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Dissent is also a Catholic tradition


Several years ago a Dominican friend gave me a contemporary icon of St. Catherine of Siena.

The icon, by artist Robert Lentz, depicts Catherine weighed down by a ship she carries on her shoulders. The image represents a mystical event that occurred toward the end of Catherine’s short life of 33 years: While praying one day outside St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Catherine had a vision that the barque of Peter, depicted in a mosaic above the façade of the old basilica, came off the building and landed with an oppressive, almost suffocating weight, on her frail shoulders.

A contemporary psychologist interpreting the experience in the light of Catherine’s life would probably say that her vision was a reflection of what was going on around her. In a way, the church’s deadening heaviness was literally killing Catherine, who had spent her entire life working and praying for its unity and reform -- at the time, it seemed to her, totally unsuccessfully.

Almost 600 years later, in 1970, Catherine was honored as the second female doctor of the church, and the title is not without significance: In some ways, she was physician to the church of her day and its leadership, diagnosing their ills and prescribing remedies, often with a less than gentle “bedside manner.” The young upstart ragazza from Siena displayed no hesitancy in telling the pope in no uncertain terms what she believed God wanted him to do, whether it was returning the papacy to Rome from Avignon or ordering moral reform. While she prayed and did penance for the pope and lovingly referred to him as “Sweet Christ on Earth” for the exalted office he held, she also didn’t mince words: “Get up now, act manfully! God wills it!” And when she learned firsthand that cardinals’ mistresses were cavorting in the halls and bedrooms of the papal court, she wrote a blistering letter blasting the pontiff for his weakness. “The stench from the sins of the Roman curia” was making the world retch and sickening heaven too, she wrote, and he was responsible.

Catherine is a prime example that one can love the church, be a faithful lay Catholic -- she was a Dominican tertiary, or third order member, not a nun -- and at the same time challenge the institution and its leadership when they are wrong.

In Catherine’s time, dissent from the institutional church carried a heavy price tag; it often meant facing the Inquisition, or worse. Today, the measures against “dissenters” may be less severe (we haven’t dragged the rack out of storage yet), but some church leaders seem to need to label and punish anyone urging church reform.

A case in point is Voice of the Faithful, the new grassroots group of lay Catholics calling on the U.S. church to reform itself. These are not wild-eyed radicals bent on overthrowing the institution, but for the most part committed Catholics who care about their church and are urging transparency and openness, and an end to sex-abuse cover-ups. The group -- which is carefully distancing itself from other agendas, whether women’s ordination or married priests -- has been banned from meeting on church property in some dioceses. In a recent issue of his diocesan newspaper, Archbishop John Myers of Newark, N.J., called Voice of the Faithful “anti-church and, ultimately, anti-Catholic.” His letter went on to say that “through its words and deeds, we believe that this organization has as its purposes: to act as a cover for dissent with the faith; to cause division within the church; and to openly attack church hierarchy” (NCR, Oct. 25).

The knee-jerk vehemence of some bishops’ actions makes one wonder what they’re so afraid of. It would seem that for Voice of the Faithful, still in its infancy, the wisest approach, even if they feel threatened, would be to follow the Gamaliel principle. Gamaliel was the Pharisee, recorded in Acts 5, who urged the Jewish council to take a wait-and-see attitude with this new rabble-rousing group of Christians. After all, said the wise rabbi, “if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them -- and in that case you may even find yourselves fighting against God!”

Right now, the U.S. church needs pastors with Gamaliel’s wisdom and members with Catherine’s faithful dissent. As in every century, God has made sure there is no lack of both. But we need to hear their voices. The crushing heft of a beloved but unhealthy church weighs heavy on all our shoulders.

Pat Morrison is NCR managing editor.

National Catholic Reporter, November 01, 2002