Dissent sustains universal church

by John Wijngaards, The Times 2 October 1993

When a papal encyc­lical makes the headlines, it usual­ly spells trouble, and Veritatis Splendor is no exception. In it the Holy Father, it would seem, both courageously tackles the most sensitive sexual issues of the day and reiterates the traditional solutions fa­voured by the Vatican. The newshounds of the media have responded with inter­est. They smell the intoxicat­ing scent of the conflict that the Pope’s statement will undoubtedly generate.

An encyclical is not an infallible statement. Howev­er, promulgated by the head of the church, it carries great personal authority. And, whatever disagreements Ro­man Catholics may have on specific ethical issues, the Pope’s overall endeavour to awaken the moral con­science of the West will have their wholehearted support. Theologians will be tempted to mute any opposition and keep criticism to the private domain. But can such si­lence be justified?

Theology, by definition, implies critical reflection, and the credibility of the gospel must depend on recognisable love and truth. All the faithful “enjoy a lawful freedom of enquiry and thought”, in the words of Vatican II. “And they possess the freedom to ex­press their minds humbly and courageously about those matters in which they enjoy competence” (Gaudium et Spes, no 62). If moral views expressed in the en­cyclical rested on faulty ar­guments, theologians and pastoral leaders would be obliged in conscience to point out the mistakes.

What is more, they would need to do so in the public forum. For, also in the church, reflection comes about by a process of public searching and public aware­ness, in which the voicing of arguments and counter-ar­guments is unavoidable. I stress the word “public” because traditionalists sometimes pretend that lis­tening to the signs of the times and changing the church’s perception could come about by backstage discussion alone. It is not so.

Documents implementing Vatican II acknowledge that the church needs “public opinion in order to sustain a giving and taking between her members. Without this she cannot advance in thought and action” (Communio et Progression no 115). With a ground swell of opinion opposed to the tra­ditional stand, dissent seems inevitable. And dissent means news.

The first reactions in the media suggest that many reporters are gleefully preparing for a feast, like hyenas sighting a kill. With rare exceptions, they will orchestrate the entertaining spectacle of pit­ting one Catholic against another. Perhaps such be­haviour is in the nature of the beast. Or is it?

If the media serve the truth, they will also point out that the Catholic Church is not an unthinking monolith. Rather, tolerating as it does bold papal statements and, as occasion demands, wit­nessing their subsequent re­tractions, the church re­mains the largest voluntary body on earth. It can only do so, as history proves, by its continued passionate quest for what is right.

John Wijngaards is a Catholic theologian and di­rector of a Christian re­source centre in London.