Dissent, Now & Then: Thomas Weinandy and the meaning of Jesuit discernment

Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J. (top left), Terrence Tilley (bottom left), and Thomas Weinandy, O.F.M. Cap.

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.

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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.

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Beth Cioffoletti
11 months 3 weeks ago

I'm very glad that the "if this happens, it means that" deal with God was addressed.

Arnoldo Miranda
11 months 3 weeks ago

This is not dissent as understood within the Church. You're comparing apples to oranges. Fr. James Martin should know better and so should America Magazine.

James Clark
11 months 3 weeks ago

I didn't notice anythings qualifying as "dissent" from doctrine in Fr Weinandy's letter. For someone who is so quick to note the Imprimi potest in his book and so averse to any insinuation that he might be less than orthodox, Fr. Martin should be a little more precise with his words. Pot, meet kettle.

MJ Painter
11 months 3 weeks ago

What Father Weinandy and others don't seem to understand is that discernment encourages people to think seriously for themselves and where they stand in relation to God and the world.

Derrick Weiller
11 months 3 weeks ago

Exactly!

giuseppe papadia
11 months 2 weeks ago

.. where they stand in relation to God OR the world.

Michael Barberi
11 months 3 weeks ago

Thanks Fr. Martin for this article. Fr. Weinandy's ad hominen comments are indicative of the polarization within the episcopal hierarchy over Amoris Laetitia and in Pope Francis's vision for our Church....from a top-down monarchy where all decisions are made in Rome, dictated to Bishops and no one except Rome has a voice...to a Church where the Bishops have more authority and responsibility for making decisions and all the People of God each have a voice.

Fr. Weinandy's remarks are not only hypocritical and lacking in discernment, they are uncharitable and divisive.

Joshua DeCuir
11 months 3 weeks ago

I don't agree with either the contents of Weinandy's letter or the fact that he issued it publicly. It seems like a publicity stunt. But if we're going to criticize the about-turn of those who formerly objected to public criticism of popes, then it seems those who formerly defended such criticism of other popes & who now find themselves on the other side of the table also deserve some criticism. In 2010, the theologian Hans Kung wrote a public letter to the world's bishops strenuously criticizing Pope Benedict's exercise of papal ministry. I can't seem to find any objection to Kung's letter from those rightly criticizing Weinandy now. In fact, Fr. Martin wrote here at America in 2010 that Kung's letter was "well worth reading" (although he also indicated some disagreement with the letter's contents). Maybe the best response to public criticism of popes is just to ignore it rather than engage in another round of trying to determine who's the biggest hypocrite. It strikes me as a rather silly game of "No, you started it first" that fighting kids love to play. This is no way to escape polarization in the Church.

Carson Weber
11 months 3 weeks ago

This article reminds me of the famous line from Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

The word? Dissent.

bede the venerable
11 months 3 weeks ago

Fr. Weinandy was once in a position to criticize those who dissented from the faith, therefore he must not speak his mind now? He believes he received a personal sign to speak, therefore he must be irrational? More ad hominem attacks. Once again, those of us in the pews wait for clarification as others try desperately to defend the Pope without logic and without answering the real issues.

Laura K Hewitt
11 months 3 weeks ago

"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."
What you wrote in these lines, Fr. Martin, is confirming the correct position of Fr. Weinandy. In fact, if a person dissents from Pope Francis and his heretical doctrine, it is exactly because he was (and still is) in defense of the true doctrine of Christ taught by both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.

Dr.Cajetan Coelho
11 months 3 weeks ago

Discernment and Examination of Conscience - powerful weapons in the armory of India's Mahatma Gandhi.

Brian Babiak
11 months 2 weeks ago

So is a pagan, a worshipper of a plethora of demonic false "gods" who molested his grand-niece Manu and many, many other young men and women some sort of saint in your religion? So what. Who cares about Gandhi? - I thought this was a Catholic site. I'm pretty sure his authority on Catholic teaching ranks far below that of St. Pope John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI in such matters. I think his opinion on Catholic teaching would rank less than the altar servers in my parish even...

Richard Doerflinger
11 months 3 weeks ago

Three problems with Fr. Martin's attack on Fr. Weinandy. The first is a matter of simple fact. Fr. Weinandy was not the head of the USCCB Committee on Doctrine, a post only held by a bishop -- he was the executive director of the Secretariat on Doctrine, the staff office which serves that committee. Any criticism of a theologian from that committee is a decision of the chair and members of that committee, whatever staff advice they may have received. (As a 36-year veteran of the USCCB staff I can testify that the bishops are fully capable of disagreeing with staff advice.) Fr. Weinandy was no freewheeling doctrinal watchdog in his own right. And the article Fr. Martin criticizes was clearly identified by Fr. Weinandy as his own personal theological opinion, not a charge of dissent from the bishops. (I wrote personal articles during my tenure as a staffer as well.) Since the theologian he was critiquing had clearly and publicly disagreed with statements of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the Creed and the nature of Christology, "dissent" would seem to be the accurate term here, and would have been independently of what Fr. Weinandy wrote.

Second, Fr. Martin accuses Fr. Weinandy of "dissent" from Pope Francis's teachings. It is more accurate to say that he is uncertain what they are on certain points, as are many laity, priests, bishops and national bishops' conferences. For example, paragraphs 302-4 of Amoris Laetitia SEEM to contradict paragraphs 54-6 of Pope St. John Paul II's Veritatis Splendor, directly enough that Catholics are confused as to which they should now follow as they do not see how to follow both. Explanations to clear up the confusion would be nice but have not been forthcoming.

