Conscience is the “still, small voice” (a whisper) that makes ancient truth appear uncouth. Conscience and dissent change the world.
It is a great sadness to learn of Archbishop Nienstadt’s reported threat of disciplinary measures against priests in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis who openly dissent from the proposed amendment to the Minnesota State Constitution that would restrict marriage to a man and a woman (“Priests told not to voice dissent,” Star Tribune, 1/18/12).
The protest of the priests and parishes under Archbishop Niensted’s jurisdiction will be mostly silent. They will simply go on about the business of being the church. Their Protestant brothers and sisters either stand by in quiet support or choose to speak out loud what they cannot.
It is customary practice – and a good one – to regard the internal matters of another church as off limits to non-members. Both as a person of significant frailty and as a Presbyterian minister, Jesus’ injunction to take the log out of my own (Presbyterian) eye before reaching for the speck in my (Roman Catholic) neighbor’s eye gives me great pause.
I choose to speak out of great love and respect fore the Roman Catholic Church, my priest colleagues and friends. I tremble that my words will be mistaken as disrespect or that they will turn the clock back to the era before the Second Vatican Council (“Vatican II”) that blew fresh air across the whole Christian world. Before Vatican II, Protestants and Catholics lived in self-imposed religious ghettos on opposites sides of the main street. Today the dividing line has been erased. People are talking, and what many of them are saying is the same…whether out loud or in the chain of whispered protest that happen when the old authoritarian patterns squelch conscientious dissent.
Jesus the Prisoner and the Cardinal, the Grand Inquisitor
We all do well to remember Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov where it is the Church, not Satan, that puts Jesus on trial in the parable of the Grand Inquisitor. The setting is the City of Seville during the 16th Century Spanish Inquisition. The night sky is lit with the fires of heretics being burned at the stake.
Christ has returned to the City of Seville – an unexpected Second Coming without notice or fanfare – to take his place once again among the poor and destitute. As at the first coming, his love for human dignity and freedom of conscience threaten the civil and religious order that has lit the fires of heretical burning martyrs – in his name and for his sake, at the command of the Cardinal of Seville.The Cardinal takes Jesus prisoner – a prisoner of the Church. He tells him that since his departure, the Church has corrected each mistake he had made in the temptations in the wilderness. He tells Jesus that he is a fool for failing to provide the people with what they most want – a hero who will take away their dread of standing alone in freedom before God.
“You thought too highly of them (i.e. ordinary people),” says the Cardinal, “for they are slaves, though rebellious by nature. Look around and judge, Jesus; fifteen centuries have passed. Look at them! Who have you raised up to yourself? I swear, man is weaker and baser by nature than you have believed him to be! Can he do what you did? By showing them so much respect, you failed to feel for them; you asked too much from them – you who loved them more than yourself!”
In the end the Cardinal does not execute him. With loss from his “bloodless lips” he sends the Church’s Prisoner off into the night and tells him never to return.
The Archbishop of the Diocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis is not the Cardinal of Seville. But the Grand Inquisitor’s dark shadow has fallen across the Diocese among those sworn to obedience to the Archbishop’s authority. It has also fallen over their parishes and their Protestant friends. A pall of silence has fallen over the parishioners for whom the Prisoner had “too much respect.” The conversations take place in whispers and in privacy over back fences, or in parish councils where priests and Catholic lay leaders discuss how to be faithful to their own consciences while living under the vow of obedience.
It is one thing for the Church to promulgate an official position on marriage; it is quite another for an Archbishop to tell a priest he must be silent if he dissents on a theological matter, much less on a political and possibly partisan matter.
The Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) strongly re-affirmed the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. It made clear that the entire baptismal community constitutes the Church, and that the Church’s teaching office and hierarchy exist to serve the people, not the people the hierarchy. Vatican II lifted up doctrines that date back to the Early Church Fathers: the sensus fidelium (the sense of the faithful) and the sensus fidei (the sense of the individual’s faith).
Among the documents produced by Vatican II was Dignitatis Humanae that celebrated the dignity and freedom of religious conscience. The document opened the Church’s arms to other religions, and there was a great swelling of joy within the Roman Catholic Church and in other Christian churches touched by the Spirit of respect for other views and practices.
No longer were conscience and dissent regarded ipso facto as enemies of the Gospel or of the Church. Those of us in churches separated during the 16th Century Protestant Reformation were embraced by our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters as partners in ministry. The Second Vatican Council’s spirit of ongoing reform (“aggiornamento”) re-awakened in Protestant communions the call to continual renewal and reform by the Holy Spirit, a 20th Century reformation that refreshed us all.
The proposed Marriage Amendment is a moral question, and the Church’s leadership has a right and responsibility to address it, in light of Traditio (sacred tradition, or the movement of the Holy Spirit among earlier disciples) and the movement of the Holy Spirit among disciples today.
Priests, ministers, and lay people – Roman Catholic and Protestant – on both sides of the pre-Vatican II divide – do not share a single view on the question of the proposed Marriage Amendment that Minnesota voters will decide next November. What we do share is a deep belief in the freedom of the pulpit, the freedom of conscience, and the freedom of the Holy Spirit to work through an informed laity and the church’s ordained leadership in together interpreting Scripture and tradition. We share a deep belief in the sensus fidelium embraced by the Second Vatican Council.
Jesus leaving the city never to return
“By the light of burning martyrs, Jesus’ bleeding feet I track, Toiling up new Calvaries ever With the cross that turns not back; new occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient truth uncouth; They must upward still and onward, Who would keep abreast of truth” (James Russell Lowell, 1845).