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Catholic Identity and Strong Dissent—How Compatible?

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Written by Professor Tony Coady

University of Melbourne

In a previous Uehiro blog[1] I offered a number of fairly radical criticisms of church disciplinary practices, and of several prevailing “official” teachings of the Church, such as on artificial contraception, abortion and much else in the area of sexual and reproductive ethics. Subsequently, several people put the question to me: “Given your critical views of so much official church teaching, how can you still call yourself a Catholic?”  

Those who raise this sort of question for “liberal Catholics” seem to me captive to a certain view of adherence to the Catholic Church that I will call The Picture.  Their capture is understandable because The Picture had been assiduously cultivated by the church’s leadership for generations upon generations, so it is not surprising that outsiders and many insiders and ex-insiders take for granted its accuracy as a measure of Catholic identity. But recent turmoil in the Catholic Church has damaged The Picture severely as definitive of Catholic identity.

The Picture portrayed a proud monolith, firmly grounded in an array of crucial doctrines, disciplines and ageless, immutable moral teachings that united all Catholics in a posture of certainty against heresy and the numerous errors of any given age. It not only served to fortify adherents, but it attracted outsiders seeking certainty amidst what they saw as the gloom and confusion of modernity and its often strident, anti-religious outlook.

The first serious disfiguring of The Picture was made at Vatican Council II which overturned in its wake such proud pillars as the Latin Mass, the Index of Prohibited Books, most mandated abstinence and fasting routines, such as no meat on Fridays, the almost total subservience of the laity to clerical authority in matters religious and sometimes secular, disdain for the non-Catholic world, denial of freedom of conscience, as well as much else previously bound up with Catholic identification. The central doctrine of “no salvation outside the Church” was abandoned, or decisively diluted (depending on its interpretation), and conservatives rightly felt that much they held dear had mysteriously disappeared and much more was endangered.

Their fightback began with the agonised decision of Paul VI in his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae to ignore the reform recommendations of the majority report of the special commission set up by John XXIII and later enlarged by Paul VI and to reaffirm the teaching against artificial contraception (originally formally propounded by Pius XI in the 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii). But ironically this too contributed to the rapid deterioration of The Picture since the reaction it created in the laity (and many clergy) involved widespread rejection or ignoring of the ban and a consequent decline in effective Episcopal authority and control.

All this meant that the church has been divided into strongly opposed camps of “conservatives” and “liberals” though this division rather crudely conflates more subtle distinctions between members of the two groups. It might be better to speak of five groups: reactionaries, conservatives, moderates, liberals and radicals, with many intersections between these groupings. So, amongst educated Catholics, and the ordinary faithful in the industrially advanced world, only a small group takes the ban on artificial contraception seriously. This small group also clings to much else that the other groups question, modify, or reject, and they hold fast to The Picture in spite of the evidence that it no longer represent reality.

In the wake of Humanae Vitae, of course, many Catholics, lay and clergy, abandoned allegiance to the Church altogether. They had their reasons, and I would not want to scorn them, but I think that a factor in their departure was accepting that The Picture was an exclusive representation of what it meant to be a Catholic and so, in rejecting it, they had to abandon the Church. But many others, myself included, reacted by abandoning The Picture and seeking to show in behaviour and thought that adherence to it was unnecessary to being a Catholic Christian.

More recently, of course, the ghastly scandals of clerical sex abuse of children and its accompanying evasions and cover-ups have further undermined respect for clerical, episcopal and papal authority thus damaging The Picture further, and leading to more departures, most dramatically in that hitherto clerically-dominated Catholic jewel, Ireland, where the damage was recently vividly illustrated in that country’s 2015 referendum in favour of gay marriage in which the hierarchy’s Catholic teaching and campaigning was decisively spurned.

But the first thing to note is that, despite the undoubted power that The Picture has exerted for centuries, divergence and dissent from existing “orthodoxy”, moral and doctrinal, were always present, and in spite of repression and persecution often enough prevailed over time.

