06 October 2013

Followup Question on Dissent from Vatican II

[[Dear Sister Laurel, [in light of your earlier response on "how we get on with it" I wondered:] 
How do you feel about consci-entious dissent from Church teaching? If you affirm that right, do you affirm it also for say members of the SSPX who dissent in conscience from the teachings of Vatican 2? It's just a question that popped up in mind whilst reading your excellent response to my question. Thanks. ]]

Hi there,
A few introductory comments first. The Bishops of Germany and later those in the US noted at least two kinds of dissent, one legitimate and one not. To be legitimate these Bishops said that three conditions needed to apply: 1)  one must have striven to give positive value to the teaching and to personally make it one's own; 2) one must ask seriously whether one has the theological expertise to dissent responsibly from ecclesiastical authority; and 3) one must examine one's conscience for possible conceit, arrogance, selfishness, and other negative motives. With regard to noninfallible teaching (which means it is reformable and might actually be in error --- though the chance is not strong) the US Bishops laid down the same essential conditions but expanded the third one to include the condition that this dissent did not give scandal and the second one to specify that such dissent was not to impugn the authority of the church.

Too often folks do not take the care needed in their dissent and for that reason, while the position they hold may be held in good conscience, they actually will act imprudently and possibly in ways which are disedifying or even scandalous. Both German and American Bishops agreed that dissent can be responsible but that this does not excuse one from also conscientiously teaching the authentic teaching of the church if one is in such a ministry or office.

Beyond these two kinds of dissent these Bishops also looked at whether such dissent was public or not. They realized that sometimes one's legitimate dissent must actually be made public, that that is indeed the responsible thing to do in limited cases. My answer to your question really has to do with this public vs private distinction (though SSPX involves reformable vs irreformable teaching as well as public vs private). The rest is for background because I do not hold the position that says NO dissent is ever licit or that ALL dissent is irresponsible so the Bishops' thinking on this is important. So is Vatican II's teaching in regard to the hierarchy of truths. Since Vatican II enunciated a category of teaching which was noninfallible calling for "obsequium animi religiosum" and which itself includes a range of meanings all centered on the sincere attempt to accept the teaching, Vatican II clearly foresaw that there COULD be responsible dissent. However, the corollary is also clear here: if one dissents one must continue to try to think with the Church in this matter, and will continue to form and inform one's conscience appropriately. One may continue to dissent but in this too she will try to serve the Church and the Truth.

Your questions:

In any case,  in a situation where one honestly dissents and has made a conscience judgment on the matter, the Church's own teaching on the primacy of conscience teaches the person has the right and indeed the obligation to act in accord with this conscience judgment. (Nothing the Bishops put forward as conditions changes this in any way whatsoever except to sharpen the situation perhaps.) At the same time a person must bear the consequences of her decision and the actions that flow from it. If the dissent is private then there is very little risk of consequences being damaging (unless prudentially the person SHOULD have made the dissent public as the responsible thing to do), nor of the Church taking action in some way. However if the dissent is public then while the person is still obligated to act in good conscience, the risks of scandal and other damages are very much greater and for that reason the consequences too may have much greater or far-reaching import.

The members of SSPX can and may well be dissenting from the teaching of Vatican II in good faith. If so, they are obligated to follow their consciences. To do otherwise is SINFUL, always and everywhere. (It is always better to err in a conscience judgment and act in good faith than to simply act in bad faith and contradict one's conscience judgments.) The problem comes not from that original decision but from the multitude of weighings and examinations of conscience that have (or should have) come after this. Have they met the conditions the Bishops in Germany and the US laid out? Have they acted in ways which respect the teaching authority of the Church (namely an ecumenical council verified and validated now by six Popes) or which do not impugn that authority? I think the answers to these and many others are unclear and differ from person to person. I also think that as time goes on it is easier to fail in one's duties to the truth by failing to reassess matters (including one's own motives, openness, humility, etc).

Still, the simple answer to your question is the members of SSPX have the same obligation we all have to form, inform, discern, make a conscience judgment, and act on that judgment. In doing so they are acting in conformity with Church teaching.The corollary in cases of dissent also holds for them: they are required to continue to form and inform their consciences in such an undeniably serious matter, to discern what the values and disvalues are they must preference as time goes on, and then they must make a new judgment and act on that conscience judgment. They must continue to strive to think with the Church and thus give at least "obsequium animi religiosum" in these matters even if they cannot give an assent of faith (assuming faith is the level of assent ultimately called for), for instance. They will also need to accept the consequences of their conscience judgments --- whatever those are --- up to and including excommunication.

I hope this helps.