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With the latest mandate on dissent, should we laugh it off or get mad?


“’Tisn't life that matters! ’Tis the courage you bring to it,” Hugh Walpole wrote. And if that's right, this may be the time that tests the theory. The question now is whether we should live life as we're told or have the courage to imagine other ways.

We now have another document from Rome telling us that anyone who does not accept dogmas, doctrines and positions given definitively, even if not infallibly, as they are now “taught by the church” is, therefore, excommunicated. I presume that means everyone who uses birth control, everyone who looks at all the other rites of the Catholic church and wonders why marriage and priesthood are not incompatible in those communions but are in ours, everyone who knows that the Catholic church lacks celibate males rather than vocations and everyone who admits that modern science has confused the questions of when life either begins or ends. God help us if we admit the questions and discuss the issues. Galileo should have died hereafter.

Two people have talked to me about the new document in the last week. Two people do not a survey make, of course, but they may indeed indicate the poles of the discussion: One snickered, and the other frowned an angry frown. The first, from the Philippines, dismissed the statement out of hand. “It's impossible and ridiculous,” she said. The other, from Germany, said, “I don't pay much attention to the church anyway. If that's the present climate of what we call church, I'll be glad to go.”

The person who laughed it off started me down a wild path of possibilities -- and impossibilities. Who will they excommunicate? I began to wonder. People who think about all those questions or only people who say them out aloud? How will they know? Shall we have Vatican spies in every parish? Or are we to be self-monitoring and take ourselves off the weekly envelope list if any of those horrible thoughts cross our minds? Will there be yearly, monthly, weekly pledges like the old Legion of Decency promises we once made not to go to bad movies until we all grew up and knew enough about the human body not to be sure what a bad movie was anymore? Will we question students about what their professors talk about in class -- as they did in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia? And if this had been the case back when, what would have happened to Gentiles when Paul “confronted Peter to his face” about their exclusion from the church?

The second person worried me a great deal more than the first, however. I could see the disaffection, the alienation, the fatigue from waiting for the discussions that never come about the growing priest shortage, the nature of Eucharist, the real meaning of Creation, female as well as male. What effect would this latest attempt to control the church from the grave have on these people? In fact, what effect would this attempt to silence thought have on those to whom the unveiling of the universe makes life more a series of questions rather than a catechism of past answers?

It is a difficult moment for any thinking Christian who loves the church, values its doctrines, respects its dogmas and believes, as other popes have asked them to believe, in the ongoing revelation of God through “the signs of the times.” It is particularly difficult when a pope calls for inclusion of peoples everywhere but in the church, when a pope calls for equality everywhere but in the church, when a pope calls us to hear the voices of the people everywhere but in the church. “Living life as we've been told” then becomes impossible, schizophrenic, a kind of cruel joke.

Clearly, this is one of those “because-I-said-so” moments in the church. We've had them before. We called them the Inquisition and the Reformation, evolution and freedom of conscience. In each instance, at the outset, force ruled. But the Holy Spirit, present in the whole church, finally prevailed. The question now is whether to laugh it off as my first respondent did or to confront it directly as the second is about to do. The final answer may require a bit of both.

People have been very respectful these years, very honest in their questions, very sincere in their search. They have been extremely patient. I'm not sure that they will also be silent, however. And I really doubt that they will stop thinking. There may be more people willing to bring courage to life than we ever dreamed. I for one will have to beg to be excused from the ranks of those who agree not to think.

So, be forewarned: We could be on the verge of a lot of excommunications. I hope the Vatican has enough stamps. Maybe it would make things easier if everybody just sent in a self-addressed envelope right now so we could get on with the real gospel questions of the age.

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, author and lecturer, lives in Erie, Pa.

National Catholic Reporter, July 31, 1998