The philosophy and theology of St. Thomas Aquinas was highly radical and controversial in his own life, and three years after his death it was condemned by the Bishop of Paris; centuries later it became, much to its detriment, the “official” philosophy and central theology of the Church. The German Dominican, Meister Eckhart, a key figure in the history of Christian mysticism, now widely respected in the Catholic Church, was in his own day accused of heresy and probably avoided execution by dying while Inquisition proceedings against him were under way. The far-sighted Jesuit, Matteo Ricci tried to accommodate Christianity to ancient Chinese cultural and religious traditions in the late 16th and early 17th centuries and had conspicuous success in making Catholic Christianity seem less foreign to his hosts. His efforts were largely thwarted by the hostility of Dominican and Franciscan missionaries who rejected the Chinese beliefs as mere paganism and persuaded the Vatican to denounce rituals, such as veneration of the dead, which Ricci had found acceptable. Ironically, Pope Pius XII, no theological radical, endorsed Ricci’s position in 1939 stating that Chinese Catholics could observe the ancestral rites and participate in Confucius-honouring ceremonies. And these are no isolated episodes in the chequered history of Catholic “orthodoxy”. Nearer our time, the Australian nun Mary MacKillop was canonised Australia’s first saint in 2010, though she had earlier been excommunicated by her Adelaide Archbishop for “insubordination”. The radical shifts in official teaching about usury and about slavery are also important, though frequently ignored aspects of change in Catholic orthodoxy, as is the dramatic recent shift in Catholic Biblical scholarship towards the mainstream, more historically oriented, Protestant paradigms.

The fact is that The Picture not only ignored history, but exerted a stifling hold on what it is to be a genuine Christian within the broad Catholic tradition. The issue of abortion that I discussed in my earlier blog is a good example of the disdain for history and for the possibility of fruitful dissent within the Church. Up until roughly the 17th century, abortion was only condemned as basically a form of contraception and this condemnation was connected with an attitude to marital sex (gearing it exclusively to procreation) that the Church gradually abandoned in the late 20th century. The idea that the fetus was ensouled at the moment of conception was explicitly denied by Aquinas and many other Catholic authorities, so that the connection of early abortion with murder is a late and very dubious development.[2] I have no space to develop this point here, but for a good account of the historical and philosophical issues, I recommend Dombrowski and Deltete’s book A Brief, Liberal Catholic Defense of Abortion.

The Picture encouraged a proliferation of defined or sharply mandated markers of Catholic identity in the form of a plethora of moral and religious propositions, disciplinary requirements, and rigid authoritarian structures, all of which are now in disarray. Moreover, the endeavour to fix a huge net of propositional rigidity around the idea of Catholic Faith was a distortion of that strand in the Catholic tradition that honoured the place of a questing reason in religious life, exemplified by St. Anselm’s motto of faith seeking understanding (“fides quaerens intellectum”). Restricting such questing to an authorised clerical caste that then imposes edicts upon an unquestioning faithful does justice neither to faith nor reason. It issues in the ill-considered inflexibility of the prohibitions on married clergy and female ordination, the rigid prohibitions on divorce, the elevation into defined dogma of pious devotional beliefs such as Mary’s Assumption into Heaven and her Immaculate Conception and the intrinsically dubious concept of the Pope’s defining himself into occasional infallibility.

Is there nothing that can be said to be crucial to Catholic identity? It all depends. In one sense the vital contemporary question is not whether you identify as a Catholic, or Protestant or Orthodox, but whether you are a Christian and so shape your life around the central Christian mysteries, such as the Incarnation, the Redemption, the Resurrection, and the urgent moral and spiritual messages of the Gospel.

