At times, the Church’s official interpretation of its own authority seems like madness. For example, it seems like madness to say that we cannot even discuss the question of women’s ordination, the future possibility of female bishops and possibly even a female pope at some point. Where does the magisterium get the authority to say that something cannot even be discussed? The Church has assumed this authority on the basis of a patriarchal bias, not on the basis of a divine command that bars women from participating in leadership in all areas of Church life.
Dissent towards this particular teaching of the magisterium is dissent from madness. When an organization’s actions are out of sync with the highly valued norms of conventional society, we call them mad, disordered, behaviour challenged. A group of people who still practiced slavery, for example, would be seen as disordered today. Steps would be taken to address the group as a social problem. Members of the group would be encouraged to dissent from the official teaching of their founders and leaders if it meant continuing the practice of slavery.
Dissent from obedience to rules that require socially aberrant behaviour are seen as a healthy response towards social development. It was dissent that compelled women to resist domestication of their gender. The first suffragettes dissented from the madness of being forced into a life of maternal servitude and followed their consciences into public life. They were disobedient to rules that, to them, seemed like a form of social insanity.
Catholics have practiced this kind of dissent towards the official teaching on contraception. Most just ignore the official teaching and adopt birth control as a responsible practice. Both their practice of birth control and their dissent are condoned by their own conscience. In our day, it is madness to suggest that a group of patriarchs – a priestly caste system in which women have no voice – have any right to impose the burden of uncontrolled procreative activity upon human society. So, we dissent. Even those “faithful” Catholics who profess to practice “natural family planning” have just put a fancy title on the practice of contraception. Their programs could just as easily be called “Natural Contraception.” They work just as hard – or maybe harder – than anybody else to avoid becoming pregnant when they don’t wish to have more children.
This example begs a larger question. What does it mean for a Catholic to be faithful? What does it mean for a Catholic to be obedient? Some would argue that these two questions can be answered quite easily, while others of us stand in the midst of a dilemma. Growing up as a child of the fifties and sixties, my generation had one foot in a paternalistic culture where “Father knows best,” and the other in a brave new world of democracy, dialogue and institutional reform. Obedience to conscience led revolutionary movements both in the public arena and in the so-called “private” realm of the domicile.
In some areas of human development, the Church has been a leader in opening new pathways for justice and equality. It must be noted, however, that whenever such pathways have been suggested and followed by renegades within the Church, these revolutionary thinkers and actors have almost always met with resistance from within the institutional Church. Sometimes, the Church officially takes a stance of opposition in response to these new pathways, refusing to acknowledge necessary reform of its teachings in the face of new knowledge. This can be especially trying for those who work and walk along new pathways in innovative ministries that, only a few decades ago, would have been difficult to imagine.
When the Church “clamps down” and denies Catholics the right to adjust their understanding and knowledge of the faith in light of new learning and new opportunities for ministry and mission, people regard themselves as being left with two bleak alternatives. Either we abandon our consciences, deny the validity of our thinking, go against the grain of social consensus in the new movements objected to by the official teachers and leaders of the Church – or we “opt out” of the narrow consensus of official Catholicism in order to explore new ways of being faithful.
Why, we must ask, should we be presented with such stark alternatives in living dynamic lives of faith in the year 2013? Echoing the words of famous comedian Joan Rivers, Catholics have been asking the Vatican, “Can we talk?” The answer seems to be, “No.” Dialogue is not a necessity, except among the rank and file of the (higher) clergy. Children should be seen, but not heard. Even among clergy, there seems to be a cap on discussion if that discussion is about reform. One way the discussion is limited is by imposing rules on what can be explored in terms of theology. Once the “queen of the sciences,” theology as a field of study is quickly losing its appeal to those who want the freedom to explore what God is doing by peering outside the box of conventional understandings.
I began writing this piece about a year ago, when we appeared to be caught in a time of retrenchment. At the time, it seemed we had all but abandoned the movement that inspired the teachings of Vatican II. Today, many Catholics have simply walked away from the Church, believing that it is the Church itself that needs to be evangelized. But this evangelization will be one that re-inspires us according to the spirit of institutional reform. Just as in the time of Jesus, that means purging and cleansing our interpretations of power that are unjust and unloving.
Influence and persuasion are positive ways of advancing change and development in society if they are aimed at the goal of greater justice and compassion, redressing of wrongs and institutional reform. Along with those tactics, we need resistance and sometimes we need to be willing to disobey – to dissent from official stances within our institutions.
Using positions of power and dominance to advance agendas shaped by “what we want” is not the way to advance the Christian mission. Creating a group of assenting followers to such agendas is not a way of arriving at an authentic Christianity. There are no biblical parallels that connect Jesus and his followers with this way of advancing the Christian mission, no matter how much that pattern of behaviour has been part of the Church’s history. Each person must in the end consult his or her conscience, do what is good and avoid evil.