Can Catholics dissent from Pope Francis’ teaching on the family? Wrong question.
March 19 marks the one-year anniversary of the publication of “Amoris Laetitia,” the apostolic exhortation promulgated by Pope Francis after the close of the latest session of the Synod of Bishops. For some, this anniversary is celebratory, a reminder of the synod’s prayerful study of the mission and vocation of the family. For others, it calls attention to what they see as the document’s dangerous ambiguities, particularly as they pertain to the pastoral care of Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried.
For all Catholics, however, the anniversary and, specifically, the disparate reactions “Amoris Laetitia” continues to produce within the church—including among those with responsibility for the church’s governance—pose an important question: How free are Catholics to disagree with a teaching of the church? Some go further and use a more technical, and at that, a more provocative term: Is dissent permitted in the church?
How free are Catholics to disagree with a teaching of the church?
The question is an understandable one, particularly in a culture where dissent, or something like it, is as easy as giving one’s Uber driver a single star.
Though understandable, the question is minimally fruitful, a point that the theologian Nicholas Lash emphasized in America in 2010. Professor Lash made a distinction between two ways the word “instruct” can be used: instruction as teaching (“She is under an expert’s instruction”) and as commanding (“I instructed him to stop”). The first has understanding as its goal (“Ahh, I see!”); the second, obedience (“O.K., I am stopping”).
“Dissent,” Professor Lash writes, “is disobedience.” Consequently, when the language of dissent gets applied to church teaching, the conversation moves squarely into the category of “instruction as commanding.” And to understand the role of the magisterium, that is, the church’s bishops under the headship of the pope, as one of commanding is to misunderstand completely the tasks of the magisterium as described by Vatican II: “Teaching only what has been handed on [in Scripture and Tradition], listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully” (“Dei Verbum,”No. 10).
What is more, “instruction as commanding” is clearly contrary to the will of Pope Francis in “Amoris Laetitia,” where headvises against “a rushed reading of the text,” claiming instead, “The greatest benefit…will come if each part is read patiently and carefully” (No. 7). One issuing a command does not discourage rushed listening and encourage patient consideration. One who teaches does.
So if the question of the permissibility of dissent is not the right question, then what is? How about this: What invitations does a teaching of the magisterium extend to believers?
I see three primary invitations.
First, a teaching of the magisterium asks believers to remember that the intellectual dimension of ecclesial life is just one of its dimensions. In other words, one cannot isolate a teaching of the magisterium to such a degree that all the other components of the life of the church—prayer, worship, community, works of mercy, reading the signs of the times, etc.—are forgotten. Indeed, the more persuasively the magisterium situates a church teaching in this broader context, the more authentically will its action be “instruction as teaching.”
Second, a teaching of the magisterium asks believers to take all available means to understand the form and the content of the given teaching. The “form” of a church teaching is how the magisterium presents it: A dogmatic constitution at an ecumenical council is a more solemn form of teaching than an apostolic exhortation of a pope, which itself is more solemn than a pastoral letter of a diocesan bishop.
The “content” of a church teaching is what the magisterium proposes. To hone what they teach, bishops can enlist the help of theologians, with whom they have “a reciprocal relationship,” according to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, during a teaching’s development and after its promulgation, asking theologians to “striv[e] to clarify the teaching of Revelation with regard to reason and [to] giv[e] it finally an organic and systematic form” (“Donum Veritatis,” No. 21).
Third, a teaching of the magisterium, especially when it prompts questions and confusion among people, asks believers, to use the image of the theologian Richard R. Gaillardetz, to wrestle with the tradition and not to give up on it. This invitation extends to all believers, those who are members of the magisterium and those who are not.
It is incumbent upon the magisterium to be serious about “instruction as teaching,” which should compel them to do what all good teachers do when what they teach is not understood: try again, use a different approach, respond to questions.And it falls to the rest of us to keep wrestling with what we find difficult, or, put in terms the International Theological Commission uses, to keep trying to recognize in a teaching of the magisterium “the voice of Christ, the Good Shepherd.”