Third, Fr. Martin has some disdain for Fr. Weinandy's account of seeing in certain unexpected events a sign that he should write the letter he had previously been uncertain about. He claims to be consistent, Fr. Weinandy should accept the private revelations of conscience by which some people can continue to have sexual relations with people to whom they are not married, and receive Communion, because they believe they have God's approval for this. But the last time I looked, "writing a letter of concern to the Pope" was not rejected by the Ten Commandments or the sayings of Jesus (one might say St. Paul set a rather clear precedent in this regard in upbraiding Peter). So I simply don't see the analogy. The question is whether one can use such private convictions to carve out personal exceptions to what has been seen as an absolute moral norm. Or IS that the question? Many people, after reading Amoris Laetitia, are not even sure of that. Hence the confusion, which Fr. Weinandy has called attention to. I'm afraid Fr. Martin's response is another example of the current trend in response to such questions: "Shut up!", he explains.

James Clark
11 months 3 weeks ago

Excellent!

Carson Weber
11 months 3 weeks ago

This is well written.

Johnny O'Neill
11 months 3 weeks ago

Fr. Martin clearly thinks that dissent is in relation to the teaching of a Pope, regardless of what level of authority that teaching has (not everything a Pope says is infallible, most things Popes say are not), rather than understanding dissent as being in relation to the faith itself.

One can agree with one Pope and disagree with certain things said by another Pope if the first is clearly upholding the faith while the second is at least ambiguous. JPII and BXVI taught the faith with clarity. Francis does not in every respect. And in certain places he seems to support Cardinals and Bishops who are true dissenters from the faith on this question of communion for the divorced and remarried. That is why faithful Catholics have requested a clarification, so that it is clear to all that Francis does not in fact support the interpretation of dissenting Cardinals and Bishops.

Dissent is not disagreement with a Pope.
Dissent is disagreement with the faith.

Fr. Martin should understand that. He continues to fuel the misunderstanding of so many Catholics who join him in falsely condemning Weinandy's words and actions as dissent. There may be a discussion to be had about whether what he did was prudent or just, but it is simply calumny to falsely accuse someone of dissent, leading others to make the same judgment as well.

Eddy LeRoque
11 months 3 weeks ago

The Traditionalists apply an Alice in Wonderland approach in their replies. I find it confusing and demonic. "The pope is heretical". So join an Orthodox Church such as the Russian Orthodox church which allows up to 4 divorces. "This is not dissent" really then what is it? Holiness is proportioned to obedience. The Orthodox church will let you know divorce is allowed under adultery such as gambling addiction, alcoholism, drug addiction, and the usual sex addiction. I state this because traditionalists get all googly eyed over the Orthodox Church. The traditionalists websites are worthy of that venomous anti Roman Catholic Jack Chick (Czech?). Really the hate they publish is damning.

giuseppe papadia
11 months 2 weeks ago

The same contraddiction is on the part of previus dissenters who now condemn dissenting.

Devin Rice
11 months 2 weeks ago

I certainly agree with the orthodoxy of AL as explained by Rocco Buttiglione and Cardinal Schönborn. But the Pope has used mostly implicit means to make this change of teaching, and the concern of theologians since the 1st Vatican Council (not all necessarily progressive) have been to put obedience to the Pope in his teaching in such a way that Catholic's don't have to follow the whim of every papal utterance so that we obey papal documents and formal decrees but off the hand remarks do not matter much. However, Pope Francis is using a new form of communication where he truly wants to make a change of applicable to the universal Church but communicates it through indirect means. This may uncharted territory.

As an aside, since Fr. Martin now agrees the communion for the divorced and remarried is part of church teaching, he should no doubt except fully the more forceful and explicit teachings of Paul VI and John Paul II that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is a doctrine and irreformable.

Gerardo Porras
11 months 2 weeks ago

I apologize for the following ubiquitous idiom, but Fr. Martin's logic is filled with more holes than swiss cheese.

While I consider myself a Traditional Catholic, who by nature has a disposition towards logic, reason, order, laws, blah blah...and feels an affinity for the teachings of SJPII and BXVI, I appreciate how Holy Father Francis has challenged my intellectual leanings and forced me to admit that their is danger in solely focusing on logic and reason all the while forgetting about the complexities of society and seeing brothers and sisters who are truly hurting and deserve compassion and our prayers.

With that said, Fr. Martin does not speak like a Roman Catholic, much less a Roman Catholic priest, who believes in the power of Jesus' Church which gives us Holy Sacraments to find the graces necessary to attempt to imitate our Lord Jesus Christ.

For Fr. Martin to literally call Fr. Weinandy a dissenter demonstrates, like most of us humans, that Fr. Martin needs to put some of his Jesuit training to use and contemplate on how he may become more humble so that he can, in earnest, intellectually and lovingly engage with "legalistic", "rigid" Catholics who can teach him a thing or two in much the same way Pope Francis' "pastoral", "God is pure mercy" ways can teach the BXVI crowd a thing or two.

One of Fr. Martin's great challenges is that he is so knee-deep in the elitist environment of NYC/DC that he may not be able to keep an arms-distance from the in-your-face liberalism of this aforementioned economic, media, political juggernaut. I almost feel sorry for Fr. Martin.

G.K. Chesterton said, "Don't be so open-minded that your brain falls out."

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