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.