Today in the Catholic Church almost any disagreement to almost any degree with almost any church leader on almost any topic is seen as dissent. And I’m not speaking about the essentials of the faith — those elements contained in the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed — but about less essential topics. Even on those topics — for example, the proper strategy for bishops to deal with Catholic politicians at odds with church teaching, the new translations of the Mass, the best way for priests to address complicated moral issues, and so on — the slightest whiff of disagreement is confused with disloyalty.
Certainly disagreement with statements from Rome, even on non-dogmatic or non-doctrinal matters, is seen as close to heresy. As Bishop Dowling said:
What compounds this [frustration over the church’s unwillingness to be critiqued], for me, is the mystique which has in increasing measure surrounded the person of the pope in the last 30 years, such that any hint of critique or questioning of his policies, his way of thinking, his exercise of authority etc. is equated with disloyalty. There is more than a perception, because of this mystique, that unquestioning obedience by the faithful to the pope is required and is a sign of the ethos and fidelity of a true Catholic. When the pope’s authority is then intentionally extended to the Vatican curia, there exists a real possibility that unquestioning obedience to very human decisions about a whole range of issues by the curial departments and cardinals also becomes a mark of one’s fidelity as a Catholic, and anything less is interpreted as being disloyal to the pope who is charged with steering the bark of Peter.
Even for bishops! Kevin Dowling is a bishop: Catholic theology considers him a successor to the apostles. For Christ’s sake (and I mean that literally) he’s not some lowly functionary. He’s not simply a branch manager of the Vatican’s main office. He is a teacher in his own right. And even he feels the “pressure to conform.”
What does this engender? It engenders a fear-based church. It creates clergy and members of religious orders frightened of speaking out, terrified of reflecting on complicated questions, and nervous about proposing creative solutions to new problems. It leads to the laity, with boundless experience on almost every topic but who have a hard enough time getting their voice heard, giving up. It causes the diminution of a thoughtful theological community in Catholic colleges and universities. It muzzles what should be a vibrant, flourishing, provocative, innovative, challenging Catholic press. It empowers minuscule cadres of self-appointed watchdogs, whose malign voices are magnified by the blogosphere, and who, with little to no theological background, freely declare any sort of disagreement as tantamount to inciting schism — and are listened to by those in authority. It creates fear.
This is what happens when you belong to an organization that is dogmatically committed to ideas that cannot withstand the scrutiny of free thought.