The Permissibility (or Not) of Dissent

This is my response to Kelly Wilson ( in a discussion he and I have been having regarding the permissibility of dissent, specifically in regard to the issue of birth control. Since the post to which I am responding seems to have been taken down, I am including Kelly’s latest comment, to which I am responding here, at the bottom. Here’s my response:


In response to my first question, apparently you do believe that dissent from the teaching of Lumen gentium is permissible.

With regard to my second question, you did not provide any magisterial statement which says specifically that direct, knowing disobedience to express, longstanding papal teaching is permissible.

You did give a Theological Commmission’s reply to an emendation to Lumen gentium proposed by three bishops at Vatican II. But this is not a magisterial statement (not that you said it was), since for one thing it teaches nothing nor defines any doctrine, but only describes sources that are to be consulted. In fact it was not even a public pronouncement.

Also let’s not overlook the fact that the emendation — which if I’m reading you correctly, proposed to include in Lumen gentium a statement that dissent for ‘well founded reasons’ was permissible — was rejected, since it does not appear in Lumen gentium. Therefore we have an absence of magisterial statements giving specific permission to disobey papal teaching, and also a specific rejection of such a statement when one was proposed at Vatican II.

At any rate, from one of those “approved treatises” you glean a quote from Lercher in which he says that “it is not unthinkable that the error (on part of the Church) should be excluded by the Holy Spirit in this way: that the subjects [of the Church] recognize the decree to be erroneous and cease to give their assent to it.”

Unfortunately we don’t seem to have the quote in context, since I only found it online in Curran, and you found it in Sullivan. But we have to work with what we have, so why not take a look at it and see what it says, and what it doesn’t say.

It says that it’s possible, theoretically, that God could correct error on the part of the Church, by having the people recognize a “decree” (is this the same as a “teaching” or a “definition”? or could it be more like an instruction or a direction? the context might tell us) to be wrong and refuse their assent. I say “theoretically” because of the way it’s phrased: It says “it’s not unthinkable”, which is very tentative, like saying “it’s barely possible” or “in theory it could happen” — as opposed to saying “it’s likely”, or “it’s happened several times”.

Let us also note that it’s a statement about what the *Holy Spirit* could do: he *could* correct error by having Catholics recognize a decree as erroneous. It is not a statement of what Catholics *may* do: it does not give any specific permission.

You apparently extrapolate from this quote — based on the fact that the treatise in which it appeared was an approved treatise, and that the Theological Commission of Vatican II directed the bishops to consult such treatises — that the Church permits the laity to dissent from non-infallible magisterial teaching. But given that the quote gives no specific permission, and that Lumen gentium itself expressly states that the laity are required to submit internally to noninfallible papal teaching, this is a very tenuous extrapolation.

But suppose it does give the laity some kind of permission. How then does it work in practice? Does it mean that Catholics are supposed to take it upon themselves to judge every non-infallible teaching handed down by the Magisterium, as to whether or not it’s correct, and decide for themselves whether or not to obey it? But if a significant number of them end up rejecting and disobeying it, who is competent to judge that this was due to the influence of the Holy Spirit rather than, say, some other spirit? The laity, or the Magisterium?

Also, for the laity’s rejection of a magisterial teaching to be judged a movement of the Holy Spirit, does it have to be an immediate rejection, or can they assent to it for 1,000 years and then finally begin refusing assent? But if that happened, how would we know which was due to the Holy Spirit’s inspiration: the former assent or the current dissent?

And again, how many of the laity have to reject a magisterial teaching for their rejection to be considered an expression of God’s will: Is 51% sufficient? But how do we know what proportion is dissenting? Do we take a vote? In that case shouldn’t it become the Church’s usual practice to have the laity vote, thumbs up or thumbs down, on every magisterial document?

