherow, whom I mention lest anyone think that perhaps I am raising too lofty an ideal of wedded life. If husbands and wives are not devoted Christians the testimony of their experience of connubial sexuality is not of much theological interest. Yet I have never seen dissenters make this point. The married men and women I have met, those who are profoundly committed to the ideals of the saints, accept and value Catholic teaching regarding sexual morality—and all else for that matter.

McCormick’s argument tells against himself, although he seems unaware of it. He is the one who is marginalizing experience, indeed the only experience that is worth noticing. He goes beyond “marginalizing”: he makes no mention at all of the experience that can indeed contribute to an elucidation of theological problems, namely, the lives of the saints, the fully normal people, they who live the Gospel heroically well. As the Liturgy repeatedly tells us: it is they who by their lives proclaim the Good News. It is they whom we are to imitate. Nowhere are we advised to learn from mediocrity.

Absence of Leadership

Many of our leaders in the Church (with a few notable exceptions) are reluctant to admit that dissent has become so destructive in the Church, eroding dioceses and religious orders and parish life. Yet all the cheerleading sounds hollow to everyday Catholics, whose daily and weekly experience refutes the lofty congratulations that bishops extend to theologians, or theologians extend to each other.

Not long ago I mentioned to a well-educated layman that an archbishop declared that religious life in the United States is fundamentally in good condition. Of course, there were problems, but basically… etc., etc. This layman retorted, “But everybody knows that’s absurd.” Very few people today accept claims that run counter to their experience. People are well aware of how many people are at Mass, how few priests are role models, how few young people are entering the priesthood, the secularization of religious life, the abandonment of the sacraments, the drop in Catholic school enrollment. One doesn’t need a degree in theology to know that something is amiss.

Meanwhile, dissent is destroying the Church’s credibility. An organization that has no authoritative voice is uninteresting: who cares what it says? No president or prime minister tolerates for a day a cabinet member at public odds with the administration. Either the subordinate official changes his mind, or he resigns, or he is dismissed. A church that tolerates public dissent is telling the world either that it is unsure of its teaching or that it considers unimportant what people hold or that the faithful are confused and disheartened. It may be proclaiming all these messages at one time.

Monsignor Richard Malone observes:

One fears that the effort of public dissent to oppose a broad spectrum of official teaching raises the question of why there is a teaching office at all. In fact, such dissent seems not to be any kind of loyal opposition within the parameters of faith, but a means of introducing into the Church the practice of private judgment. If one does not find a teaching convincing and persuasive, then, it is said, one doesn’t have to observe it. One can feel authorized to move to a public attack on teachings in order to “liberate” the consciences and minds of the faithful. This kind of dissent is not development in continuity, but rather an undermining of the teaching office and popular confidence in Church authority.

Yet there are grounds for hope in the very “experience” that dissenters make so much of. Our hope and consolation lies in this: authentic things work. A well-constructed car properly maintained and operated runs smoothly down the expressway. A symphony orchestra playing according to the score and under the direction of a skilled conductor produces exquisite beauty. Similarly, God has written the score for human nature, and the magnificence of the divine plan shines through authentic theology. There is in it a unity, a cohesion, a splendor emanating from the revealed symphony. Its radiance is best seen and heard in the lives of the saints, for they are the ones best attuned to the Holy Spirit who inspires both Scripture and their lives.

Dissenting theology is beset with flaws, contradictions, and sheer chaos. No wonder it does not work. No wonder that not a single saint in 2000 years has held what contemporary dissenters hold. No wonder that most people who accept what the dissenters teach simply stop being Catholics, or believing in God altogether. Meanwhile, people are walking out of the arid dissenting churches and looking for truth, unity, and authentic spirituality in their lives. This they can only find in the Church. Will Herberg was right, after all.


  • Thomas Dubay, S.M.

    Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M., was a well-known retreat master and expert in the spiritual life. A Marist Priest, Father held a Ph.D. from Catholic University of America and taught on both major seminary level for about fifteen years. He spent three decades giving retreats and writing books (over twenty at last count) on various aspects of the spiritual life. He is an expert on the teachings and writings of the two mystical doctors of the Church, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. He died in 2010.

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