“Many therefore of his disciples, hearing it, said: This saying is hard, and who can hear it? But Jesus, knowing in himself, that his disciples murmured at this, said to them: Doth this scandalize you? If then you shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before? It is the spirit that quickeneth: the flesh profiteth nothing. The words that I have spoken to you, are spirit and life (…) And he said: Therefore did I say to you, that no man can come to me, unless it be given him by my Father. After this many of his disciples went back; and walked no more with him. Then Jesus said to the twelve: Will you also go away? And Simon Peter answered him: Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.”
— Jo 6:61-69 (DRV)
The Church is experiencing a crisis. Ninety percent of Catholics (at least in developed, First World countries) participate everyday in widespread, practical disobedience against one of its moral teachings: the one concerning artificial birth control, as expressed by Pope Paul VI’s polemical encyclical Humanae Vitae (HV).
The crisis doesn’t stop here, however. In the same time period that took HV to be almost universally rejected, a small remnant of counter-witnesses were building up their case, drinking both from old (the Tradition of the Church) and new sources (St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body).
Unfortunately, many of those who spent years proclaiming faithfulness to one of the Church’s most difficult teachings have, in the last few years, squandered all their credibility by railing against another much hated magisterial document: Amoris Laetitia (AL).
And so, I’ve found myself in the middle of this cacophony of different dissents. Some would affirm AL while decrying HV. The others, would do the opposite. Then some others would dissent from other Church’s teachings, namely on sexual mores, like homosexuality. And those who would subscribe to such teachings, would on the other hand dissent from Catholic Social Doctrine in economical matters.
In short, no consistent witness could be found regarding Church teaching. Outsiders would look puzzled at this and interpret it as the same kind of factionalism we find in any human institution, deprived from supernatural assistance. Why would they join a religion so disjointed, so easily exploited by the ideologies and philosophies of the age?
I, on the other hand, have no difficulty in understanding both HV or AL, both Catholic Social Teaching and Catholic Sexual Teaching. In fact, I find every single one of them to be in complete harmony with the others, so that if one of them falters, the others can’t subsist. I find in them a consistency that seems to me to be lacking among the vast majority of the faithful.
HV is as magisterial as AL, so you can’t downplay the authority of one without undermining the other. It is the equivalent of the cartoonish gag of one sawing the branch one is sitting on.
For years I have tried to point this out to people, to no avail. The crisis just seems to be growing and growing. And it is extremely frustrating for me how other people seem so impervious to the arguments I’m presenting, no matter how clearly I try to explain them.
But, in the middle of this frustration, something happened. Just like it happens when a loud noise suddenly stops, a buzzing started to echo on my head as I was desperately trying to close my ears to this Babel of opposing dissents. This echo metamorphosed into a subtle, sweet, almost imperceptible whisper:
“You were once a dissenter too”
What did I dissent from? From HV? No. From AL? No. From any other polemical teaching of the Church? No, no, no.
I dissented from a teaching that was not polemical at all. A teaching shared by traditionalists and progressives, leftists and rightists, ultramontanists and modernists alike.
In fact, I dissented from an infallible truth more fundamental than any ex cathedra statement, than any Council canon, even than the Nicene Creed.
I dissented from this dogma: That God is love.
Yes, something very wrong happened to my life. I won’t detail it here, but I couldn’t reconcile the existence of a loving God with my life story.
I just couldn’t.
I really wanted to, though.
Because Christianity just crumbles if such a dogma is false.
However, whenever someone tried to explain it to me, I couldn’t contain the burst of wrath coming from within. I just had to retort. They were misunderstanding me. They actually didn’t comprehend my actual objections. That frustrated me. It made me angry. At the same time, what they said accused me, and rightfully so. Which just angered me even more. How could it be that they were right and wrong, spot on and off the mark at the same time in the arguments they used? To this day, I still don’t know… human beings are paradoxes indeed.
Those apologist friends were attacking things that were precious to me. I had turned them into idols. They needed to come down. I had much to lose if I accepted their premises. But if I didn’t, I could not be consistent. I could not stand in judgment without defending myself and at the same time I could not defend myself without severely hindering the theoretical bases of my faith. A conundrum. This angered me more and more.
This was extremely ironic, because some years prior, I had rediscovered my faith. Not in the automatic, “cradle” way I had practiced it (or rather, not practiced it) during my childhood and teen years. I actually discovered the fullness of doctrine. I couldn’t wait to share it with others. I was being quite successful, until I came across a very thoughtful atheist who asked me to explain how to reconcile God’s existence with human suffering.
