The Culture of “Dissent”


The reason the American Church today stands accused of hypocrisy is that it has been teaching one thing, while a small but significant body of its priests including some bishops has been flagrantly violating that teaching. How can people who studied long and prayed hard before taking vows turn in such a direction, with a full-scale ideology to rationalize it? How can that happen? It could not have happened without a culture of "dissent," a culture that has, at its heart, a teaching of contempt for "Rome."

After a daily diet of sexual-abuse scandals, American Catholics came into Good Friday this year with a new way of observing Lent: mortification, shame, and the bitter herbs of public humiliation.

But also with a powerful conviction that "dissent" has failed. Okay, there was a sexual revolution; okay, there is a "new morality." Problem is, had the old morality been followed, there would be no scandals, which so many now suffer from.

Child abuse comes not from celibacy nor vows of chastity. Neither women priests nor married clergy make it go away — just examine the record of churches that have gone that route.

And yet, notwithstanding those facts, every day's news brings further mortification, and shame, and reasons to trust in God's mercy, beyond human weaknesses. The knives of pain twisting in the hearts of victims, and the silent rage within their families, makes one pray that God's grace will overflow in them, in recompense.

The sexual revolution of the past generation was a rocky time. I edited the reflections of a dozen Catholic couples during the turbulence of those years in The Experience of Marriage.

I remember also some wonderful priest friends of ours discovering that they were gay in orientation. Intelligent, full of life, compassionate, intense about their work with the poor, excited for their Church, some of them have stayed faithful, chaste, celibate and fruitful in their long labors, and I salute them with gratitude and admiration.

From about 1970 many of us heard rumors of a different "lavender mafia," practicing and active homosexuals among the Catholic clergy, now in their fifties and older — even in some seminaries. According to Garry Wills, reviewing a recent book about the Jesuits, a proportion of this nation's Jesuits of that generation, now "gay and graying," may have fit those rumors. Amazingly, this pattern has been so accepted in some quarters that it has put heterosexuals on the defensive.

Over the years, we read notices of more and more priests dying of AIDS. Untimely deaths, of formerly handsome and healthy men wasting, and swiftly gone.

Men have never been angels and from time immemorial one has heard, as well, about a few priests seducing women, or being easily seduced. Yet that phenomenon has, so far, not been lately in the news.

Rather, one of the striking facts, well known among the journalists who have been covering the Catholic sexual scandal for the past three months or more, is that nearly all the victims (on the order of 95+ percent) have been teenage males. Exceedingly few are girls.

In Boston, for instance, of the 80 or so priests of whom during the past 40 years abuse has been alleged, only two or three are charged with pedophilic acts. That is not the impression that the Boston Globe trumpeted in its campaign about a "crisis of priestly pedophilia."

Nonetheless, favorable as the Globe generally is to homosexual behavior, and insistent that the Boy Scouts allow gay leaders to work with boys, it was no doubt salutary (if terribly painful) for the Globe and other media to hold the Catholic Church to a different standard, Catholic teaching. For if the erring priests had followed that teaching, there would have been no scandal.


The reason the American Church today stands accused of hypocrisy is that it has been teaching one thing (semper fidelis for two millennia), while in that deeply conflicted generation ordained during the Sixties and Seventies (hit simultaneously by Vatican II and the sexual revolution) a small but significant body of its priests including some bishops has been flagrantly violating that teaching.

That traditional teaching holds that our bodies are holy, the temples of the Holy Spirit, the physical manifestation of our personalities and of the graces poured out on us through the sacraments. We are embodied souls; every part is body, every part is soul, there is no dualism here. Our persons have been anointed. Our persons are sacramental. These teachings, exemplified in the life of Christ, are the ground of Catholic thinking both about loving sexuality in marriage and about the fire that gives celibacy its beauty, the purposive struggle for purity of heart.

To engage our bodies in sinful acts, which slap the face of God and pierce anew His wounds upon the cross, is a kind of blasphemy. It is a dreadful misuse of sanctified bodies, bodies united in the Eucharist with Christ's own. These acts wound the holiness of a partner, destroy innocence, breed contempt and anger, awaken hatred for God. They are especially horrible to contemplate when they have injured the unspoiled and trusting young.

How can people who studied long and prayed hard before taking vows turn in such a direction, in some cases habitually and nearly hardened in it, with a full-scale ideology to rationalize it? How can that happen?

It could not have happened without a culture of "dissent," especially regarding the theology of the human body. Its partisans call it "dissent," which of itself is a healthy thing within a loyal brotherhood, but in its recent American form has been a sullen, silent rebellion, a separation of the heart from the leadership of those popes that followed the greatly loved and much-misinterpreted John XXIII (d. 1963). Paul VI and John Paul II have been the butt of the progressives' ire. "I think the Church is being governed by thugs," one Jesuit is quoted as dismissing them.

That culture has at its heart a teaching of contempt for "Rome." The church, it broadcast, is an archaic medieval institution out of touch with modernity, especially in its teachings on human sexuality. On contraception, first of all, then on abortion, then its (alleged) fear and hatred of the human body, then its (alleged) misogyny, then its exclusion of women from the priesthood and its (allegedly) oppressive patriarchy. "The whole thing is rotten."

What we need, the "dissenting" ideology continued, is a more "human" church, more "expressive," more "spontaneous," more "free." More sensual. More sexual. "We dissenters are the liberators!" Those others, the foolish benighted ones, are holdovers from the medieval past, relics, doomed to disappear. They have already been discarded, although they are too dumb to know it.

So the rationalization went.

That culture has not been strong in criticizing its own premises. What other organization in history, for instance, has placed vast responsibilities in the hands of women who led far-flung international organizations (religious orders), were the chief executives of major hospitals, and ran major colleges and universities? In which other historical organization had women so many roles open to them? Or were there so many first-rate scholars, musicians, artists, heroines and doctors of the church?