This should give rise to a Christian ethic that is informed by such values as the central importance of neighbourly love (where neighbour is understood broadly as in Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan); the equality of all people as children of God and an associated concept of justice as more than a requirement of local institutions; the crucial importance of the poor and downtrodden as harbingers of God; the pre-eminent demands of peace; and the often mysterious significance of endured suffering. Much of this is perhaps more the province of ethos than codified ethic, but in conjunction with the efforts of natural reason it issues in distinctive, if contestable, injunctions to behaviour, including those involving the morality of homosexuality, divorce, abortion and euthanasia, as well as broader issues such as capital punishment, racism, and immigration. These injunctions will sometimes overlap with non-Christian or non-religious moral conclusions, sometimes not. None of this should be surprising because we share a common reasoning and emotional nature, and in addition Christian (and Jewish) insights and values have shaped a great deal of Western and Eastern civilisation, just as non-Christian thought has influenced Christian interpretation of its heritage.

As a Catholic, I try, in community with many others, to live in a complex, interpretive relation to those insights, values and mysteries and to the diverse strands that make up multi-coloured Catholic tradition. That tradition, already complex, is still in process of development—after all, the first 2000 years of Christianity may well prove to be its infancy, and the present turbulence within Catholicism a necessary stage of early healthy growth.


[2] See Daniel A. Dombrowski and Robert Deltete A Brief, Liberal Catholic Defense of Abortion (University of Illinois Press, 2007). See also my review essay on the book, “Catholic Identity and the Abortion Debate” in the US journal of the organisation Catholics for Free Choice, Conscience, vol. XXIII, No. 4, (2003).



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3 Comment on this post

  1. As an ex Catholic, I found this interesting but ultimately unconvincing. If the Catholic Church is not consistent over time, it is not what it claims to be. It is not a living sacrament, it is merely a collection of people trying their best (or, sometimes, not) and I see no reason to trust it more than any other collection of mostly well meaning people. When the inconsistencies started seems irrelevant to me – in fact, contending that they started centuries rather than decades ago strengthens the case that the Catholic Church has NEVER been what it says it is, rather than being what it says it is but temporarily embarrassed by problems caused by Vatican 2. (Although I have to say, there is a big difference between changes to the liturgy and changes to moral teaching.)
    I also find doctrines like the incarnation, transubstantiation and the trinity just as illogical as the ban on contraception. In fact, I think I could more easily be persuaded of teleological ethics (and all the weird sex stuff it implies) than that God is three persons but one God and that this totally makes sense. Yet these doctrines get questioned less. This makes me think that people only want to question things they personally fond inconvenient, rather than wanting to be logical.

  2. Curiously, the Catholic Church seems to have declined less than mainstream Protestantism. When Protestants give up on believing the Bible, that’s it. However, Catholics seem to be more flexible. Many are quite happy to reject or ignore some teachings while holding to those beliefs that they agree with. This Smorgasbord Catholicism makes the religion much more flexible than mainstream Protestantism.

  3. Tony, I’m glad you cited evidence of the Church’s progressive beliefs about inclusion of all human beings, even early prenates, into the moral community. It is lost on those who think that the Church cannot and does not change its position about such matters. Anyone aware of history knows the Church can change.

    But what counts as a change? Just people who call themselves Catholic doing and saying stuff? Take the strong growth of the Prosperity Gospel, especially for Catholics in what is sometimes called the global south. They experience wealth as God’s favor, but this explicitly violates Catholic social teaching and tradition. Is it legitimate for them to describe this a work of the Spirit, perhaps coming alive in a lay Church that was dominated by out-of-touch clerics who for centuries stubbornly and ignorantly eschewed the possibility of God working through global capitalism?

    We are also about to have a host of conservative Catholics deny the Pope’s forthcoming teaching on climate change. Probably about half the Catholics in the US will fall into this category. Can they deny the Pope’s teaching on this and claim that this is consistent with their Catholicism?

    Do you have a way to respond to these cases other than to claim that the Pope, bishops, and ecumenical councils have the authority to decide what Catholic teaching is and when a development is necessary? If so, I’d be curious to know what it is, and how it is consistent with “Catholicism” means anything other than the set of all people who identify as Catholic saying and doing whatever they like.

    But if not, why would your judgment apply with regard to climate change and concern for the poor and not the other issues you mention?

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