The incoherence of the “right to dissent”

It appears the one doctrine liberals would like to have precisely defined and understood (and from which, ironically, they will brook no dissent) is one whose basis is much less firmly established than those concerning, for example, female ordination or artificial contraception. That doctrine is the one which allegedly says that dissent from non-infallible Church teaching is permissible.

They claim that this doctrine — which, by the way, I have not found stated in any formal magisterial teaching — allows one to dissent, in good conscience, from doctrines which have not been taught infallibly, provided you “have tried sincerely, but without success, to keep the directives of the Church”, etc. (see the first comment in this thread).

But the existence of such a doctrine, if it exists, introduces a paradox (on which I have commented before): Granting for the sake of argument that it is an established teaching of the Magisterium of the Church, still, if it has not been infallibly defined, does it not fall into the category (which allegedly exists) of those doctrines from which Catholics, in good faith and in accord with individual conscience, may dissent?

Therefore, am I not allowed to dissent from the doctrine that says dissent is permissible (provided I have “tried sincerely”, blah blah blah)? Am I not free, as a faithful Catholic, to believe that dissent is *not* permissible?

But here’s where the paradox comes in: In dissenting from the teaching that dissent is permissible, I am denying my own right to dissent. But denying the right to dissent is itself an act of dissent. Thus, you can’t avail yourself of the right to dissent to this doctrine, without denying the very doctrine which gives you that right.

Do we not have to conclude therefore, that for the Church to teach, as a matter of doctrine, that dissent is permissible, would be logically incoherent?

5 thoughts on “The incoherence of the “right to dissent”

  1. Really? Theologians have been arguing this notion back and expect us to come up with answers? 😉
    Question, have you found magisterial teaching denying the right to dissent?
    As far as your paradox…i see word games. But then we have established that i’m not the most nimble of worsmiths.


  2. Brian:

    You write, “Theologians have been arguing this notion back and expect us to come up with answers? 😉 ”

    I think that as a layman, when I’m getting conflicting answers from theologians, and even priests, the safest thing for me to do is consult magisterial documents. And when I read those, I see no permission to dissent, in fact I find the contrary (see

    You write, “have you found magisterial teaching denying the right to dissent?”

    Yes. See the CDF document titled Donum Veritatis, which says, “The freedom of the act of faith cannot justify a right to dissent”; and “argumentation appealing to the obligation to follow one’s own conscience cannot legitimate dissent”; and “To succumb to the temptation of dissent, … is to allow the ‘leaven of infidelity to the Holy Spirit’ to start to work.”


    See also Lumen gentium 25, which says that “religious submission of mind and will” must be shown to papal teachings even when they’re not infallibly defined.


    You write, “As far as your paradox…i see word games.”

    It seems that way precisely because it’s so paradoxical! : )


  3. You will notice that when people defend a “right to dissent”, they cobble it together from the writings of various theologians, and often statements from bishops’ conferences (specifically statements by the German conference and the Canadian conference). Never do they directly cite a formal magisterial or papal teaching.

    I submit that the reason the Magisterium has never formally taught a right of dissent, is for the reason given in my post: It would create the paradox of a magisterial teaching stating that it’s OK to disregard magisterial teachings!


  4. Man, I’m just gonna quit commenting here….it’s like I drop my drawers and display my ignorance…:( (clearly I’m feeling a tad irreverent today)
    Actually, what I have found in reading some of those theologians, such as Avery Dulles, is that they do not disagree with what you are saying, and they define dissent, as they write about it, in a very different manner than those on the liberal fringe do…and some on the conservative fringe as well…they take it to mean that they are free to choose to disregard particular teachings that they “disagree” with….like the liberal Catholic politicians who say that they can say they are within their Catholic faith and vote for abortion. The dissent that some of the theologians they quote are talking about does not include actively disobeying Church teaching. Hence the term “submission”


  5. Brian:

    You write, “Man, I’m just gonna quit commenting here….it’s like I drop my drawers and display my ignorance…:(”

    LOL. Your humility is very engaging.

    I’m clear on what you’re saying theologians do *not* mean by “dissent” (disregarding or actively disobeying Church teaching), but I’m not clear on what you think they *do* mean.

    To clarify my own position: I understand that people are in different places on their faith journey. I’m not saying that everyone who disagrees with Church teaching, or finds himself unable to assent to it, is in a state of sin. The reasons why individuals may not assent to a doctrine are not my place to judge.

    What I’m saying is that, it is a matter of Church teaching that Catholics are bound to submit to the formal teachings of the Magisterium to the whole Church, even when they’re not infallible.

    This statement assumes a lot of things, for example, it assumes the definition of what a Catholic is; and to my mind, a “Catholic” is defined as “someone who has been baptized”. But that’s not all, since when you’re baptized you make a profession of faith in which you profess to believe what the Church teaches. (If you’re baptized as an infant that profession is made for you by your parents.) Catholics also make a yearly profession of faith at the Easter Vigil. My point being that being a Catholic is not *just* a matter of being baptized, although technically anyone who is baptized is considered a Catholic. A complete definition of a Catholic must also involve the profession of the Catholic faith.

    And so, when Lumen gentium says that Catholics are bound to give religious submission of mind and will to papal teachings, even when they’re not made ex cathedra, it means that people who are baptized *and* profess to believe the Catholic faith are bound, as a matter of precept, to give such submission.

    By the same token, every Catholic is bound to receive Communion at least once a year, and this assumes *worthy* reception of Communion, so that if you are guilty of mortal sin you must also go to Confession. That means that at least yearly, every Catholic is bound to resolve to stop sinning, since the resolution to avoid sin is part of the Act of Contrition.

    Now does that mean I will judge any Catholic who fails to go to Confession and Communion in a given year? Of course not. There may be things that mitigate his guilt. Maybe he wasn’t raised in the faith; maybe his Catholic school education was so poor that no one ever taught him about the precept of receiving Communion yearly, with the concomittent requirement of Confession in order to receive Communion worthily.

    But even if I don’t judge him, the requirement of yearly Communion remains an objective requirement, binding on all Catholics under pain of sin.

    Similary, this same person who was poorly catechized as to the requirement of yearly Communion, may have been poorly catechized as to the requirement of submitting his mind and will to formal but noninfallible teachings of the Magisterium. In fact, I know that a lot of people have been catechized to believe that submission of mind and will is *optional*. So when Catholics go around saying they don’t believe in birth control or restricting ordination to men, I don’t immediately judge them as obstinate heretics. Instead, I tend to get pissed off at the liberal indoctrination they most likely received in CCD or even in Catholic schools, which was not their fault.

    But even if that’s not their fault, the fact remains that their catechesis **needs to be corrected**. Just as someone who doesn’t know that yearly Communion is a binding obligation under pain of sin, needs to be told that it is; similarly, someone who doesn’t know that submission of mind and will to non-infallible teaching is a binding obligation, needs to be informed of same.

    It’s fine to say, “Don’t judge them, they can still be good Catholics, they’re obeying their conscience”, all that stuff. I have no quarrel with that. BUT WE CAN’T STOP THERE. We also have to *correct* their misapprehension of the requirements of faith.

    It may be true that someone who dissents from formal magisterial teachings can still be a Catholic in good conscience. But it’s *false* to say that Catholics are *allowed* to dissent from magisterial teachings. There is no conflict between those two statements. The fact that they shouldn’t be excommunicated, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be corrected.


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