"Dissent" and "dissenters"

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Charlotte Allen has an interesting take on the deaths of super-feminist theologian Mary Daly, who died January 3, and Vatican II peritus Edward Schillebeeckx in the Wall Street Journal: For her, their passing marks flaming out of Catholic "dissent," and they have no one to take their places.

Their passing certainly marks a change of the theological guard, but I have to disagree with Allen's labelling these people "dissenters"; without them, many of our conversations about ministry, the church, and the role of women would be less rich.

Take Daly, whose famous line, "If God is male, then the male is God," drew plenty of ire. She was a pioneer in asking how sexism has infiltrated our language about God. Catholics have a greater appreciation of feminine images of God than ever before, and even the Catechism of the Catholic Church acknowledges that God, as spirit, has no gender.

Schillebeeckx is most known for his work on ministry and famously argued that, in the absence of a priest, qualified lay people should be commissioned to preside at Eucharist. While that may sound shocking, it was never condemned theologically, and because of the work of Schillebeeckx, lay ministry has expanded in ways perhaps even he never imagined.

Allen also mentions Charles Curran, whose objection to Humanae Vitae got him fired from Catholic University. Yet Curran was just on the losing side in a power game: He foresaw the effects on church authority that Humanae Vitae would have, and Catholic married couples have indeed gone their own way on artificial means of birth control. That teaching, after all, is reformable--it can change--so while Curran may be on the wrong side of the argument now, he may not always be.

Even Hans Kung, who was disciplined for a book on papal infallibility, can argue that he was only contributing to a conversation started at Vatican II. Lumen Gentium, after all, reformed Vatican I's teaching on the matter by placing papal infallibility in the context of the infallibility of the whole church, and questions about the contours and exercise of papal infallibility remain, especially in conversations with the Orthodox.

Here's what people who throw terms like "dissent" and "heresy" around forget: Some of the great theologians of Vatican II--John Courtney Murray, Yves Congar, Karl Rahner--were silenced or disciplined before the council, only to be vindicated later. The church has reformed--that is, changed--it's teachings on slavery, usury, capital punishment, even salvation outside the church!

But such reform only happens when courageous people raise questions, even in the face of possible punishment. I don't call that dissent; I call it faithfulness, however bold.