I gave him a lecture of convoluted theoretical arguments based mostly on theodicy. After many months of back-and-forths, he replied to me with a TED talk from an Anglican priest, talking about the reason why God would’ve sent hurricane Katrina to destroy New Orleans. And the talk was mostly the priest saying: “I don’t know.” The atheist told me he found the video satisfying, while my theologically sophisticated arguments didn’t move him one inch.
That annoyed me to no end. How could he say “I don’t know” was a satisfying answer, while shunning all of my carefully crafted logical syllogisms and deductions? What a waste of brain cells!
Of course, that didn’t frustrate me more than finding myself, some years later, on the same place that same atheist was before. I couldn’t reconcile God’s existence with human suffering. My suffering. Fascinatingly (or maybe not,) theodicy is not as convincing when it applies to us and not to some abstract humans existing only on the realm of theoretical speculation.
Fortunately, all of that is over now. I now can see plainly and clearly that God is love. I do not doubt it anymore. But what changed? Did I find an all-explanatory, satisfying, intellectual argument?
No. As I told you, those arguments, right or wrong, did nothing but harden my heart. Don’t get me wrong, they were important. Slowly, but assuredly (for they were repeated several times in different ways), they gradually seeped into the cracks of this hard shell I had built around my idols and my grief. They were not decisive, however.
What made the difference were the people who patiently endured all those years of struggling on my end… and the fact that, by the end, I found some other people who manifested God’s love to me through themselves, namely my girlfriend. People who understood me, or at least tried to. People who didn’t judge me, but actually tried their best to help me. People who didn’t give up on me when they found I didn’t correspond to a perfect ideal of what a Christian should believe.
Why do I bring this up? Because I see myself in these dissenters. Their attitudes, their dismissiveness, and their aggressiveness perfectly mirrored my own at that time.
When I remember it, I then understand that I should not be so disturbed if they seem deaf to my carefully constructed arguments. It is part of the process. In fact, it may even be a good sign (not always of course, but it can,) for only someone who loves the Church will struggle with its teachings, otherwise he would just ignore it.
Not every dissenter is the same, mind you. Some dissent out of pride, for they think they know better than the Church. Others dissent, while imperfectly trying to obey the Church the best they can, even the teachings they don’t understand. Others still dissent because of a severe wound that doesn’t seem to allow them to act differently (at least that’s what they think.) Some try to find excuses not to obey, others desperately search for reasons to obey, while finding all apologetics lacking.
Sometimes it’s not just a matter of intellectual dissonance, but of something more deep, existential, concrete, on the level of the appetites, the will or the life story. These can become stumbling blocks which create dissonance between what one believes and what one perceives as real. This darkens the intellect, making it unreceptive to reasoning, even if that reasoning is logically flawless.
What should we do during those Dark Nights of the Intellect (if not of the Soul)? Every such night is different for each person, but I think my 7-year experience in such a twilight allows me to share some of tips.
First of all, even during my darkest periods, I never came out and expressed my dissent in public. Sure, I shared it in private with people I trusted, but I never disclosed it on social media or other avenues. In fact, I continued my apologetic activity unhindered, so that most would be surprised to know my faith was dwindling so hard. When I found a discussion about the things causing my crisis of faith, I stayed put. If I thought I could learn with those discussions, I would read them carefully and thoughtfully… but if I sensed an urge to blow my cover and say my piece instead of holding my peace, I would just stay clear from them.
Unfortunately, that’s not the attitude I find in most people who dissent from some teaching or the other. They actively seek such discussions and say their opinion out loud. This, again, can be caused by a good movement of the soul. Seeking these discussions is an image of their soul seeking for answers. However, this can be counterproductive, especially if said person then goes on to another different thread to defend another bit of Church doctrine, providing a confusing (and potentially scandalous) testimony to outsiders.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying this to accuse you or anyone. I’m not saying “I behaved like this when I was in crisis, so you must too.” No. If you can’t help it and must voice your disagreements with the Church out loud, I won’t judge you. I know how hard it is to have the blood boiling, your mind itching to say something on the matter. (I will, however, try to refute you, sometimes harshly, calling a spade a spade, so as to avoid dissenting arguments to spread out and aggravate the crisis inside my dear Church.)
Who am I to judge them, if I dissented from something more important than Communion to divorced and remarried or artificial contraception, abortion, or immigration, or whatnot?
In this regard, it’s interesting that I do not revolt against God anymore for having experienced such violent doubts. My darkest periods shine over my path, illuminating facets of reality I didn’t understand at a time I thought theology allowed me to understand all reality. If I didn’t experience such crises, I would forever be confined to the comfortably intellectual bubble I had built around myself, and be deficient in understanding others, namely those who dissent. It taught me humility, so I can now try to write articles such as this, instead of focusing only on apologetics, reaching out to them as my brothers and sisters in need of help rather than debate adversaries to be crushed in the name of my faction’s victory (even if my faction is the one in communion with the Pope.)
