Dissenting Voices Silenced

Kevin Hargaden works for http://www.maynoothcommunitychurch.ie a small church in the suburbs of Dublin and is preparing for ordination with the http://www.presbyterianireland.org Presbyterian Church in Ireland. He blogs at http://www.hargaden.com/kevinCreideamh and is a board member of the http://www.ibi.ie (IBI).

When my elder brother got married almost ten years ago, the priest who celebrated the service made a lasting impression on my family. Although I am now on track to be a Presbyterian minister, I was raised in an Irish Catholic family. My parents have maintained a faith in the triune God in the face of the dreadful scandals surrounding the Irish Catholic Church. They love the faith that their parents, devout Catholics, passed on to them. This fidelity has been challenged by their confusion following many of the pronouncements of their church leaders. Fr Gerard Maloney however, in his humility and his authenticity, renewed the hope of my parents in their church.

Wide open now: How do we respond to dissent in our churches? When is the time to silence and a time to “permit”?

It was therefore a profound shock when we discovered earlier this month that Fr Maloney, a priest of the Redemptorist Order, who edits a magazine called “Reality“, has been censored by the Roman Catholic Church. Along with his peer, Fr Tony Flannery, he is now limited in what he is free to write . Fr Flannery and Fr Maloney joined the Cistercian priest, Fr Owen O’Sullivan, who received a slap on the wrist in 2010 following an article in a journal of pastoral theology where he mused on how best to care for homosexuals in the church. The sanctioning of Frs Flannery, Maloney and O’Sullivan has now been followed by similar diktats against one of Ireland’s best known priests, Fr Brian D’Arcy who writes a weekly column for a popular newspaper and often broadcasts on BBC radio in Britain and against the moral theologian Fr. Sean Fagan.

There are three serious missional questions that I see arising from this new hardline trend from the Vatican towards “liberal” Irish Catholic clergy.

The first is what does the clampdown on dissent, following the revelations of decades of serious and heinous widespread abuse committed in Catholic institutions teach us about how we as communities respond to sin? Specifically, what does it mean to authentically repent as an institution (can institutions repent or is it limited to individuals?) so that we don’t slip into scapegoating marginal dissidents or initiating crusades that distract us from our sin?

Secondly, how do we respond ecumenically, in love, for church communities and traditions that are really struggling?

Finally, how can we gratefully reflect on the freedom of conscience and speech that Reformation theology provides without slipping into triumphalism or arrogant complacency?

Irish evangelicalism represents just less than 1% of the state’s population! It would be wrong to suggest that the eyes of the nation are on our communities as we react to the apparently draconian methods being implemented from Rome. But nonetheless, the sanctions from the Vatican do remind us that how we tolerate and indeed encourage diversity in our corporate speech, extending patience to views outside the mainstream of evangelicalism, is not just a distinctive of our stream of Christianity but an example for others to follow. We surely should protect that diversity, especially when it makes us uncomfortable, whether in America, Ireland or anywhere else.

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  • Diane

    Two things come to min, one leading to the other. While I find it counterproductive to clamp down on dissent–in the end, in makes all the sense of stuffing socks in a a heat vent because you don’t want the smoke (eventually you’re guaranteeing a blow up) my first thought is how frightened and overwhelmed the leadership must be at problems that just won’t go away, and how fearful they must be that the whole edifice will coming tumbling down. That helps dissipate my anger for though Protestant I believe the Catholic Church is a gift of God to the world. Second, I think of Dorothy Day, who was sometimes censured and almost always, on some level, in trouble with the Roman Catholic authorities. She would shut up when actually ordered to, but blithely go about her business of living the faith, which was an almost impossible to critique to silence. She would also freely interpret Catholic policy and insist she wasn’t violating it–she was accused of violating Just War doctrine in opposing wars–she insisted she was not, because she had yet to see a just war. And she was good at switching from one banned topic to one allowed, but equally troublesome. (Of course she was a lay person, and that did make a difference, though she ran the risk of simply being condemned.) But overall, her actions were her witness–she went to Mass daily, was faithful to the sacraments, etc–and she fed the poor and housed the homeless. Being faithful and irrepressible had great power for her.

  • Patrick


    I share your view of the Catholic Church and like you are a Prot.

    My local church has undergone a virtual revolution in the last 5 years, if we quelled dissent, we’d explode. Those who are leaving are the ones who hate dissent. They loved the old ideas, were comfortable in them and felt it was outrageous to consider various views.

    You can always be wrong, but, it moves us forward IMO to consider opening up our minds to new insights. Heck, in my church right now we’re considering a form of universalism for example and I don’t know where that will end up. Might back off it, might feel it is a valid doctrine, just don’t know right now.

  • How are we to respond to dissent in our churches? That depends largely upon what that dissent is over. Censorship is not something to consider lightly, nor should it be given blanket approval or dis-approval. We must consider the importance of the issue and the impact it will have on the church and it’s witness. We must keep knowing, proclaiming, and defending the truth as our ultimate aim. Does the dissent concern essential, faith-defining issues or lesser important peripheral issues? Does the dialog (assuming both sides are speaking to each other) edify the church or only serve to damage it? Are we establishing or uncovering a corrective truth in re-hashing issues that the church in general has already settled? Are we talking about sincere searching and questioning that helps theological development, or a serious and deliberate attempt to re-define the faith with heretical teaching? How we answer these questions will determine whether that dissent is something that helps or harms, and how far it should be allowed to go. Of course, how we handle each situation is as important as what we do to handle it. Our actions must never violate the command to love. Censoring harmful dissent should not mean that someone hasn’t had an opportunity to be heard, only that we’ve heard it, we don’t agree, and it’s time to move on.