Monday, March 14, 2011

Nicholas Lash on Dissent and Disagreement

Following is an excerpt from an informative article by Nicholas Lash entitled "Teaching or Commanding?" It's from the December 13, 2010 issue of America and examines what Lash sees as "the heart of the crisis of contemporary Catholicism": the subordination of education to governance.


When the Second Vatican Council ended, several of the bishops who took part told me that the most important lesson they had learned through the conciliar process had been a renewed recognition that the church exists to be, for all its members, a lifelong school of holiness and wisdom, a lifelong school of friendship (a better rendering of caritas than “charity” would be). It follows that the most fundamental truth about the structure of Christian teaching cannot lie in distinctions between teachers and pupils—although such distinctions are not unimportant—but in the recognition that all Christians are called to lifelong learning in the Spirit, and all of us are called to embody, communicate and protect what we have learned. Much of what is said about the office of “teachership” or magisterium seems dangerously forgetful of this fact.

. . . Catholic Christianity is a lifelong school of friendship, holiness and wisdom. Yet the tasks of those exercising the pastoral teaching office seem not, in fact, primarily to be teaching, at least as this activity is understood in most schools.

In 1975 a plenary session of the International Theological Commission issued a series of theses on the relationship between the magisterium and theology. In 1966 Paul VI had addressed an international congress on “The Theology of Vatican II” on the same topic, and the commission introduced its theses with two brief quotations from that address. The commission defined ecclesiastical magisterium as “the office of teaching which, by Christ’s institution, is proper to the college of bishops or to individual bishops joined in hierarchical communion with the Supreme Pontiff.”

What terminology might be appropriate to describe what someone is doing when, for whatever reason, he or she seeks to take issue with some particular instance of magisterial teaching? “Disagreeing” is the term that comes to mind. But because teaching is, in current ecclesiastical usage, usually construed as governance, as command, such taking issue is described in the recent literature not as disagreement but as “dissent.”

Francis A. Sullivan, S.J., reminded readers of his 1983 book Magisterium that Pius XII, in “Humani Generis,” announced that “when a pope, in an encyclical, expresses his judgment on an issue that was previously controverted, this can no longer be seen as a question for free discussion by theologians”; Father Sullivan goes on to point out, however, that “there is no such statement in any of the documents that were approved by the Council.” The silence of the Second Vatican Council notwithstanding, John Paul II, addressing the American bishops in Los Angeles in 1987, said without qualification: “It is sometimes said that dissent from the magisterium is totally compatible with being a ‘good Catholic’ and poses no obstacle to the reception of the sacraments. This is a grave error that challenges the teaching office of the bishops in the United States and elsewhere.”

If Father Sullivan’s study seemed content to work with the terminology of “dissent,” Ladislas Orsy, S.J. [author of Receiving the Council: Theological and Canonical Insights and Debates], is more troubled by the notion. “Dissent has become,” says Father Orsy, “one of the dominant themes in Catholic theology in the United States,” but “is mentioned less in European writings.” Dissent, he says, “is an imperfect term under several aspects”: It is purely negative; it implies “deep-lying internal antagonism”; it is historically loaded; and so on. “It follows that if we abandoned the word ‘dissent’ altogether, we would lose little and gain much.” I agree. Yet, “All these arguments notwithstanding,” Father Orsy concludes, “it appears that for the time being at least” we must “live with an unsuitable word.” For goodness’ sake, why?

Here is a very simple model: The teacher looks for understanding, the commander for obedience. Where teaching in most ordinary senses of the term is concerned, if a pupil’s response to a piece of teaching is yes, the student is saying something like “I see” or “I understand.” If the response is no, the pupil is saying “I don’t see” or “I don’t understand.” When subordinates say yes to a command, they obey; when they say no, they disobey. Dissent is disobedience. The entire discussion about the circumstances in which it may be permissible or appropriate to dissent from magisterial utterances makes clear that what is at issue is when and in what circumstances it may be virtuous, and not sinful, to disobey. There could, in my opinion, be no clearer evidence that what we call “official teaching” in the church is, for the most part, not teaching but governance.

I am not in the least denying that governance, the issuing of instructions and commands, has its place in the life of the church, as of any other society. That is not what is at issue. The point at issue is that commands direct; they do not educate. It is one thing to accept a doctrine, quite another to obey an order. . . .

– Nicholas Lash
"Teaching or Commanding: When Bishops Instruct the Faithful"
December 13, 2010

See also the previous PCV posts:
When is a Law Not a Law?
Richard Gaillardetz on the Need to "Wrestle with the Tradition"
Church Teaching and the Individual Conscience

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