In the recent weeks, there has been some debate at Where Peter Is (among the contributors, in the comments, and on social media) about the similarities and differences between dissent on the so-called right and left wings of the Church. Mike Lewis published an article last week arguing that right-wing dissent is “uniquely dangerous” since “the typical reasons and justifications for dissent on opposite ends of the spectrum are usually very different in nature.” He explained:
“On the right, dissenters often advertise themselves as ‘orthodox’ Catholics who uphold the ‘perennial magisterium.’ Many seem to think they have personal ownership of the Magisterium and Catholic tradition—over and above the pope himself. This ideology has been embraced by numerous prominent Catholics who insist that they are in conformity with authentic Church teaching. When they disagree with the pope, that simply means the pope is a dissident.”
Then on Sunday, we published another article highlighting a response from a reader, who described his personal experience with the destructiveness of left-wing dissent when he was a catechumen and a new Catholic. He described how the Catholic leaders he encountered appropriated the so-called “Spirit of Vatican II” to advance an ideological agenda that did not align with in the actual documents of the Council.
Both articles made very valid points that deserve serious reflection. I would like to complement both pieces by taking a step back. There is an important Church teaching that apologists—including myself—sometimes overlook in their zeal to reflexively defend the Church:
“Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 86).
In other words, the truths of the faith do not originate from the Church, but Christ. The pope guides and teaches the Church as the Vicar of Christ. He exercises a ministry and an office established by Christ, and his authority comes from Christ. Likewise, when he is exercising his ministry as Supreme Pontiff, his authority on matters of faith and morals cannot be bisected from the authority of Christ.
When so-called conservative dissenters usurp the Magisterial authority of the pope to teach their own version of orthodoxy, they are not simply supplanting the authority of Peter, but that of Christ. As Pope Pius XII taught:
“They, therefore, walk in the path of dangerous error who believe that they can accept Christ as the Head of the Church, while not adhering loyally to His Vicar on earth” (Mystici Corporis Christi, 64).
Many radical traditionalists do this explicitly. For example, regarding the orthodoxy of Amoris Laetitia, many have asserted, “I follow Christ, not the pope,” and insisted the exhortation contradicts the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:32.
Dissenters on the progressive side, however, often make the same error. They typically will not claim to be orthodox while the Church is in error. This is a mere accident, because “orthodoxy” usually does not appear in their lexicon. But if we consider that the Church teaches that orthodoxy is adhering to the teachings of Christ (and not the pope), the similarities become more evident.
Certainly, we’ve all heard more liberal Catholics say things like, “The Church’s teachings on sexuality are not what Jesus taught. Jesus was loving, kind, inclusive, and tolerant. Catholic doctrine is hateful and bigoted. Jesus would never teach what the Church teaches.”
On both sides of the spectrum, we see a claim of privileged access to Christ’s mind, detached from any ecclesial authority. Remarkably, this vision of Christ always agrees with the person’s opinions, values, and priorities (which typically aligns with the views of that person’s political party or ideology as well). In such cases, the dissenter must wrestle the Church away from the Magisterium, seeking to conform it to their personal vision of Christ.
This is dangerous, regardless of your ideological inclinations. When we separate Christ from the Magisterium, we usually end up with a Christ who never challenges us to change the things we don’t feel like changing. Conversion becomes impossible when we choose to conform Christ to our image. We then use Jesus as a bludgeon for beating an external enemy—those guys on the other side of the aisle who do not think as we do, or (even worse) who want to reform the Church in the opposite direction.
While some nuances distinguish left and right-wing dissent, the interplay between the two creates a diabolical trap.
Liberal dissent is typically more palatable to our secular, post-Christian culture. It also fails to present the challenge that conversion requires. Dissenters on the left might suggest that the Church is wrong for being out-of-touch—but don’t worry; just hang in there, the Church will catch up sooner or later. There’s no need to radically transform your heart and overcome temptation because eventually the Church will change and validate you.
On the other hand, dissent on the right exploits liberal dissent and confuses Catholics who strive to remain faithful to the Church’s hardest teachings—those who should be “the salt of the earth.” Catholics who dissent on the right become counter-witnesses, by alienating lukewarm and struggling Catholics and frightening those in our secularized culture away from the Church. This conservative dissent also tricks faithful and well-meaning Catholics into falling in the same trap as the liberals, under the guise of being faithful to Christ.
For the Church, this fatal combination between dissent on the left and right is worse than any either of them in isolation.
When we look at this on the individual level—through the story of each person’s soul—we will discover that different kinds of dissent affect everyone differently. Fortunately, there are different charisms and multiple ways to respond. Some Catholics may be called to address one kind of dissent more forcefully than another, and this is fine. But all such efforts will fail without recognizing that a holistic approach to the problem is needed. Because, in the end, all opposition to the Church stems from the same core.
Ultimately, the antidote to all dissent is docility to the Church and her teachings. One cannot fully know what Jesus teaches apart from the Church. If a Catholic thinks the Church’s Magisterial teaching counters the message of Jesus, then they should be invited to grow in humility and obedience, those forgotten virtues in today’s Church, which were exhibited by all the saints. We must not take our faithfulness for granted; Christ might be challenging us to change our deeply ingrained assumptions and thought processes. Sometimes we must discern whether some of the beliefs we hold are not truthful, or even whether we have disordered attachments to traditions and values, and turned them into idols.
So what is the most dangerous type of dissent in the Church today? Perhaps we Catholics should reflect on our own lives and admit, “The worst kind of dissent is my own.”
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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.