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Silencing no safeguard of truth


In the course of history, repressive regimes, including modern-day fascist and totalitarian states, have used silencing to control the behavior and even the thoughts of the masses. Because public discussion can challenge the status quo and question the rule of the current government, these regimes fear and forbid dialogue. Dissenters are silenced or disappeared. The power of the autocrats must be maintained at all costs.

Religious authorities, no less than secular ones, have used silencing as a method to enforce orthodoxy. In the history of the Catholic church, we have seen the index of forbidden books, secret trials of the Spanish and Roman Inquisitions, the silencing of scientific and theological views -- for example, Galileo and the early 20th-century modernist theologians. Closer to our own experience in the latter part of the 20th century, many of us recall the silencing of Leonardo Boff, Matthew Fox, John McNeill, Ivone Gebara and the disappearance of Hans Küng and Charles Curran from Catholic academic institutions. Even the processes used by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith are shrouded in secrecy and silence, as evidenced by the recent cases of Jesuit Frs. Jacques Dupuis and Roger Haight. More currently, the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life attempted unsuccessfully to silence the voices of Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB, and Sr. Myra Poole, SNDdeN, on the issue of ordination of women to ministerial priesthood. Are we to interpret these silencings and disappearances as an ecclesiastical counterpart to the abuse of power of secular governments?

Royal consciousness

Reasonable persons acknowledge the need for some form of governance. Church authorities have the responsibility to articulate the truth, which the Spirit of God continues to speak in the community. The manner in which we have seen this responsibility exercised in the past has mostly reflected a distinct worldview that Walter Brueggemann in his incisive book, The Prophetic Imagination, calls the “royal consciousness.” Brueggemann uses this term to describe the dominant culture of the Israelite kings, who ruled the Temple and its priests. By controlling access to the Temple, the monarchy controlled access to God.

In this royal consciousness, authority is conceived as divinely ordained, not open to other worldviews, nor open to criticism of itself. The faithful have the moral security of knowing that truth is possessed in its entirety and will be safeguarded unambiguously. Like the priests of the Jerusalem Temple, church authorities will communicate divine law clearly to future generations. Because the church hierarchy is protected by the grace of office, just as Israel’s kings were protected by the Davidic Covenant, their interpretations of the faith are assumed to be free from error. This does not preclude a development of beliefs or a deeper understanding of them in the future, but the doctrine itself, it is maintained, has never been false.

In such a system, the ecclesial community is free from anxiety and confusion regarding church teachings. When one’s beliefs seem vulnerable, the church’s representatives provide moral counsel with reassuring certitude. Priests and religious, as representatives of the church, must uphold the teachings strictly. The faithful have confidence in their leaders and need not be troubled or unsettled by matters of creed or doctrine. The hierarchy interprets any expression of doubt or inquiry about a teaching as weakening or threatening that teaching. Questioning a policy or decision is perceived as undermining authority. Silencing becomes an appropriate and necessary means of dealing with controversies or dissenting views that can cause confusion among the faithful and pose potential threats to the unity of the church.

Unlike military dictators who use the power of silencing and disappearances to maintain their own power, the persons who are enmeshed in the royal consciousness may not be seeking to preserve their own power. They see silencing as essential in preserving a system they believe to be divinely ordained and therefore to be honored and protected.

Aggiornamento worldview

The aggiornamento inaugurated by Pope John XXIII and recent Catholic social teaching departed from the culture of royal consciousness to return the church to the culture of Jesus consciousness. In this worldview, authority is conceived as humanly ordered, open to learning from other worldviews, unafraid of criticism of itself, capable of reform and primarily instituted for service. All the faithful have the responsibility of seeking the truth and contributing to its understanding. There is no caste system that views priests, religious and the episcopacy as the enforcers of orthodoxy or in greater possession of the truth.

Because truth is not static but is constantly being manifested, it is not possessed in its entirety in this life. One task of church authorities is to articulate the truth as it is presently known and to foster the community’s search for a fuller understanding of truth in the future. In this process, church authorities recognize there will be many ambiguities and much diversity, even confusion, of opinions. Questioning a policy, decision or belief is not feared but regarded as healthy in order to prevent dysfunction. The church community can tolerate diverse or unorthodox views because it has the assurance that God’s Spirit dwells in the church and will ultimately root out error in favor of truth.