The ideology of rebellion

This rebellion has also colored other areas of recent Catholic life.

Mass itself — mere "rubrics" — began to be treated by those hardened to a new way of life as some medieval ritual, barely to be nodded toward. Forgetting the "mumbo-jumbo," the "Real Presence," the actual corpus Christi held between the priest's fingers, the "dissenters" focused their attention on a more important thing, "fellowship," "the experience of community," the breaking down of "self-centered, ascetic individualism."

Best of all for them were "dance" and "celebration," "joy" and "fun." Pinks and blues, pastels, all around the altar. A celebration of modernity. "You are all good people. Give yourself a hand!" We understand; Rome doesn't get it. When this Polish throwback goes, the new church we have been awaiting all our lives will at last arrive.

Accusing the Church in Rome of misogyny, sins against the equality of women, patriarchy, hardness of heart, and narrowness of mind, "dissenters" felt morally superior to "conservatives."

In moral theology, their rationalization went like this: The crucial point in Christian life is to love God with all your heart, but in a pure, modern way. Individual acts are neither good nor bad. Intention makes them so. Particular acts are just steps you have to take, one by one, sometimes on a rock, sometimes in the mud. The important thing is to keep your eyes straight ahead, your will focused on the one main thing, loving God, the God of love, the Mother of us all, all-forgiving, embracing, oceanic. Rejoice! Have fun. God means us to express ourselves, be human, very human. This is the enlightened, the modern, the healthy way.

When challenged, you also need to explain to those who still dwell in the mind-games of the pre-Vatican II church that "celibacy" means "not getting married." There is no need to break your vow not to marry! Celibacy doesn't mean you should pretend to be an angel. It's all right to love your friends, and be expressive with them. That's what God wants. Love thy neighbor. It's healthy to take off your clothes, lie down with others, touch. Enjoy the bodies God gave us. Accept your own sexuality. Psychology Today replaced The Journal of Ascetical and Mystical Theology.

The ideology of infidelity has been in steady development since Vatican II. It waits there, all spelled out in articles discussing new principles of moral theology, stated of course in careful abstractions, and in relation to orthodox teachings honored for two thousand years, cleverly imitating them, cleverly showing their historical "limitations," carefully getting free of them even while seeming to modify them only slightly.

Long in the making

If the deeds now causing scandal are horribly evil, no one can say they have not had preparation in the literature. On the other side of the ledger, many Catholics of this generation have never heard a sermon in their lives on the meaning of celibacy or the reasons for chastity. Many central themes of the ordinary Catholic life of past generations have gone neglected. We have been living on only a fraction of our inheritance.

Even conservative bishops were bludgeoned into believing that they had to trust psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists. What you were trained to think is sexual evil, they were carefully instructed (as if they were backward pupils), is actually a matter of psychological health. Avoid the language of sin and evil. Medieval. Judgmental. Let the experts handle it.

The lawyers gave parallel advice. Plus this: Settle out of court. Whatever it costs, it will be cheaper than going to trial. Unvindicated settlement is cheaper than vindication through defense. In addition, you can save yourself the publicity. The parents of the abused children will want confidentiality, you can be sure, so that their children's future will be protected. Silence will be the pastoral thing to do.

Bad mistakes were made by bishops; the price we now pay is enormous.
In recent weeks, a new line has begun appearing in the old rationalization: "Observe boundaries." That may mean: Don't mess with underage partners. Keep it among adults.

What next?

What will happen to us now? What's next?

God chose the poor and lowly things of this earth to make His home among. We are not from families of kings, barons, dukes and other nobility. Only serfs, most of us, descended from lowly shepherds, fishermen, carpenters, tax collectors, beggars. Yet the Lord of the Cosmos takes up residence within us every day at the Eucharist. It is this wondrous choice on His part, making no worldly sense whatever, that we celebrate on Thursday of Holy Week.

He could have taken up residence among angels and archangels, and not faced such scandals as we involve Him in. Given the real world He decided to dwell in, the shame is, He cannot now choose His priests from angels. He must choose them from among weak, unstable men, such as all of us also are. Sinners all.

Three times on the very night before He died, Peter himself denied that he had ever known the Lord. On the bloody Way of the Cross, women disciples showed their faces, and two strangers (Simon the Cyrenian and Joseph of Arimathea), but not a single apostle except the youngest, John.

In recovery, we must first applaud our loyal, faithful, and hardworking priests, who have suffered great injustice.

The next step is to build a new Catholic culture on all the strengths of our inheritance. Not on liquid mush, but on the rock that Jesus chose. Human weakness is one thing; willful rebellion is another. Contempt for Rome was the starting place of the evil that befell us.

I cannot shake the conviction that some great good is about to happen to the Church during this new century. This present humiliation seems to be a kind of preparation. To show that we depend upon His mercy and His grace. And when all else fails, on that alone.

When humans fail, as regularly we do, Our Lord has never failed his people. It has been ever thus, since Judas, Peter, and the others in the first Holy Week.



Michael Novak. "The Culture of 'Dissent'." National Review (March 29, 2002).

This article is reprinted with permission from National Review. To subscribe to the National Review write P.O. Box 668, Mount Morris, Ill 61054-0668 or phone 815-734-1232.


Michael Novak, the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute was the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize. He has written some 27 books including, most recently, No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, Washington's God, as well as The Universal Hunger for Liberty: Why the Clash of Civilizations Is Not Inevitable, The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, Tell Me Why: A Father Answers His Daughter’s Questions About God (with his daughter Jana Novak), and On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding.

Copyright © 2002 National Review

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