Silence and Church Conflict

Does silence imply consent?  Amidst the recent church conflicts over the Obama-Notre Dame commencement speech and conferral of an honorary degree, it has been claimed that the silence of the majority of bishops should be interpreted as an acceptance of the invitation. But no, reply others, silence can also signal disapproval, neutrality or even something so unspeakable that it should not be mentioned.
Other views of silence surfaced at a recent conference I attended. In a paper on feminist theories of silence the important distinction was made between silence and “being silenced.”  Often powerful and self confident persons can be silent because in their authority they don’t need to engage in explanation or self-justification.  As perhaps in “the lady doth protest too much?” Or in more scriptural instances, the silence displayed by  Jesus before Pilate comes to mind..  And what does it mean when in the last days the  seventh seal is opened and “there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.”(Rev.8:1.) .

In yet another take on the power of silence, a  psychological article I came upon recommends silence as “the least reinforcing response” to extinguish unacceptable behavior.  Inattention takes away the rewarding effects of recognition and the drama of  punishment and conflict.  Perhaps this silent treatment might be an effective strategy when encountering our current lapses from the Catholic mandate for “civility and charity.” in public life..

I can’t be the only one who has been so mortified over recent church squabbling and gaffes that a retreat from the fray seems tempting.  My uncharacteristic detachment  arises partly from embarrassment, but also partly from confident hopes in the future of our church.  This too will pass.  The current disarray is going to give way before the forces of reform and renewal begun in Vatican II. ..

P.S. At the risk of unseemly self promotion, I can’t resist recalling that when I received an honorary degree from Notre Dame and then later received the 1994 Laetare medal, the commencement speaker each time was the then Taoiseach, or Irish head of state. Afterwards, one (or both ?) of these RC dignitaries was indicted on corruption charges.  Their speeches also were very, very long!  By contrast, the Laetare speaker is strictly limited to 8 minutes. Mary Ann Glendon in her refusal to participate has admirably followed her conscience, but is her choice of silence as effective as her words could have been? In any event, all the faithful can take heart in the good news inscribed in gold on the Laetare medal. “Truth is great and will prevail” (I Esdras 4:41)

Sidney Callahan

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
9 years 5 months ago
The Irish official who spoke in 1994 was Taoiseach Albert Reynolds (in the Irish system, the Taoiseach is not the "Head of State", the President is).  It's not true to say that Reynolds was indicted but he was tainted in a corruption scandal as were both his predesessor and successor, both of them perhaps more seriously so.   In 2006 the then and current President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, was the commencement speaker.
9 years 5 months ago
Perhaps Edmund Burke might have said, instead, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men [say] nothing."    Here follows an excerpt of a homily by Bishop Thomas Wenski at a recent Mass of Reparation in Orlando. The full homily is worth a read and available at    "We live in a nation where abortion laws are among the most liberal among the Western democracies. We Catholics have become too complacent about the legal killing of unborn children in America and elsewhere. This complacency contributed to the climate that led Notre-Dame’s president to think that it would be no big deal to defy the bishops in granting this honorary degree to President Obama.  ... But, let’s return to the issue of our complacency. We have become complacent, because we have become comfortable – too accommodated and too uncritical of the larger culture in which we live. Perhaps, as Catholics, we have become victims of our own success. For much of American history, the Catholic Church and Catholics were viewed with great suspicion by our fellow Americans. In fact, we still are –Anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice in American life. ... We have craved “respectability” we have wanted to be accepted. Ironically, Catholic education – our grammar schools, our high schools and our universities opened the way to upward mobility and social acceptance the children of immigrant Catholics in America. Catholics schools aimed to teach us not only how to do good, but how to do well. Thanks in large measure to Catholic education, our Catholic laity areamong the best educated, and the most affluent, in America today. Catholics – 25% of the American population – are now part of the American mainstream. But, at what price?"
9 years 5 months ago
I'm reminded of this exchange on what silence means from the riveting courtroom scene of A Man for All Seasons:  Cromwell: Now, Sir Thomas, you stand on your silence. St. Thomas More: I do. Cromwell: But, gentlemen of the jury, there are many kinds of silence. Consider first the silence of a man who is dead. Let us suppose we go into the room where he is laid out, and we listen: what do we hear? Silence. What does it betoken, this silence? Nothing this is silence pure and simple. But let us take another case. Suppose I were to take a dagger from my sleeve and make to kill the prisoner with it and my lordships there, instead of crying out for me to stop, maintained their silence. That would betoken! It would betoken a willingness that I should do it, and under the law, they will be guilty with me. So silence can, according to the circumstances, speak! Let us consider now the circumstances of the prisoner's silence. The oath was put to loyal subjects up and down the country, and they all declared His Grace's title to be just and good. But when it came to the prisoner, he refused! He calls this silence. Yet is there a man in this court - is there a man in this country! - who does not know Sir Thomas More's opinion of this title? Crowd: No! Cromwell: Yet how can this be? Because this silence betokened, nay, this silence was, not silence at all, but most eloquent denial! More: Not so. Not so, Master Secretary. The maxim is ''Qui tacet consentiret'': the maxim of the law is ''Silence gives consent''. If therefore you wish to construe what my silence betokened, you must construe that I consented, not that I denied. Cromwell: Is that in fact what the world construes from it? Do you pretend that is what you wish the world to construe from it? More: The world must construe according to its wits this court must construe according to the law.
9 years 5 months ago
Thans for all the comments.  They give proof of the ambiguity of silence.  I am always torn between getting into the argument and staying back.  Mostly I have jumped in when I thought I had something to say, or no one else was saying what needed to be done.  Most of my writing for the pro-life cause has been an effort to give a feminist, non violent approach that understands the other side. Sidney Callahan
9 years 5 months ago
Just a minor clarification: the taoiseach is the head of government (prime minister), not the head of state (president).


The latest from america

 10.17.2018 Pope Francis greets Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago before a session of the Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment at the Vatican Oct. 16. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)
“We take people where they are, walking with them, moving forward,” Cardinal Blase Cupich said.
Michael J. O’LoughlinOctober 20, 2018
Catherine Pakaluk, who currently teaches at the Catholic University of America and holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard University, describes her tweet to Mr. Macron as “spirited” and “playful.”
Emma Winters October 19, 2018
A new proposal from the Department of Homeland Security could make it much more difficult for legal immigrants to get green cards in the United States. But even before its implementation, the proposal has led immigrants to avoid receiving public benefits.
J.D. Long-GarcíaOctober 19, 2018
 Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, then nuncio to the United States, and then-Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, are seen in a combination photo during the beatification Mass of Blessed Miriam Teresa Demjanovich at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, N.J., Oct. 4, 2014. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)
In this third letter Archbishop Viganò no longer insists, as he did so forcefully in his first letter, that the restrictions that he claimed Benedict XVI had imposed on Archbishop McCarrick—one he alleges that Pope Francis later lifted—can be understood as “sanctions.”
Gerard O’ConnellOctober 19, 2018