Cardinal Bernard Law, former Archbishop
of Boston. Cardinal Law was made a bishop
under Paul VI but achieved his powerful
status in the reign of John Paul II where he
served as "kingmaker" of American Bishops.
To understand John Paul’s paranoia (and that is not too strong a word) about dissent one must remember his own experience in Poland. Poland was the one Soviet satellite where the communist government had not been able to seriously damage the Catholic Church. Unlike Hungary or Czechoslovakia, the Church in Poland remained strong and retained not only the loyalty but the active participation of the vast majority of the population. Much like Nineteenth-century Catholic Ireland where the Church grew and remained strong because to be a Catholic was a declaration of national pride in the face of an occupying Colonial Power that represented another religious tradition, the Poles stood strong in their Catholic faith and practice as a sign of nationalism and resistance to the officially atheistic philosophy of their Soviet-dominated government. To be Polish was to be Catholic! The cohesiveness of the Church and indeed its strength came from its rigid unity which the Communist regime could not crack. And this unity was rooted in an unswerving loyalty and obedience, in public and in private—to the Primate, the long-suffering Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski (+1981). Pope Wojtyla, as he was often known both in Poland and Rome, understood Wyszynski’s lesson—if you want a Church strong enough to bring down Marxism and to confront the secularism of the West, you need a Church that moves in absolute unity and uniformity. John Paul would not risk dissent and was rigid in crushing it. In 1980 he demanded that all priests and religious withdraw from political office because he would not have the clergy in a position where they might have to disregard their ecclesiastical superiors to perform their civil obligations. Sister Agnes Mansour, a Sister of Mercy, was ordered by the Vatican to resign from her post as the Director of Social Services for the State of Michigan. She instead resigned from her religious order. (The Sisters of Mercy never broke their ties with her and she lived and died within their community.) Father Robert Drinan SJ, on the other hand, did resign his seat in Congress to comply with the Vatican Directives but he was a greater pain to the authority structures in the Church in his post-Congressional years than he had been serving in the halls of Congress. Nonetheless, it was clear in the John Paul years that there was to be no room for dissent from Church Authority. In 2006 Cardinal Angelo Sodano retired as Vatican Secretary of State, a position he had held for sixteen years, serving under two popes: John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The Foreign Ministers (Secretaries of State) of other European Governments hosted a luncheon in his honor as he was the longest serving Secretary of State among them. When asked to what he attributed is long tenure he joked “There are advantages to working for a Totalitarian State.” A joke yes, but one which was funny only because it is true.
To see dissent as disloyalty is a dangerous to any leadership. Dissent and disobedience are two different realities. To close off dissent is to deprive leadership of voices they need to hear and monitor, not to punish but to be able to critique their own course. There is such a thing as loyal dissent and within the Church there are many voices which have been silenced in fear of reprisal. I recently read William L. Shirer’s work The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. (At a friend’s suggestion I had read Erik Larsen’s In the Garden of Beasts and as a historian it left me wanting to know much more in detail how the catastrophe of the Third Reich had come about.) What struck me most in Shirer’s book was the absolute stifling of dissent by Hitler and his inner circle and how that dissent was to create a bubble of bogus realities around the Reich’s leadership. This past week I had coffee with friends who are retired military and the discussion came to a comparison of Church and military leadership styles and these officers spoke of the importance of dissenting views having voice in successful military operations. It is not healthy for us in the Church that responsible voices whether they be bishops, theologians, or competent clergy and laity cannot speak out freely critiquing policies set by a leadership that is not necessarily any more competent, educated, or informed. As Catholics we believe that the Holy Spirit speaks through the Pope, but we do not believe that the Holy Spirit (I will avoid the use of a pronoun) speaks through the Pope alone, much less than the monsignoral desk-jockeys that work down the hall and around the corner from him. But even more serious for the good of the Church and of souls than sealing off prophetic voices that might raise the inspired cries of “yes, but…” is being left with a hierarchy that “loyalty” has reduced to mediocrity. The atmosphere of blind allegiance has created a culture of codependence in which voices that were consecrated to be prophetic remain silent in the face of the gross injustices of our contemporary society. Where are the voices to speak for the immigrant? For the seniors who are in danger of losing their Medicare and Social Security? For the families who have lost their homes? For the workers who have seen their jobs go overseas? For the Earth that is being scourged by the destruction of its resources, its air and its water? We have a new translation for the Liturgy when what we need is a prophetic and evangelical message of what it means to be a Disciple of Jesus Christ in this world in which we live. “What father among you,” Jesus said, “would give his children a stone when they ask for bread.” And we are asking for bread and being given the stones of silence in the face of a rampant and increasing injustice in our society. We cannot afford to have shepherds who do not raise a cry when the flock is being surrounded by wolves. The silence of the hierarchy on any subjects other than protecting the right to life for the unborn and the insuring that the right to marriage is limited to heterosexuals implies that the other pressing issues facing us as Americans are without moral consequence and that is simply a flat out lie in itself. We need the articulation of a consistent and comprehensive moral program for responsible citizenship even if it does mean that the American bishops risk losing the friendship of their political allies and their establishment pals.