Why can't I be a good Catholic and dissent? Apparently, being a dissenter and a good Catholic are mutually exclusive. Why can't I be both? There is no "Thou shall not dissent" commandment. Yet today it appears that anyone who does not strictly follow or agree with the rules promulgated by Rome is considered to be a bad Catholic. And this to the point that Pope Benedict XVI is apparently saying good riddance—who needs them anyway—let them fall by the wayside: they are just weeds in the field.
Why is questioning and asking about change deemed equal to heresy? It is akin to being against the war in Iraq and being labeled anti-American. This country was formed by a group of dissenters who believed strongly in freedom of speech and religion. Unquestioned, blind followership has had many a bad result historically—the Crusades and Hitler to name a few examples. Jesus Christ Himself was a dissenter. He objected to the behavior of those who observed the minutiae of the law, while ignoring its spirit. Saint Paul too was a dissenter amongst the apostles. Saint Paul made a strong distinction between the letter and the spirit of the law. Were Christ and Paul labeled as insurgents? Absolutely—and ultimately they were put to death for their beliefs.
Much has been written about the various crises within the Roman Catholic Church, including declining church attendance in Europe and North America, declining numbers of religious clergy and practices of the so-called "Cafeteria Catholics." Recently, an article by Peter J. Boyer appeared in the New Yorker magazine addressing these issues among others. In particular he wrote about the archbishop of Denver, Charles Chaput, who closed one seminary and reopened a more conservative one where no dissension is tolerated. This seminary has 85 students. While this number represents an increase, it is almost inconsequential in the glare of church closings (to pay for sexual misconduct) and the rapidly declining number of priests overall. Mathematically the numbers do not add up. There appears to be no solution offered for this crisis, except to "pray for vocations" and institute a national prayer day for vocations. Forced by the paucity of priests, the church has opened its doors to allow and encourage deacons (who may be married), yet they too can only do so much. Much sacramental activity is still the sole purview of the priests.
Requests to allow priests to marry or allow women to become priests have fallen on deaf ears in Rome. Bishop Chaput, as quoted in the New Yorker, said:
"The lack of orthodoxy has already proven that it's empty. So I can't understand why people would want to move in that direction. I mean, all the things they're pushing for have already been tried by mainline Protestant churches, which are shrinking in numbers. And these religious orders, where they've abandoned the tradition, there are no vocations, but they still talk like they're the future. Why would they? You just have to open your eyes and see. If they have ears, they don't hear. If they have eyes, they don't see."* Eighty-five seminarians hardly represent the triumph of orthodoxy. Be leery of the one who spouts contradictory statements in the face of facts.
There are no valid reasons for preventing either marriage in the priesthood or women in the priesthood. An objection to married priesthood is that having a family or spouse would dilute the priest's devotion to serving God and the people, while celibacy allows undivided devotion. How insulting to the apostles and ministers of other religious traditions to make such pious statements.
As for women in the priesthood, an objection is that all the apostles were men. Who was more inclusive than Christ? He spoke with women from other religions, ate with women, and had women in His entourage. After He rose from the dead, He first appeared to Mary of Magdala. Coincidence? I think not. This issue is about power.
As for dissenters, they are not welcome because they threaten the social order. They make those in power pause and reconsider, which is always uncomfortable, as was shown by the firing of the editor of America magazine. The church has always had its pendulum swings, like everything else in life. The pendulum now is so far to the right that the church will apparently brook no dissent by anyone and is trying to exclude anyone who does not keep in lockstep with its teachings. History has taught us what happens when decrees are issued and people blindly follow them.
Despite Rome's expressed support for the separation of church and state, it was a huge contributor to the reelection of President Bush by its decree, issued through bishops such as Chaput and Sheridan of Colorado, whereby they proclaimed those who voted for Senator John Kerry could be denied Communion. Instead of being proud that a Catholic could be elected to the presidency of the United States, whose humanistic values could influence how it treats and perceives humankind, the Catholic Church chose to throw its implicit support to a man whose religion was formed by a dissenter from Rome and who doesn't "know the way." This is the same man John Paul II tried to talk out of going to war with Iraq. Killing is killing whether it is by abortion, war, or the death penalty. Ironic is one word that comes to mind; expediency is another.
The Catholic Church today may not want dissenters, but it has them. Being a dissenter should not, ipso facto, equal being a bad Catholic. Asking for change when it is necessary, valuable, and appropriate is different, yet Rome does not appear to see the difference.
Readers will note that we labeled this very forthright piece an "opinion." And of course it is just that. One does not have to be a Roman Catholic to appreciate the points of controversy that Katherine Knight identifies. Many of us Protestants hold to an ideal that we should be allowed to speak our minds and explain errors and differences without penalty. Like her we remain troubled that the Catholic Church so openly tried to force certain politicians to comply with church dogma on public policy issues. And yet we know that it is not unreasonable for a church, or any other membership organization, to expect conformity to its principles. I would expect any church to take steps to sever its connection with a congregant who had either ceased to support its views or openly opposed them.
But there is a bigger issue here. The Roman Catholic Church claims not only a spiritual mission but secular prerogatives. No other Christian church combines spiritual mission with a claim to civil authority. And only Islam holds its adherents with the same dynamic of eternal damnation if they reject the church. The result is a potent blend of political power and personal control which has as its agenda the global interests of this power which sees itself as above all others.
Therefore it is imperative that dissidents like Katherine Knight be heard. It is imperative that in Christian America (cultural not structural, of course) we keep alive the spirit of "Protestantism." Surely such is in the true spirit of religious liberty. Editor.
Katherine M. Knight is an attorney-at-law and a former assistant chief deputy county attorney for the county of Westchester, New York.
* Peter J. Boyer, "A Hard Faith," The New Yorker, May 16, 2005, p. 55.