Dissent or Discovery?

Does the Catholic Church demand that all her followers march along in lockstep formation in a form of unthinking blind obedience? Of course that is the charge, not only from non-Catholics but also from ‘dissenting’ Catholics. I’ve always found it curious when people say, “Oh, how nice for you! Now that you’re a Catholic you won’t have to think anymore.”

Err. I guess that would make SS Augustine, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Albert the Great, Maritain, Dawson, vonHildebrand, Edith Stein, von Balthasar etc etc  the greatest philosophers, theologians and faithful Catholic thinkers of every age to be non thinking, brainwashed dummies.

No, it doesn’t wash. The Catholic Church does not demand that her members be brainwashed zombie cult members. There is a difference between dissent and discovery. The Church calls us to use our reason to explore the richness of the Church’s teachings. Even when it is difficult especially when it is difficult we are called to engage with the teachings of the church with an enquiring and questing mind. The questions are not the problem. Questions are good. The attitude is the problem.

I often get high school students come to me with the problem that they doubt their faith. I explain the difference between a doubt and a difficulty. Bl. John Henry Newman said “a thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.” So I explain that a difficulty is the attitude which says, “How can that be so?” whereas a doubt is the attitude that says, “That can’t be so.” The first is open, engaged, intelligent and searching the tradition in order to understand the teaching. The second puts on above the tradition and the teaching by insisting that one knows better than Holy Church.

Apart from being arrogant this attitude is well, dumb. Who am I to suggest that I know better than the Church? My learning is so limited. My perspective is so narrow. My experience is so finite. My understanding so incomplete. The Church’s view is universal. She speaks from the tradition of the ages. She speaks to the condition of humanity everywhere and at all times. For me to challenge her teachings just doesn’t make sense. For me to question her teachings and seek to understand them and even to kick against them because they hurt me or affect me–all that is good. But to dismiss them in an adolescent attitude of intentional dissent is small.

So dissent is like doubt. If it is rebellious and rejecting then it is an attitude that is small and getting smaller. It is like water going down the plughole. It is a life and an attitude that is a downward spiral. However, to engage with the faith with intelligent, curious and positive attitude–”Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief!” Now this is something which is an upward spiral. “Further up and Further In” the children of Narnia cry as they enter more and more deeply into the spiral of suffering and glory.

Nevertheless, from the emails and comments I get from around the country it seems that a very large proportion of the American Catholic Church are still locked in the downward spiral of dissent and doubt. This attitude goes nowhere at all, and all people get from it is a false freedom. The call license ‘liberty’. Lack of discipline they call ‘freedom of conscience’ and disregard for the sacred tradition they call ‘creativity.’ The dissenting Catholics in this country are basically making up their own religion, and whenever we make up our own religion we only end up worshipping one thing: ourselves.

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