I conclude that you are pitting a non-magisterial statement which is apparently theoretical in nature, and which in any case is vague as to how it would work in practice and who would judge whether it has taken place, and which gives no permission nor direction to the laity to act in any way to bring it about; against the specific teaching of an ecumenical council — that is, the teaching of the actual Lumen gentium which was ratified by the Council and the Pope, not a theoretical Lumen gentium which might have included something supportive of your position if only the Council had not rejected it — that internal submission of mind and will is required. Do you argue that the former trumps the latter?

Finally, your position creates quite an irony, in my view: You say that the magisterial teaching on birth control is open to dissent since it’s non-infallible. But the teaching on the permissibility of dissent (assuming for the sake of argument that such a teaching exists) is less clearly defined, if it’s defined at all, than the prohibition of contraception. Therefore if the prohibition of contraception is open to dissent, surely the permissibility of dissent is open to dissent.

But what would it mean to dissent from the permissibility of dissent? A person inclined to rebel in that manner would find himself undermining his own dissent, since he would have to deny that it is permissible to dissent, yet in doing so would be dissenting!

I ask you to consider that a position which results in such an absurdity simply has to be wrong.


Kelly’s comment to which I am responding follows:

[quoting me]

“-Do Catholics have the right to dissent from the teaching of Vatican II which says, “This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will”? (Lumen Gentium, 25.)

“-What magisterial statements say specifically that direct, knowing disobedience to longstanding papal teaching is specifically permissible, notwithstanding that Lumen Gentium specifically says that submission is required?”

These two questions are connected: While no Vatican II document mentions
the possibility of dissent, with regards to the exact paragraph of Lumen
gentium that you cited, something very relevant can be discerned from
the Theological Commission’s reply to an emendation proposed by three
bishops who “invoke a particular case, which is at least theoretically
possible, in which a certain learned person, in the face of doctrine
that has not been infallibly proposed, cannot, for well founded reasons,
give his internal assent.” The response given is that the approved
theological treatises should be consulted. Lercher would be one of those
sources, and I have already recorded what he said. I distinctly remember
you being more entertained by Lercher being referenced in Curran, than
with what he said. I took him from Sullivan, whose works “Magisterium”
and “Creative Fidelity” I would strongly recommend, which I will attempt
to reread over the summer.

5 thoughts on “The Permissibility (or Not) of Dissent

  1. “Lumen gentium itself expressly states that the laity are required to submit internally to noninfallible papal teaching
    …But suppose it does give the laity some kind of permission. How then does it work in practice?”

    True enough about LG and submission to all, not just infallible, authoritative teaching (also echoed in Donum Veritatis, art. 23 and Canon 752). But the assent to infallible teaching (sacred assent) is different from assent to ordinary teaching. The assent to ordinary teaching is presumed, but not absolute; dissent has to be possible or else how would theology progress or correctives emerge? Your post seemed to say no dissent ever – or maybe you just meant no dissent amongst the laity ever, only amongst theologians and the hierarchy (though I believe the history of some saints might counter such a view)?

    If there was no dissent ever, then article 24 of Donum Veritatis (crafted by Ratzinger to theologians) would not follow:
    “Finally, in order to serve the People of God as well as possible, in particular, by warning them of dangerous opinions which could lead to error, the Magisterium can intervene in questions under discussion which involve, in addition to solid principles, certain contingent and conjectural elements. It often only becomes possible with the passage of time to distinguish between what is necessary and what is contingent.

    In fact, the theologian, who cannot pursue his discipline well without a certain competence in history, is aware of the filtering which occurs with the passage of time. This is not to be understood in the sense of a relativization of the tenets of the faith. The theologian knows that some judgments of the Magisterium could be justified at the time in which they were made, because while the pronouncements contained true assertions and others which were not sure, both types were inextricably connected. Only time has permitted discernment and, after deeper study, the attainment of true doctrinal progress.”

    Surely development must entail a degree of dissent? There is such a thing as faithful dissent.


  2. Pingback: Does Donum Veritatis permit dissent? « Agellius’s Blog

  3. Pingback: The incoherence of the “right to dissent” « Agellius's Blog

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