Dissent, Now & Then: Thomas Weinandy and the meaning of Jesuit discernment
During his term as the head of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, Thomas Weinandy, O.F.M. Cap., an American theologian, was responsible for leveling accusations of dissent against several prominent theologians from the United States.
That reality made what happened Wednesday all the more remarkable. Father Weinandy made public a stinging letter to the Holy Father in which he dissented from Pope Francis’ teachings. The irony of the letter, dated July 31, the Feast of St. Ignatius Loyola, was hard to miss. The priest who had publicly accused theologians like Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J., and Terrence Tilley, both professors of theology at Fordham University at the time, of dissent was now himself dissenting.
About Professor Johnson’s popular book Quest for the Living God, for example, he wrote in 2011, “This book does not take the faith of the church as its starting point.” Further, it “contaminates” a traditional understanding of God. For her part, Professor Johnson issued a lengthy rebuttal, and the work of Father Weinandy’s committee came under withering criticism from many Catholic theologians. About Professor Tilley, he had written, “Those who argue in a manner similar to Tilley with regard to what is to be the content of faith also often espouse contraception, abortion, fornication.” In other words, because Professor Tilley happens to argue in a particular way, he also supports abortion—a breathtaking leap of logic.
Yesterday, however, he accused Pope Francis of “calumny” against his critics.
Father Weinandy’s broadside further accused the pope of appointing bishops who “scandalize believers” and of fostering “chronic confusion.” After he made the letter public and was interviewed by Crux, Father Weinandy was asked to resign from his current post as a consultor to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the archbishop of Galveston-Houston and president of the conference, issued a statement reaffirming the bishops’ unified support for Pope Francis.
Father Weinandy’s letter reveals once again the double standard often employed by many of Pope Francis’ critics.
Father Weinandy’s letter reveals once again the double standard often employed by many of Pope Francis’ critics. Under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, no dissent was tolerated. Now some of the same people who were charged with enforcing rules against dissent are themselves dissenting.
But the incident reveals something of perhaps greater import. That is, how many Catholics, even theologians, seem to fundamentally misunderstand the concept of discernment that underlies much of Francis’ teaching. Much of the “confusion,” according to Father Weinandy and other critics of Pope Francis, is said to come from “Amoris Laetitia,” the pope’s apostolic exhortation on the family, which heavily emphasizes the role of discernment in making moral choices.
Father Weinandy explained his own process of discernment in his interview with Crux, which is worth quoting at length:
In the middle of a sleepless night, he said, he basically gave God an ultimatum.
“If you want me to write something, you have to give me a clear sign,” Weinandy recalls saying. “Tomorrow morning, I’m going to Saint Mary Major’s to pray, and then I am going to Saint John Lateran. After that, I’m coming back to Saint Peter’s to have lunch with a seminary friend of mine.”
“During that interval, I must meet someone that I know but have not seen in a very long time, and would never expect to see in Rome at this time. That person cannot be from the United States, Canada or Great Britain. Moreover, that person has to say to me, ‘Keep up the good writing’.”
Sure enough, Weinandy said, exactly that happened the next day, in a chance meeting with an archbishop he’d known a long time ago but not seen for over twenty years, who congratulated him for a book on the Incarnation and then said the right words, “Keep up the good writing.”
“There was no longer any doubt in my mind that Jesus wanted me to write something,” Weinandy said. “I also think it significant that it was an Archbishop that Jesus used. I considered it an apostolic mandate.”
If one’s idea of discernment is seeking signs like this, then why would one trust, say, a divorced and remarried Catholic to consult his or her conscience about whether it is permissible to receive Communion? It is no wonder that discernment seems so arbitrary to some people. And so frightening.
Discernment for Francis is not about seeking signs. Even Jesus opposed this (Jn 4:48). Indeed, this is one of the first hazardous practices one is trained to spot as a spiritual director, because it comes dangerously close to superstition, magic or divination.
The discernment that so frightens Francis’ critics is a far more nuanced process that eschews “signs and wonders” in favor of carefully considering a host of internal experiences and external factors: examining which movements in one’s heart are leading one away from God and which are not; discussing the topic for decision with a trusted director trained in spiritual discernment; understanding the matter in terms of the Gospels and the teachings of the church; considering what the practical ramifications of a particular decision would be; and so on. Discernment is not “If a leaf falls from the tree, it’s a sign that I’m right.”
The discernment that so frightens Francis’ critics is a far more nuanced process that eschews “signs and wonders."
Father Weinandy surely wrote his letter out of a heartfelt desire to help the church. But in doing so, he did exactly what he had accused others of doing, that is, dissenting. At the same time, he belied a misunderstanding of one of the basic elements of Pope Francis’ teaching—or what should now be considered church teaching.