Historical errors and mistakes, whether in mores, laws, or beliefs, are ultimately corrected in the church’s constant purification and development of doctrine. The ecclesial community realizes that love, not certitude, is the paramount objective of the human person. Church leaders are not afraid of public expressions of doubt or inquiry about a teaching because they realize that the Spirit may be speaking through such voices. Only the testing of time to see if a consensus of the faithful develops around a particular opinion or view will weed out falsity from truth. Like the workers who came to the owner of the field to ask if the weeds should be pulled up and destroyed to protect the wheat, church leaders see that the unorthodox views of the weeds should grow with the truth of the wheat until the harvest (Mt. 13:30). Both traditional and unconventional opinions should be allowed to flourish until the final time of gathering and gleaning.

In the aggiornamento worldview, silencing becomes an inappropriate means of dealing with controversies or dissenting views. This is not to say that church representatives will not articulate the dominant belief of the community at any one time, but they will not stifle minority opinions. Persuasion of argument and the witness of one’s life, not secrecy and silencing, are considered the authentic safeguards of truth.

Church teaching

Three church documents that reflect an aggiornamento worldview contain passages that indicate the inappropriateness and injustice of the technique of silencing. The argument against silencing rests upon the dignity and rights of the human person. The first document, Pacem in Terris (1963), Pope John XXIII’s encyclical dealing with peace in the global political community, opens with a discussion of philosophical principles of order and paints a broad picture of the rights and duties of individuals, public officials, nation states and the world community.

Pacem in Terris states, “The dignity of the human person ... requires that every person enjoy the right to act freely and responsibly ... Each one acts on his or her own decision ... without being moved by force or pressure brought to bear externally.” The papal letter further states, “By the natural law, every human being has the right to respect for his or her person, to a good reputation, to freedom in searching for truth and -- within the limits laid down by the moral order and the common good -- in expressing and communicating his or her opinion ... ”

Here the encyclical clearly enunciates a person’s freedom to express and communicate one’s opinion. It should be noted that the document is dealing with the public, not private, domain. I shall address the nuancing phrase about the moral order and the common good below.

The second document that has a bearing on the question of silencing is Dignitatis Humanae (1965), also known as the “Declaration on Religious Freedom.” This document from the Second Vatican Council states, “ ... In matters religious every manner of coercion on the part of any individual should be excluded.” Because of compromise with the traditionalists at the council, Dignitatis Humanae deals only with immunity from external coercion by the secular state. But the theory enunciated here forms the basis for positing that silencing a person’s religious views, even by that person’s religious authorities, constitutes a grave violation of a basic human right. This theory harmonizes with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights from the United Nations, which recognizes every individual’s basic right to speak.

The third aggiornamento document was produced by the Second General Assembly of the 1971 Synod of Bishops. Titled “Justice in the World” and affirmed by Pope Paul VI, it asserts that the gospel mandates justice for the liberation of all people and that the church first must be just itself in its institutional practices. It clearly teaches that there must be freedom of speech within the church, as well as outside it. “Justice in the World” states, “The church recognizes everyone’s right to suitable freedom of expression and thought. This includes the right of everyone to be heard in a spirit of dialogue which preserves a legitimate diversity within the church”

In addition, “Justice in the World” says this freedom of expression is also the right of everyone in the church, not excluding clerics, religious, bishops, cardinals and popes. We read, “No one should be deprived of his or her ordinary rights because he or she is associated with the church in one way or another. [This includes] those who serve the church by their labor, including priests and religious ... ” Church representatives, therefore, are not obliged to agree publicly with official positions. However, it is important that church representatives make clear that their personal, divergent views are not official institutional positions. All the people of God have the right to express their opinion so that the Spirit of God may be made manifest through the entire community.


Several phrases in some of the passages quoted above might suggest there are cases when silencing could be appropriate. For example, does the phrase “suitable freedom” imply that some freedom may be unsuitable? Of course! We are not free, for example, to tell falsehoods or to malign another’s reputation. Counselors and confessors must protect client or penitent information from unwarranted access by others. But this is clearly not the context of silencing in this document. The freedom of expression meant by Justice in the World is the freedom to express views that preserve “a legitimate diversity in the church.” Catholics are free to dialogue in a respectful way about theological issues that differ from hierarchical teaching.

