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Silencing: old tactic that doesn’t work

When the church comes knocking on the door to silence prophets and voices of conscience, it is both making a statement -- our way and no other -- and taking a risk. The risk is that such action suggests panic at the center.

Panic, or high anxiety at least, is the only reasonable explanation for the Vatican’s silencing of Sr. Jeannine Gramick and Fr. Robert Nugent and the curtailing of their ministry to homosexuals (see story on page 12).

Silencing speaks of an institution that has lost its ability to persuade. Yet silencing loses its effectiveness when people ignore the order and keep talking, as they do about women’s ordination, for example.

The observer is obliged to ask: What is it about conversation and debate that makes the Roman Catholic church so afraid? Why is the church so fearful of open and honest due process in controverted situations?

Why has the institution so little faith in faith? In God’s ability in God’s good time to sort the wheat from the weeds when both have grown up together?

School Sr. of Notre Dame Jeannine Gramick finds support for freedom of expression in John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris, in Vatican II’s 1965 Declaration on Religious Freedom, the 1971 Synod of Bishops. And the scriptures.

Conscience has to speak out even at the risk of being wrong, she contends, “The community is self-correcting,” Gramick says, quoting the Pharisee Gamaliel addressing the Sanhedrin (Acts 5:34). “If this enterprise, this movement of theirs, is of human origin, it will break up of its own accord; but if it does in fact come from God, you will not only be unable to destroy them, but you might find yourselves fighting against God.”

So why the Vatican iron hand in the iron glove?

The Vatican, in trying to bend everything to the will of this pontificate, is losing control of the one thing it most wants to keep to itself: the agenda.

If there was an upside to the current climate of control, it is that the church’s agenda is being set outside the Vatican by people often driven there precisely by the Vatican’s attempt to silence and control. The lesson of this rather repressive era of church history will be that, once again, not even severe punishment will keep people from thinking and writing. Threats won’t stop minds from working.

The Vatican, of course, has tried such tactics, in varying degrees, for centuries. The difference now is that it is the Vatican that is held up to public censure far more than the individuals being disciplined.

At the same time, the agenda has become Catholic public property and is no longer Vatican private property. At least six main agenda items seem set, whether the Vatican likes them or not: freedom of conscience, women’s and married men’s ordination, homosexuality, broad human sexuality issues, interfaith dialogue -- and silencing.

Taking the long view, it doesn’t matter who the next pope is. The agenda he will be forced to deal with is already written.

National Catholic Reporter, May 18, 2001