When Wrong Turns Out To Be Right
Robert McClory

How dissenters from Galileo to John Courtney Murray have helped the church to see more clearly.

Dissent!It is not a nice word. It makes you think of other “dis” words like disagreement, dissension, disobedience, and disgrace. There’s no doubt that Catholic Church officials down through the centuries have taken a dim view of dissent, whether it was dissent from official doctrine or dissent from the orders of a legitimately appointed church superior. And, as recent directives from Vatican indicate, the view is getting dimmer still.

Bring up the subject of dissent at a gathering in your parish, and you may get a fiery reaction: “Dissent? It’s a terrible, it’s a scandal, it tears the church apart! Catholics who dissent ought to have the decency to get out of the church and go somewhere else!”

I’ve seen that position taken many times in letters to the editor whenever an instance of Catholic dissent hits the newspapers, and I’ve heard it personally in discussions with serious Catholics. So rather than argue in the abstract about this hot button, it might be helpful to examine dissent in the concrete, as it has occurred down through the centuries of church history.

What we all know is that dissent has at times indeed led to terrible breaks in the Body of Christ through schisms and heresies. What we may not know is that dissent on other occasions – we didn’t often hear about these in history class – has helped mightily to clarify doctrine, get the church out of a rut, or bring Christians to a better understanding of themselves and their relation to the world.

Dissenters rarely get a lot of praise in church circles, and sometimes they get thrown out of the community. But the contributions of constructive dissent cannot be ignored or denied.

Almost everyone is aware of the strong dissent Saint Paul expressed toward Saint Peter’s position on regulations for Christian converts, as noted in the second chapter of the Epistle to the Galatians. Paul publicly “withstood to his face” this first pop “because he clearly was wrong” (Gal. 2:11), and Peter eventually reversed his position and concurred with Paul in the dispute.

Free at last

To cite a far more recent example of responsible dissent, consider the church’s reversal of its time-honored stance on freedom of religion – a reversal that occurred over a 15-year period in the 1950s and 1960s. For the greater part of Christian history, it was accepted as absolute doctrine that civil governments had an obligation to officially recognize the church and support it.

Pope Pius IX made the point in no uncertain terms in 1846 in his encyclical Quanta cura and the accompanying Syllabus of Errors: “The state must recognize [the Catholic Church] as supreme and submit to its influence…The power of the state must be at its disposal and all who do not conform to its requirements must be compelled or punished…Freedom of conscience and cult is madness.” Catholics were told that they need not openly oppose a government that did not so recognize the church (as in the United States); rather, they should tolerate the existing situation until such time as Catholics formed a majority of the voting population.

Beginning in 1950 Father John Courtney Murray, a Jesuit theologian, argued that the old tradition must yield. In a series of articles in Theological Studies magazine and in public appearances, he contended that the state should not be the tool of the church and has no business carrying out the church’s will. Rather, he said, the civil government’s single yet profound obligation is to ensure the freedom of all its citizens, especially their religious freedom.

“Every man has a right to religious freedom,” he wrote, “ a right that is based on the dignity of the human person and is therefore to be formally recognized…and protected by constitutional law…So great is this dignity that not even God can take it away.” Murray claimed the old doctrine as enunciated by Pius IX was not an absolute, static thing but a teaching that had been developing over the past 100 years – a development that Murray saw in the writings of Popes Leo XIII and Pius XII.

The reaction was vehement and instantaneous. The two most influential U.S. Catholic theologians of the day, Fathers Joseph Fenton and Francis Connell, called Murray’s argument “destructive, scandalous, and heretical” and engaged in lengthy, published refutations, especially in the American Ecclesiastical Review. Wrote Fenton, “The state is obligated to worship God according to the one religion [God] has established. This is so obviously a part of Catholic doctrine that no theologian has any excuse to call it into question.”

Murray did not back down. He continued to develop his dissenting interpretations and respond to his critics’ objections.  His articles were sent to Rome where they became the subject of considerable concern. In a much-quoted speech in 1952, Cardinal Alberto Ottaviani, the head of the Congregation of the Holy Office, declared (without mentioning Murray by name) that the teaching of Pius IX was as valid now as it ever was, that the state must recognize the church, and that freedom of conscience is an illusion.

Murray was clearly shaken by this clear message to cease and desist. The following year he suffered a heart attack, but after recovery he continued to develop his theory.

By 1954 the Vatican’s patience had been exhausted. A Roman censor forbade the publication of an article that Murray had written and considered crucial to his case. Murray’s Jesuit superior ordered him to cease writing on the subject. When Murray inquired what he could write about, the superior said he might consider poetry.

During the next four, difficult years Murray did not wear the gag lightly. According to his biographer Donald Pilotte, he attempted to have the banned article published anonymously. But the attempt was unsuccessful, as were several other efforts to keep the debate alive. So for a time he wrote on related but less sensitive matters.

In 1958, when a new pop, John XXIII, was elected, Murray emerged from the closet. He pulled together the thrust of his arguments into a popular book titled We Hold These Truths, whose publication just happened to coincide with the presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy. Public worries in the United States about what Kennedy, a Catholic might do in office were greatly dispelled by Murray’s well-argued contention that religious freedom and separation of church and state were not mere tactics of toleration but valid expressions of a developed Catholic doctrine.

