Dissent and Dispute: A religious consideration in the Catholic Church

This essay will consider dissent and dispute resolution primarily from a Roman Catholic background, with brief consideration of other religious traditions.  Before discussing how dissent and dispute are addressed, I would like to propose how the terms are nuanced for this discussion.  I propose that a dispute is a disagreement about which there could be a satisfactory compromise or resolution.  Dissent is the inability to give intellectual assent to the resolution of a dispute.

The first disputes in church history are recorded in the New Testament in the Acts of the Apostles.  The method of resolution was collegial.  The Apostles gathered and discussed and debated and compromised.  As the Church grew, the disputes continued.  Ideas were introduced, discussion followed.  If the dispute was of doctrinal importance, a council might be called.  At the council, the bishops would consult available Scripture, debate, discuss, and then vote.  The majority idea prevailed.  Frequently, the losing idea was called heretical.  Eventually, at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, Pope Leo I assumed the primacy of the pope in an unprecedented way.  Recalling the succession from Peter to the bishop of Rome, Leo essentially claimed “Peter has thus spoken through Leo” laying claim to the authority of Peter in determining matters of faith and morals.

After this council, disputes frequently ended with new sects of Christianity assuming their own identities.  These sects were determined to be heretical and their salvation was at stake according to the Roman church.  The power of the Pope to determine doctrinal and moral matters made disputes more difficult to resolve with discussion and debate and collegiality.  By Vatican I, this notion was codified with the doctrine of papal infallibility.  This doctrine claims that in the matters of faith and morals, the Pope is infallible.  Once the Pope promulgates on such matters, it is so.  This authority of the pope tends to end disputes categorically.
Vatican II brought the Roman Church closer to modernity.  This council acknowledged that there is truth to be found in other faith traditions, and the Roman church should embrace dialogue with them.  Inter-religious dialogue is undertaken to discover the Truth in every tradition.  Ideally, there is no ulterior motive of converting the dialogue partner.  Inter-religious dialogue is educational conversation, not dispute resolution, nor proselytization.  It should be enlightening, open minded, charitable.

Within the church ranks, as in any family, the handling of disputes can seem much less charitable than the handling of those outside the tradition.  The Roman church deals with dissenters, or those who offer new theologies, innovators, as it were, very systematically.  The innovator or the dissenter is asked to defend his/her position.  This defense may be to the local bishop, a group of bishops, or a panel designated by bishops.  Should the defense of the idea not assuage the question of the orthodoxy of the position, the matter may be referred to Rome.  The Congregation of Doctrine and Faith (CDF) will invite the theologian or priest to defend his/her position to another panel of bishops and experts from academia.   It is presumed that by this time the new idea has been reviewed by peers and spiritual leaders and discussions and criticisms coming from those encounters with the material had helped to clarify the position, and in clarification, the dispute is mitigated.

However, should the teaching authority, the Magisterium, still reject the idea as unorthodox, the theologian is expected to loyally accept the teaching of the Magisterium.  If the theologian cannot give his/her intellectual assent s/he is expected to reflect in silence, i.e.no publicity either written or spoken, on the matter in debate.   The Church will not be swayed by public opinion on an issue, but will decide on the basis of Scripture and Tradition.  It does not welcome debate of the public sort.  This silent deadlock continues until the theologian recants the questionable position, modifies it to mitigate the Magisterium’s objections, or the Magisterium modifies its position, eliminating the debate.  The error of judgment is always presumed to be on the part of the theologian or dissenter.  The Magisterium is the guardian of Tradition, and Tradition is presumed to be founded on and bound to Truth.

Should the theologian or dissenter remain intransigent in his/her position, the CDF has a number of disciplinary actions it can take.  The CDF can withdraw the authorization to teach at Catholic institutions in either a particular subject or within a field altogether; it can withdraw permission to write on a specific topic as a representative of the Catholic Church; it can suspend the academic faculties completely; and, ultimately, it can excommunicate the individual.  To dissent from established doctrine is not a road taken lightly.
Dissent and dispute is handled differently in other religions.  In many reform (Protestant) churches, the laity elects representatives who vote on different matters, including matters such as ordinations.  For example: Can women be ministers?  Must you be celibate?  Can you be gay?  These are matters often addressed within the denomination by representatives, both clergy and lay.  As in the first century for Christians, and even earlier for Judaism, the issue is addressed with discussion, debate, interpretations, position papers, and, finally, a vote.  The Jews, and the apostles, who were Jews, have always resolved issues with knowledge, prayer, debate, argument, then compromise or consensus.  Likewise, many modern denominations, both Christian and Jewish, and presumably others such as Islam and Hindu, resolve disputes with debate and election.  I suspect these religious traditions may have many more disputes, because more things are open for interpretation, and interpretation is debatable, than it is among Roman Catholics.  However, these same traditions may have fewer dissenters, because of the open nature of the method of dispute resolution.  Disputes in these traditions can be revisited because they are not promulgated as infallible or as essentially, “Rome has spoken;” consequently, debate, dispute, discussion is over.  This latter position leaves room only for dissent, not dispute.

In conclusion, to the casual observer, religions with strong central authoritative administration tend to foster more dissent because of their method of dispute resolution, which tends to be less collegial than dictatorial.  For religions that have no central authority, there may be more and lengthier disputes, because of the amount of debate and discussion and consensus building that is required to resolve the dispute, but at the same time, and as a result of this method of resolution, there is less dissent. 

by Jo Ellen Miller

Jo Ellen Miller is the wife of one, and mother of two and currently resides in Wheeling, West Virginia. She received her Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering and Master of Science in Environmental Engineering at the University of Cincinnati. She later returned to academia to receive her Master of Arts Applied Theology at Wheeling Jesuit University and between course work and comps , her PhD at Duquesne University. Previously, she taught high school religion with a focus on scripture and social justice. She has also served as Campus Minister at Wheeling Jesuit University.