The Voices of Catholic Dissent 



by Adele-Marie Stan

This piece originally appeared in The Nation, January 9, 1988.

There once was a time when it would have been unthinkable for a Roman Catholic to picket the Pope, a time when public disagreement with the Supreme Pontiff of the church constituted a reprehensible heresy in the eyes of most Catholics. Today the heretics are are everywhere, in the highest reaches of Catholic and secular academia, in the leadership of religious orders and even among the churchgoing laity in parishes throughout the country.

The Catholic Church's most vocal internal critics, those who openly challenge the exclusion of women from the hierarchy and the church's ban on the practice of birth control and abortion, compose what the media call the dissent movement. Their Christian values, say its members, compel them to challenge the injustices committed by the church. Some are hailing it as the second Reformation. Others yearn for the good old days, when it was oh, so clear what it meant to be Catholic. But welcome or not, the dissent movement has entered its second decade.

At the time of Pope John Paul II's first papal visit to the United States, in 1979, the U.S. Catholic dissent movement was little more than a small pocket of disgruntled, vocal Catholics--the few feminist nuns and laywomen who convened for the first Women's Ordination Conference in 1974, and a smattering of priests and former priests who had been radicalized in the 1960s.

But when, in the course of that first visit, a nun chosen to address the Pope issued a plea for equality in the church, the dissent movement became more than a mere annoyance. In 1979, Sister Theresa Kane was president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and president of the Sisters of Mercy, one of the largest orders of nuns in the United States. Kane challenged John Paul to give women access to "all ministries in the church," called upon Mary, the Blessed Mother, to be His Holiness's "sources of inspiration, courage and hope," and then spontaneously knelt before the Pope to receive his blessing. Her performance was carried live by television stations throughout the nation, and Sister Theresa became the dissent movement's first heroine.

Kane received no punishment from the Vatican for her actions, but that was eight years ago. Things are different now. In 1984, twenty-four nuns who signed a newspaper advertisement that called for a dialogue in the church on the subject of abortion were threatened with expulsion from their orders--meaning the loss of vocation, job, home and chosen family if they did not recant. (All but two of the sisters have had their cases closed by the Holy See.)

In 1986, Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle was stripped of most of his powers as administrator of his archdiocese because of his ministry to gays and lesbians, and because of charges that he had allowed non-Catholics to receive communion. (Hunthausen is also an outspoken anti-nuclear activist and a tax resister. After publicly humiliating the Archbishop by its censure, the Vatican restored his full powers last summer.) Later in 1986, Father Charles Curran, a theologian at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., was forbidden to teach Catholic theology there because of his liberal views on issues of human sexuality, especially his contention that abortion is sometimes a moral choice. (Curran's appeal is under review within the university, and he has initiated an academic freedom suit against the institution.)

The most vocal Catholic dissidents--the ones who grab the headlines--are a rather small group. But the opinions they express often reflect those of the majority of U.S. Catholics: A 1985 New York Times/CBS poll showed that 79 percent of U.S. Catholics believe that one can disagree with the Pope and still be a "good Catholic."

"It does not take a majority of people to bring about change," Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, explains in Annie Lally Millhaven's recent book, The Inside Stories: 13 Valiant Women Challenging the Church. "It takes a minority of people acting with the acquiescence or even quiet support of the majority." The real dissent movement is not confined to that minority; it is much larger than the one presented by the media. As I see it, the movement in the United States comes in three parts:

First, there is the noisy revolution, made up of people like Kissling, who found their political legs in the civil rights struggle, the antiwar protests and the secular women's movement. Many of the nuns involved in this part of the movement learned about politics in the post-Vatican II "renewal" of their religious orders, as well, a time when many orders radically changed their internal structure from hierarchical to democratic. But whether nuns or not, the majority here are outspoken feminists who have taken on the church for its traditional oppression of women, particularly its rejection of reproductive freedom and its refusal to ordain women despite the fact that many other Christian churches do. But they are not looking merely to win a place in the hierarchy; they seek a "transformed church," where, as has happened in the convents, the hierarchical model is replaced by a more participatory one. These are the people who have taken their fight to the news cameras, with their vigils and protest actions, their newspaper ads and television appearances.