Murray and his book made the cover of Time Magazine, and the Kennedy campaign relied on him for counsel concerning touchy church-state issues. Some historians contend that it was not Mayor Richard J. Daley’s delivery of the Chicago vote that got Kennedy elected by John Courtney Murray.

Still, top Catholic theologians and Roman officials regarded him as a dangerous dissident. When plans were underway for the second Vatican Council in 1962, Murray was expressly “disinvited” to join the commission of experts, headed by Ottaviani and including Fenton, that was preparing a statement on human freedom. Although he was experiencing chronic heart problems, Murray would not accept the snub. He wrote to the American bishops on the commission urging them to fight against any rubber stamp of the outmoded Pius IX doctrine. He was, in fact, so persistent that the U.S. bishops finally asked him to assist the commission in Rome.

Armed with all his scholarship, he publicly debated the issues with Fenton and Ottaviani and became a major drafter of the council’s Declaration on Human Freedom. In its final form, approved in a vote by the world’s bishops, 2,308 to 80, in 1965, the declaration said, “This synod declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals, social groups, or any human power…This synod further declares that the right to  religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person, as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and reason itself.” The words reflect Murray’s thinking and may very well have been written by him.

He lived only 18 months after that vote, succumbing in 1967 to another heart attack at the age of 62, but his legacy is profound. His friend, Jesuit Father Walter Burghardt, noted on the occasion of his death, “Unborn millions will never know how much their freedom is tied to this man whose pen was a powerful protest, a dramatic march against injustice and inequality, whose research sparked and terminated in the ringing affirmation of an ecumenical council: The right to religious freedom has its foundation not in the church, not in society or state, not even in objective truth, but in the dignity of the human person.”

That John Courtney Murray was a dissident is undeniable. That his prolonged dissent was vindicated by the church at its highest level is equally undeniable.

Although the Murray experience is dramatic, it is not essentially different from the experience of other scholars who have questioned the absolute nature of some church teaching. Theologians like Jean Daniélou,Yves Congar, Karl Rahner, and Henri de Lubac all lived parts of their lives under dark shadows of suspicious and accusation.

Sensible faithful

Even John Henry Newman, often cited as the greatest Catholic figure of the 19th century, took a significant dissenting stance and suffered the consequences. Ironically, this dispute was over an occasion of dissent by hundreds of thousands of Christians that occurred 1,400 years before Newman was born.

In 1859 Newman was 59 and past his prime physically though not intellectually. As the editor of the magazine Ramparts, he got into trouble with the English hierarchy for asserting in an article that the British bishops would be well-advised to seek the counsel of lay Catholics in important matters. Such a view was regarded as rash and disruptive of good order. He was subsequently informed by his own bishop that the next issue of Ramparts, July 1859, would be his last as editor.

Newman accepted the decision somewhat badly, then set to work producing an exceptionally long study that constituted the entire July issue. It was titled “Consulting the Faithful on Matters of Doctrine,” and it set off a firestorm of controversy because Newman placed himself in bold opposition to well-established teaching and interpretation.

In his study, Newman returned to a subject on which he was unquestionably the world’s leading authority: the fourth-century Arian heresy (a movement that claimed that Jesus is not God, only God’s greatest creation). Newman reviewed exhaustively a 60-year period that followed the Council of Nicaea in 325; the council had condemned Arianism and formulated in the famed Nicene Creed the orthodox position. However, during that post-conciliar period, Newman showed, the overwhelming number of bishops and dozens of regional church councils dismissed the Nicene formula and embraced Arianism. Even Pope Liberius signed a pro-Arian statement, although probably under pressure.

So great and so widespread was the Arian position, said Newman, that it would surely have become official Catholic doctrine, except for one thing: the Catholic laity. In Europe, Asia, and the Middle East they dissented from what their priests, their bishops, even their pope was proposing. Jesus is true God, they insisted in the face of excommunication, persecution, and (in some cases) martyrdom.

As it turned out, they won. At the First Council of Constantinople in 381, the Arian heresy was finally laid to rest, and the hierarchy agreed to abide by the faith of the people. Summarizing this remarkable period, Newman wrote, “The Nicene dogma was maintained during the greater part of the fourth century not by the unswerving firmness of the Holy See or councils of bishops but by the consensus of the fidelium [the faithful].

“On the other hand, I say that there was a temporary suspension of the functions of  the ecclesia docens [teaching church]. The body of the bishops failed in their confession of the faith. They spoke variously against one another. There was nothing after Nicaea of firm, consistent testimony for 60 years. There were untrustworthy councils, unfaithful bishops…misguidance, delusion, hallucination…extending itself into nearly every corner of the Catholic Church.

(Father David Knight is an author and pastor at Sacred Heart Church in Memphis, Tennessee.)

(These articles are reprinted with permission from U.S. Catholic published by Claretian Publications, 205 Monroe Street, Chicago, Illinois 60606, 800-328-6515)