So, I would suggest to my readers, if they are experiencing some kind of dissent, all the while believing passionately in another aspects of Church teaching, so that you want to defend Pope Francis or his predecessors against dissenters… to use this situation to gain new insights and grow spiritually. I know it’s hard, for it forces us to completely invert our way of looking at things.
But instead of railing against those dissenters “over there”, try to remember “I’m a dissenter too.” Everyone has struggles with some aspect of Church teaching, sometimes even those less politically heavy and more practical, like forgiving your enemies or being kind to jerks or something like that. So, instead of finding arguments to say “I’m different than the dissenters who dissent from the things I agree because X, Y or Z reasons,” try to think something different, like “I can empathize with what those guys are feeling, I do it too when it comes to my own disagreements.”
You may even be right and they wrong. I won’t dispute that for now. That’s not the issue here. We’re talking about empathy. You can (and should) have empathy with everyone, even those who are wrong. You can understand them without agreeing with them. And that will probably be conducive to a more convincing attitude and demeanor on your part, which will make your evangelization more effective than just dissenting publicly in some things and defending Church authority in others.
This would be a remedy against one of the main reasons of this Church crisis today: the polarization, the factionalism, the judgmentalism against those who don’t agree with me coupled excusing everything from those who do agree.
In this regard, I would like to suggest to any person reading this, whether pro or against Pope Francis, whether pro or against AL or HV or whatever, that you would just take some time to make a prayer for Church unity and all your Catholic brothers/sisters. And when I ask for prayers for Church unity, I’m not saying a prayer for “my side to win.” No. I mean prayers for the salvation of every soul inside the Church, so that we may help each other overcome the imperfections present in all of us. If you don’t find the words, or the strength to utter them, just pray an Our Father, with an emphasis on “Thy will be done.”
By doing so, we would be united again, as Church, as one indivisible Body. United in prayer, even if disunited intellectually or politically or theologically or in any other way. We would be really brothers and sisters, united by something fundamental and invisible, like sojourners in different parts of the hemisphere (some in a jungle, some in a tundra,) but all trying to find the same North Star, even if the sky is clear for some and cloudy for others. The impulse that drives us together to find such North Star and which makes us a brotherhood on this journey is the same, though. And that should give peace to our troubled hearts and fill us with love… in other words, actually make us a Church.
I would like to conclude with a final appeal not to scandalously voice your dissent out loud, or live out your dissent, but rather try obeying the Church, even if you don’t understand why. This is not blind obedience. There is wisdom in this humble realization on the limitations of one’s own intellect.
I am certain that such obedience won’t go unrewarded. And I don’t even mean that you will have to wait for the Last Judgment to be vindicated. The answer to your obedience may be delayed. Delayed by years. Delayed by decades. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It will be hard. You will despair at times. Sometimes, you will feel your faith hanging on a thread. Sometimes you will even feel like it was completely gone.
But I assure you, the answer will come… just like mine did. It took seven years, but I’m at peace now and God has rewarded me for my impatient patience.
I know, I know. “Yeah, yeah, good for you, but what about me?” At least, that’s what I would say.
Unfortunately, I don’t have answers for you. Sorry if you thought I would give you something definitive. I mean, you may browse my articles, both past and future, to find rational reasons why some teaching is such and such. However, if you remain unconvinced, there’s nothing more I can tell you, besides “I don’t know.”
And it’s a good answer, even if you find it frustrating. We are finite, there are many things we don’t know. Modern-day society and science have spoiled us to be point where we feel like we have a duty, or a right, to know everything and have an opinion about everything. Not so. It is good for us and our humility to acknowledge we don’t know. We are not Gnostics, saved by our knowledge… we are Christians, and are saved through the grace and mercy of an All-Knowing God, Who asks us to never lose a sense of mystery and awe, lest we fall into spiritual or intellectual pride.
In the meantime, as you don’t get the answers you’re searching for, don’t lose hope. Don’t let despair overtake you. Take a breather, have patience with yourself and with God. And keep trying and falling and trying and falling and trying and falling… that’s what being a Christian is all about.
As for me, you can rest assured I don’t judge you. For I was once a dissenter too. And I think this can serve of consolation for some, even if it will not take all the pain away.
I would like to conclude with a song from the animated movie “Joseph, King of Dreams” that has really helped me get by, for sometimes music is able to soothe the troubled heart unconvinced by words.
[Photo credit: “Wanderer above the Sea of Mist”, Caspar Friedrich, 1818]
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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.