Under Pope Francis, has the ‘theology of dissent’ triumphed?
December 1, 2016 (LifeSiteNews) -- I am a parish priest, a pastor of a typical suburban American parish who tries, as kindly and patiently as I can, to help people who often have not been well-formed in their Catholic faith to understand what the Church teaches and why. My repeated experience is that people are grateful when a priest explains to them the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as most adult Catholics today readily admit that they generally have not been well catechized.
Like many of my brother priests, I have been concerned by the two Synods on the Family (2014 and 2015) and the Post-Synodal Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (April 2016), because the teaching coming from the synods sometimes seems to confuse the clear teaching of the Catechism and even undermine a pastor’s work catechizing a parish. According to the more ambivalent language of Amoris, a pastor is no longer able to explain to people simply that certain actions are mortal sins – as the Church has always taught – and that those who commit them need to repent and receive the Sacrament of Penance prior to receiving Holy Communion (AL 301). Instead, I am now advised to exercise “pastoral discernment” and recognize that “the consequences or effect of a rule need not necessarily always be the same” (AL 300). The challenging but rewarding work that I have spent my priesthood doing – patiently teaching the clear moral laws of the Church to people and finding that when I have done so they have been profoundly grateful – has now, it appears, been described as “throwing stones at people’s lives” and “hiding behind the Church’s teachings” with a closed heart (AL 305).
At the same time, official Church communications and the Catholic media are consistently eager to extol Francis as the “Pope of Mercy,” a visionary who has revolutionized the Catholic Church with his new approach embodied early in his pontificate by his defining statement: “Who am I to judge?” Francis proposes a supposedly new and merciful approach of “discernment” and “accompaniment” of those whose lives do not conform to the moral teachings of the Church, criticizing those who would see moral issues as “black and white.” Since 2013 I have listened carefully to Francis’ words to priests and tried to discern what my role now is as I try to follow his guidance as teacher of morality to the faithful. I have also tried to understand the many informed and devout lay people, my spiritual children, who frequently share with me that they also have been confused by the words and tone of the Holy Father.
My confusion only increased when Pope Francis recently advised the General Congregation of the Jesuits to praise Bernard Häring as a true mentor, even “the first to start looking for a new way to help moral theology to flourish again” (La Civilta Cattolica, Oct 24, 2016). In this commendation the Holy Father affirms a theologian who spent decades proposing and promoting what used to be called “dissenting theology.” Häring, German professor of moral theology at the Alfonsianum in Rome from 1950 to 1986, was the key influence on Charles Curran and an entire generation of theologians who defined themselves in 1968 with their “Statement of Dissent” against Pope Paul VI’s encyclical letter Humanae Vitae. Indeed, it was Häring’s support for the Statement of Dissent that was a crucial factor in Curran’s dissent gaining theological legitimacy and forming a generation of other theologians to the same dissenting point of view. In the years following 1968, this theology of dissent spread and became characteristic of much of the Catholic Church in the United States and especially the halls of Catholic higher education. Häring, Curran, and other theologians encouraged Catholics to think for themselves and to resist the teaching of Pope John Paul II as being rigid and anti-personal. By praising Häring as a pioneer, Pope Francis seems to be praising those who do not affirm the definitive moral teaching of the Catechism. It’s difficult to reach any other conclusion.
All of this is deeply confusing for Catholics like myself of the “JP2 Generation” who were drawn to the Catholic Church precisely because of the courageous witness and clear moral teaching given to us by Saint John Paul II. I went through seminary and was ordained in the 1990s; John Paul II inspired my vocation. He made it clear that he was the “Pope of Mercy,” canonizing Saint Faustina Kowalska and promoting the message of Divine Mercy throughout the world. Throughout my seminary years I read his encyclicals and was formed to teach others how to embrace the beautiful challenge of our Catholic faith in a world that was often confused about the meaning of truth and love. The publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the encyclical letters Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae, among others, were defining moments in my formation. These beautiful documents clearly teach that actions which violate the Ten Commandments are intrinsically evil; that is, they may never be morally justified under any circumstances. As John Paul II explained, in the Gospel Jesus tells the rich young man, “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Mt 19:17), and so “a close connection is made between eternal life and obedience to God’s commandments: God’s commandments show man the path of life and they lead to it” (VS, 12). His words were challenging, they made sense, and they inspired us. Although it was certainly difficult to be Catholic in a culture that promoted materialism, unbridled pleasure, and “doing whatever I want” as the ultimate expression of freedom, thankfully we had a chief pastor who supported us in our mission and invited us to show God’s mercy to others by speaking the truth to them with clarity and love. John Paul II inspired us to live and share with others the gift of Jesus’ Merciful Love by presenting to the People of God the gift of the Church’s moral teaching at a moment in history when “we are facing an enormous and dramatic clash between good and evil” (EV, 28).
