Writing in U.S.Catholic, Notre Dame theology professor Lawrence Cunningham has some problems with the way the word “dissent” is used today. He points out that it can be OK for a Catholic to discuss doctrinal or a moral issues with the intent of clarifying them, as in the case of certain novel reproductive technologies, or object to a church practice like the requirement of priestly celibacy. It can even be OK to call for the resignation of a bishop. On the other hand, someone who
“den[ies] the trinitarian nature of God … cannot make such a denial and be a Catholic. Similarly, there can be an advance in the church’s moral understanding so that if one wishes to affirm the legitimacy of capital punishment today one is dissenting from the clear direction of Catholic moral thought.”
I would have thought that “dissent” had to do with settled teachings rather than apparent trajectories of thought, but it’s a vague term and maybe it’s more encompassing than I thought. Be that as it may, Cunningham thinks the term is grossly overused:
“With the word dissent thrown about with such abandon, it is well to a remember that discussion is not dissent and critical thinking is a not heresy … it does great harm to the church to make unwarranted charges of dissent or heresy when, in fact, persons may be a exercising their right to raise questions or challenge ideas that do not touch on the core of the faith. There is far too much of a that sort of disedifying behavior in the church today.”
So it appears that there is indeed such a thing as “dissent” in the Church today. Some people say capital punishment is OK. Nonetheless, the word is used far too much. In particular, one supposes, speaking of “dissent” in connection with the Notre Dame theology department would be disedifying behavior.
Cunningham undoubtedly believes that those who are called dissenters do good things. It’s harder to accept that he believes that the examples he gives represent the kinds of things at issue. He is writing as a certified expert attempting to clarify things for the Catholic public. His main point is that there should be much less suspicion of what liberal academics, activists, functionaries and what not are up to. The way he argues the point doesn’t give me the feeling the suspicions are unfounded. He’s writing like someone who wants to presume on his authority to obfuscate issues.