'Faithful' Dissent: Where's the Line?

During my days as an undergraduate student at a (Jesuit) Catholic university, one could pretty well count on the fact that most campus ministers would define themselves, proudly and primarily, as 'faithful dissenters.' "I am Catholic," they would invariably admit, "but the Church is really behind the times on [insert dogmatically defined issue here]." From small-group leaders to musicians to sacristans, almost anyone involved in serving the Catholic community at my college was somehow at odds with some aspect of Church teaching.

And in all cases--on the heels of such discordant convictions--their 'ministry' to the community suffered. Instead of attesting to the truth of the Church's magisterial authority with their very lives, they spent most of the time discussing why such-and-such was holding them back from really living out an authentic Christian vocation.

Five years after those tumultuous (and tiring) days as an undergrad, I still can't seem to escape the phenomenon of 'faithful dissent.' And, what's more, of 'faithful dissent' coupled closely with a desire to minister to the people of God. In particular, an encounter I had just last month reawakened many questions that had, for a while, lain dormant in the back of my mind. Now, again, they persist.

For the last few months, I've been heading up the Gregorian chant schola at my local parish. After singing at a Mass the other weekend, the parish organist/music director approached me to discuss how Mass had gone. "You sounded good," she said, and proceeded to mention her thoughts on chant, music and our schola as a whole. "Gregorian chant is nice," she finally said, with a bit of a chagrinned look on her face, "but I don't want to go back."

"Go back to what?" I asked.

"Back! This diocese has a tendency to go back, not forward," she suddenly retorted. "And I don't know why! It's not doing what all the other dioceses are doing; and I think our diocese needs to realize that the past is not the answer. The Church needs to realize that it won't go anywhere until it reconsiders how it does things--and starts to let women up there!" She pointed toward the sanctuary.

In less than a minute, our friendly discussion of liturgy and music degraded into a diatribe against the male, celibate priesthood, and the very foundations of the Church's teaching authority. Without so much as hinting at a reason, our music director had bypassed all logical segues and proceeded directly into a rant about 'antiquated' rituals and mediaeval hierarchical nonsenses. However, I have to admit that (sadly) I was not all that surprised. And I immediately thought back to those folks at college--those 'ministers'--whose energy was spent more on rationalizing and justifying than on serving and teaching.

In light of this most recent run-in, I'm left with the same perennial questions: namely, is it really possible for someone who dissents from a dogmatic teaching of the Church--and who dissents so vehemently--to be an authentic minister of that Church? Or, to put it a different way, what's the line beyond which one's actions in the name of the Catholic Church cease to be effectively Catholic, and start to be effectively something-else?

For my old college campus ministers, being a 'faithful dissenter' was a badge of pride; and they wore is courageously on their breasts (probably alongside a rainbow ribbon and a "Catholics for Choice" button). For my present colleague, 'faithful dissent' seems rather to arise from some long-held resentment, which betrays a deep and fundamental divergence from the faith of the Catholic Church. In both cases, Christians feel a desire to serve others; but it is a desire weighted down heavily by the burdens of constant complaint, disagreement and capriciousness. In either case, the very bedrock of ministering to others "in the Catholic tradition" (as some are wont to phrase it) is utterly compromised by the desire to hold in tension two conflicting and diametrically opposed viewpoints--i.e. that of the Church, and that of unwavering personal opinion.

Certainly, there is no easy answer to this dilemma. It is an ubiquitous one both in America and throughout the entire world. But it raises deep questions that ought to be dealt with, lest we lose sight of the responsibility of Christian ministers--in whatever capacity--to serve with honesty and integrity. If one can only give to others so much as he or she has received from the first Giver, then how much of a unified, true message can one convey who himself sees truth as negotiable and unity as simply an option?

To minister to others requires that we first be ministered to by the Church herself. If our understanding of that Church promotes any sort of disunity among its members, then we are not aspiring to the true Christian Church. And if we are not ministers of the true Church, we are not ministers to the faithful of that Church after all.

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    # by Suzanne - October 27, 2009 at 10:32 PM

    You might imagine that I've run into this sort of thing a lot! If you'd like to talk, I'm at suzanne [dot] ciellina [at] gmail [dot] com. The only thing that I've seen work in the relationship you describe is offering -- that is, you must offer your music for her conversion of heart. Arguments are useless as are strategies... Take it from one who knows.