Throughout those same years, I and many of my seminary confreres were aware that there was an element within the Church that rejected the teaching of John Paul II as unsophisticated. Theologians who dissented were allowed to exist side by side at Catholic institutions with theologians who taught in union with the Catechism and the Magisterium. The reasons for this were never clear to me and still are not. Encouraged directly by Pope John Paul II at World Youth Days to be “unconditionally pro-life” (EV 28), we persevered in praying the Rosary outside abortion clinics, often as we were subtly ridiculed as being “divisive” by some of the theologians who taught us. Despite this internal persecution, we always were encouraged by the knowledge that the Holy Father supported us, and eventually we were ordained and began the work of teaching and preaching to two generations of Catholics who had been taught very little of the content of the faith. We often found ourselves in the situation of being tolerated at best by those within the Church who took a dim view of John Paul II and were far more sympathetic to the teaching of Häring, Curran, and like-minded dissenting theologians.
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Now it appears that what used to be called the theology of dissent has emerged triumphant within the Church – and clergy who are sympathetic to it have found themselves favored and promoted by the Holy Father. We have seen bishops ambivalent towards pro-life witness elevated to the rank of cardinal while cardinals who have questioned the confusion caused by the Synod on the Family have been sidelined. The dubia respectfully submitted by four cardinals to the Holy Father have summarized the real confusion that exists for those to whom it appears that the teaching of Amoris Laetitia has effectively overturned the teaching of the Catechism and Veritatis Splendor. It seems that those who wish to teach what is taught by the Catechism are now being condemned as divisive and lacking obedience to the Magisterium. Those who would dissent from the Catechism are now praised as being in union with the Magisterium and promoters of unity. Everything seems to have been turned upside down. The Church requires every parish priest to take an “Oath of Fidelity” to the Magisterium at the time of his installation as pastor, but it is now extremely difficult as a priest to know what exactly such fidelity means. I took the oath earlier this year and truly felt confused as to which authority I was promising to adhere to when I pledged my “religious submission of will and intellect” to the teaching of the Pope and bishops, because it seems that the teaching of a 2016 Apostolic Exhortation has apparently invalidated the teaching of a 1993 Encyclical as well as the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
At another confusing moment in Church history, at his trial before his execution in 1581, St. Edmund Campion declared to those of the “Church of England” who had condemned him for treason on account of his Catholic faith, “In condemning us, you condemn all your own ancestors…For what have we taught, however you may qualify it with the odious name of treason, that they did not uniformly teach? To be condemned with these old lights – not of England only, but of the world – by their degenerate descendants is both gladness and joy to us.” It would seem that another such moment of “political correctness” is upon us. The two Synods on the Family appeared to be stacked with bishops desiring to ignore or dismiss the magisterial teaching of John Paul II, thereby giving the appearance of ecclesial legitimacy to the theology of dissent. Those ascendant bishops and cardinals who now vehemently affirm the Francis-endorsed interpretation of Amoris Laetitia are indicating that the teaching of John Paul II is no longer applicable in the “Church of Francis.” In sidelining John Paul II’s teaching on marriage they condemn many other great lights of the Tradition. The revision has been couched in terms including “discernment,” “accompaniment,” and most of all “mercy,” but the truth contained in the perennial teaching of the Church cannot be changed by majority vote of a synod or anyone else. Let’s pray fervently that some of our bishops may have the child-like simplicity and humility that is needed in this moment of crisis to defend the timeless infallible moral teachings of our Church and protect the People of God from ongoing confusion.
Father Peter Mitchell, H.E.D., is a priest of the Diocese of Green Bay. He received his doctorate in Church history from the Pontifical Gregorian University in 2009. He is the author of The Coup at Catholic University: The 1968 Revolution in American Catholic Education (Ignatius Press, 2015).