What about the phrase, “within the limits laid down by the moral order and the common good?” Does this imply that silencing can sometimes be justified because it is within the limits of the moral order and for the common good? Pacem in Terris also states, “The common good is intimately bound up with human nature. It can never exist fully and completely unless … the human person is taken into account.”

The primary argument for silencing is to prevent confusion about controversial issues and to clarify truth among the people of God. Farley makes the point that, in the contemporary world of electronic and print media, confusion already abounds. Abortion, homosexuality, women priests, genetic engineering and euthanasia, for example, are all discussed regularly by the mainstream media. The traditional case for silencing has collapsed because it is impossible to keep people uninformed about moral controversies.

Such reasoning, moreover, is patronizing. It treats adults as children who must be shielded. Part of becoming a moral adult involves the ability to tolerate a lack of certitude. Protecting individuals from confusion and ambiguity does not respect their autonomy as complete moral agents; in fact, it impedes their full moral development.

Silencing also deprives the whole church from listening to justifications for all the arguments around a complex issue. Hoarding knowledge, instead of sharing it, is an injustice to persons and so offends the common good.

It is significant that, in documents of a high level of teaching authority, the right to express dissenting views within the church is legitimated. The authority of all three documents discussed above exceeds that of any document produced by a Vatican dicastery because the three documents bear the weight of the bishop of Rome, an ecumenical council, and a synod of the world’s bishops in communion with the bishop of Rome. A higher authority than the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has validated free expression and public debate on controversial theological issues. This fact should be duly noted, and observed, by the congregation.

If we are to follow the way of Jesus, the use of silencing as a means to control opinions not sanctioned by the hierarchy must cease. Silencing is embarrassing to the church in the 21st century and unworthy of those who profess to be followers of Christ. Without freedom of expression on religious views within the church itself, the community risks the danger of perpetuating erroneous views, such as its former position on slavery. Without free speech, thought itself is stifled.

Return to the consciousness of Jesus

As noted earlier, the aggiornamento of Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council was a movement to return the church to its authentic roots in Jesus. A study of Jesus’ life and teachings shows that Jesus’ way was one of invitation and conversion. Jesus’ treatment of persons was always based on respect for the dignity of the individual. Forcing beliefs or silencing views He did not teach was antithetical to His life and the life of the early Christian community. Early Christian leaders did not settle difficult questions by silencing. They discussed and debated.

A relevant story in the early Christian community tells about the Sanhedrin’s arrest and trial of the apostles for disobeying the silencing order already imposed on them. They were “not to teach about that name” (Acts 5:28). Gamaliel, a member of the council that passed judgment on Peter and the apostles, advised the Sanhedrin to take no punitive action. Gamaliel counseled, “My advice is that you have nothing to do with these men. Let them alone. If their purpose or activity is human in its origin, it will destroy itself. If, on the other hand, it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them without fighting God” (Acts 5:38-39). Good advice for any religious authority who is contemplating the use of silencing!

A student of Gamaliel, a Pharisee named Saul, later appears in the Acts of the Apostles as the worst silencer and persecutor of followers of Jesus. But Saul experienced a profound conversion and, as Paul, zealously preached the gospel of Jesus.

Each baptized Christian has the responsibility to articulate the faith of the community. No one, including church leaders, has a right to inhibit what the Spirit might be speaking to the community through a public exchange of ideas. Because the truths of our faith concern the whole Christian community, public discourse is necessary.

Living our faith through a close relationship with God is not the result of merely accepting doctrines or rules handed down from previous generations or imposed by religious authorities. Living our faith through a close relationship with God comes from pondering our life experiences and finding divine meaning in them. Everyone’s reflection, not just that of bishops or theologians, is essential to discern where the Spirit is leading the church. Therefore, discourse in the public arena, not silencing, is a moral imperative in the ongoing search for truth.

Jeannine Gramick is a School Sister of Notre Dame and co-founder of New Ways Ministry. In July 1999 the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ordered Gramick and her partner in ministry, Salvatorian Fr. Robert Nugent, to cease their work with homosexuals and further ordered the pair to remain silent on two points: the church’s teaching on homosexuality and the process that led to the Vatican’s ban on their ministry.

National Catholic Reporter, July 27, 2001