The women-church movement, a loose network of Catholic feminists, forms the key component of this nosy revolution. "Women-church," a name coined by theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, refers to women who create and participate in tehir own bread-breaking and wine-sharing liturgies, who advance the feminist cause in their theological and historical research, and who advocate ecumenical rituals with women of other faiths.

"I don't even go to regular church anymore," one nun said. "I just go to women-church."

"You see, we say the church has left us," Mary Hunt, theologian and coordinator of the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual (WATER), told me two years ago. "The whole point of the women-church movement is to say that women as women cannot be full religious agents in the patriarchal church and, therefore, the only way we can be church is to be women-church."

Catholic gay groups have joined the noisy revolution in recent years. While gay and lesbian issues have long been part of the women-church agenda, groups like Dignity and New Ways Ministries once focused their efforts mostly on ministering to lesbian and gay flocks. /But since many bishops, in the wake of Vatican action against liberal colleagues like Hunthausen, have barred groups like Dignity from using church facilities for their meetings and worship services, the protests of homosexual Catholics have become increasingly dramatic. (Several weeks ago, Dignity members who refused to sit during a Mass in New York City's St. Patrick's Cathedral were arrested.)

Dissent, however, belongs not only to the noisy ones. /the rapidly growing second element of the movement is posing its own threat t the near omnipotence of the hierarchy. These are practicing Catholics who still belong to neighborhood parishes but who also put their disagreement with the Pope into practice in their churches by allowing women to grace the altar and altering the Vatican's prescribed liturgy. And in their homes, as well, they defy the Pontiff: The shrinking size of the American Catholic family is testament to the flock's disregard for Humanae Vitae, the papal instruction forbidding the use of "artificial" birth control issued by Pope Paul VI in 1968, a teaching frequently repeated by John Paul II.

Then there's the problem of the empty confessional. U.S. Catholics have long been ignoring the sacrament of penance as an antiquated rite and an invasion of privacy. This sits none too well with the Holy Father, who in the text of his address to U.S. bishops in Los Angeles this past fall warned Catholics who had not been to confession recently to think twice before lining up for communion, the central rite of the Mass, on Sunday. Confession-skipping illustrates the problem of what Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati calls "grocery-store Catholics," those who think they have the right to pick and choose what doctrines they will and will not accept.

Indeed, there is a kind of quiet anarchism in the U.S. church. Entire parishes are defying papal edicts by allowing girls to serve at the altar in the same way boys have for centuries, and some have even allowed women to preach an occasional homily, the sermon that precedes the rite of communion. Most priests, overworked due to a lack of priestly brethren, prefer to grant a general absolution to their congregation s during the Mass rather than hear the individual confessions of each churchgoer. At the 1983 synod of bishops in Rome, John Paul presented an instruction that called for the use of general absolution only in emergencies, but the instruction has been largely disregarded in the United States.

In some archdiocese, women have been elected to offices traditionally held by men. In the Archdiocese of Detroit, Ann Flaherty, a divorced woman who earned a master's degree in divinity from a Catholic seminary, was elected to the vicariate, an office that serves as a liaison between priests and their archbishop. Two years later, Flaherty's election is still not recognized by Archbishop Edmund Szoka, who has forbidden Flaherty to attend the vicars' monthly meetings.

The third segment of the dissent movement is one that i soften not even figured into the equation--the millions of "lapsed" Catholics who have simply stopped going to church but refuse to renounce their membership.

Combined, the three segments of the dissent movement encompass a great number of U.S. Catholics, and the strength of their numbers raises the question, To whom does the Church belong? To the hierarchy, or to the people of God?

Next: JPII: Setting the Record Straight 1, 2


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