The American Catholic Council, a dissident group calling for all the usual revisions of Catholic doctrine (moral approval of homosexual behavior, the ordination of women, etc.), has slated a meeting for next summer, around Pentecost. Father Hans Kung, one of the most notorious dissenters of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, has been invited; all of this happening in the wake of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, one of the two major associations of Catholic consecrated sisters in the United States, openly lending its support to the egregiously pro-choice health care bill recently pushed through Congress (without being read), in defiance of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. And these are just the latest events in what amounts to a low-level mutiny inside the Catholic Church in this country for the past three or four decades -- ever since the opening move was made when American theologians took it upon themselves to reject the papal reiteration of Catholic Christian beliefs about birth control in the encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae.
"Dissent," the polite word for what used to be called "heresy," is rampant among both the rank and file and even some of the theologians, religious, and clergy of American Catholicism. Encouragingly, it is declining -- particularly among younger Catholics, both priests and laity. The real riches of the Catholic faith, maintained by the Church as a whole and especially by Venerable John Paul II and our current Holy Father, Benedict XVI, are being rediscovered: Latin is again in vogue, new ministries like FOCUS are skyrocketing, and ancient devotions like the Rosary and the spirituality of the Sacred Heart of Jesus are being revisited by young Catholics hungry for spiritual bread. But the era of dissent, while much more popular among previous generations than our own, is not over; and catechesis is, in some places, still so bad that many young Catholics who want to be faithful do not know how -- or worse, have only a latent desire to be faithful, because they are not aware that it is a live option. (I know a young woman, a paragon of Christian spirituality and an exemplar of our generation of Catholics, whose home parish was so pastorally lacking that she did not even know, until she reached college, that Catholics taught and believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.)
So why is dissent so dangerous? Is it because the Catholic Church needs to maintain her power? To that there is hardly any adequate answer except, "What power?" The Catholic Church has no armies, no masses of wealth (though people persistently assume that the Church is exceedingly wealthy), and in most places no extraordinary legal advantages -- indeed, in many places it is not even a legally legitimate entity: mainland China, for instance. It doesn't even have frozen alien skulls lining the walls of the Vatican Secret Archives, unless Fr. Malachi Martin is correct (because if there were no alien skulls, why would it be secret? Huh?).
Is it because the Magisterium, the teaching office of the Church, cannot bear dialogue? Well, that depends on what one means by "dialogue." The protesters in the Midwest (Minnesota, I think) who were recently refused Communion on the grounds that they were wearing rainbow buttons in open protest of the Church's teaching on sexual morality, thus turning the holy Mass into a political spectacle, claimed that the Church was unwilling to dialogue. If by that they meant "unwilling to contradict what the Church has maintained for her twenty centuries of existence," then certainly that is true. But what sort of dialogue are they, or anybody, really asking for? The Church has been proclaiming her teaching, being argued against and arguing back, setting forth a defense for the hope that she has, for millennia. If that does not constitute dialogue I am not clear what will satisfy the requirement.
For of course, the real reason that the Church's teaching offends and estranges the World is that the fashion of this world passes away, growing old like a garment; while the Church is founded upon a Rock. G. K. Chesterton pointed out, quite truly, in his last book (The Well and the Shallows) that a hundred years from now the Church will, to the eyes of those outside, look completely different than she does to the eyes of those now outside her -- she will look different because she will be the same.
Or why do people try so hard to loathe, defy, and smear the Pope? His reception in Great Britain was a good example: a sizable protest took place, labeling him a closet Nazi and holding him personally responsible for the abuse scandal, despite the fact that he was (and, to the extent that it is an issue, remains) an opponent of Nazism, and has actually done a great deal -- more, perhaps, than any single member of the Curia -- to improve the handling of abuse cases. By the end of his visit there seemed, thankfully, to be a general softening of the public perception of Pope Benedict in the U.K.; whether because of his sweet and gentle demeanor, or his cordial interactions with the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, or the beatification of Bl. John Henry Newman, or the delighted English Catholics turning out in love and support, or his courteous reception by the Queen herself. But even so some people try to maintain an image of him as an outworn, heavy-handed theological tyrant.
I suspect it is something like this. Blessed Cardinal Newman once referred to the human conscience as "the aboriginal Vicar of Christ." That, of course, is one of the titles of St. Peter's successor. Now, the role of conscience -- so often touted by dissidents as what they are obeying, in contrast to the dried-out dogmatics of the Church -- is to discern right from wrong, and Catholics believe that its pressure upon the will to do what is right ought always to be obeyed. Human beings, especially left to ourselves, can err about the content of right and wrong, but the pursuit of right and rejection of wrong, to the best of our knowledge and ability, are universal and absolute obligations.
The Catholic Church claims for herself in general, and for the Vicar of Christ in particular, infallibility. Not, that is, total freedom from error of any kind on questions of any kind; but possession of the unadulterated truth, and authority to proclaim it, on questions of Christian doctrine and human morals. But this is for teaching, for the formation of conscience; it does not create the conscience. That is built in. It may be misled, but it instinctively recognizes the truth, and St. Paul warns that it may easily become our accuser. We know when we have done something wrong, or for the wrong reason, deep down. And when the Church expounds the revelation entrusted to her, the World is made angry, not because it disagrees, but because there is a little, squirming bit of it that does agree -- and that really is an inconvenient truth. For if we were to actually attempt what the Church teaches us, well -- that would be like taking up our cross daily and following Jesus. And everybody loves Jesus until it starts to cost something. Pilate liked Him until it cost something.
If conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ, then the Vicar of Christ is the human conscience manifest. That is why he is loved and hated.
And that is why fidelity to the Church is so vital. Not only because it is our duty, as Catholics and indeed as human beings, to believe what we say we believe -- when we recite the Creed, when we renew our baptismal vows every Easter, when we receive our God. Not only because Christianity is, in fact, true. But because, in the deep recesses of our hearts, in the inner sanctum more pierced by the knowledge of the Holy Spirit than by our own knowledge, we recognize the truth. And if we try to reject it, we will be miserable because we are trying to reject both God and ourselves. As Ven. John Paul II never tired of saying, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ is not only the revelation of God to man, but the revelation of man to himself.