When I posted my first article on Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy’s letter to Pope Francis, along with the story behind the letter, I expected it would get attention. I didn’t expect, however, that it would go viral, with a constant stream of comments, tweets, and Facebook posts, many of them from sites and sources not usually associated with Catholic World Report. As Fr. Weinandy told me earlier today, he has received hundreds of positive e-mails, from many different countries and many of them from laity who welcomed his letter as giving voice to their own concerns.
But, of course, the response has not been positive in all corners. Fr. James Martin, S.J., who has openly admitted that he is not a theologian and has blithely argued that the Catechism’s teaching on homosexuality should be changed, decided to trot out the “d” word:
How someone who had long accused others of dissent is now dissenting, and what his own process of discernment might tell us about Pope Francis’s critics:
“Dissent, Now & Then: Thomas Weinandy and the meaning of Jesuit discernment” https://t.co/XOjY2YLlBT
— James Martin, SJ (@JamesMartinSJ) November 3, 2017
Fr. Martin has obvious skills in promotion and marketing (and I speak as someone who spent several years in marketing). In reading his America article on the matter, I wondered if he was also considering a career as a comedian. For instance, he writes: “Father Weinandy made public a stinging letter to the Holy Father in which he dissented from Pope Francis’ teachings.” Oh? And what teachings, exactly, would those be? As Fr. Weinandy wrote in his letter to His Holiness:
First there is the disputed Chapter 8 of “Amoris Laetitia.” I need not share my own concerns about its content. Others, not only theologians, but also cardinals and bishops, have already done that. The main source of concern is the manner of your teaching. In “Amoris Laetitia,” your guidance at times seems intentionally ambiguous, thus inviting both a traditional interpretation of Catholic teaching on marriage and divorce as well as one that might imply a change in that teaching. (emphasis added)
Now, in order to dissent—using that word in a general and non-technical, non-canonical way—one needs to know what he is dissenting from. Fr. Weinandy rightly notes that the ambiguity which has plagued this pontificate from the start, notable in parts of Amoris Laetitia but hardly confined to it; such ambiguity makes actual dissent impossible. After all, if Fr. Weinandy were to say that AL teaches that the divorced-and-civilly-remarried can now receive Holy Communion under certain situations, he would be agreeing with the bishops of Malta, Germany, and a few other countries; if he held that AL teaches that Holy Communion cannot, in fact, be received by the same except under guidelines already given by Pope John Paul II, he would be agreeing with any number of other bishops (Archbishops Chaput and Sample, among many others) as well as with perennial Church teaching.
Put another way, in the matter of AL, it’s impossible to dissent because it’s not clear what is being taught or not taught!
Which, of course, is why Fr. Weinandy remarks on “the manner” of Pope Francis’ teaching. Now, can one dissent from the pope’s manner of teaching? I think even the most theologically naive among us might be able to figure that one out. But Fr. Martin, as is his loose and slippery style, isn’t altogether interested in clarity or details. Another example demonstrates this fact: regarding Fr. Weinandy’s criticism—when working for the USCCB as head of the Committee on Doctrine—of the theological method of Terrence Tilley as it applies to Christology, Fr. Martin states:
About Professor Tilley, he had written, ‘Those who argue in a manner similar to Tilley with regard to what is to be the content of faith also often espouse contraception, abortion, fornication.” In other words, because Professor Tilley happens to argue in a particular way, he also supports abortion—a breathtaking leap of logic.
But here is what Fr. Weinandy actually wrote:
However, his [Tilley’s] own criteria [which involves assessing doctrinal models and formulations on the basis of what is taken to be their "fruits”] undercut his whole theological proposal. Those who argue in a manner similar to Tilley with regard to what is to be the content of faith also often espouse contraception, abortion, fornication, adultery, divorce and remarriage, masturbation, homosexual activity, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, etc. Tilley himself states in a footnote: “Laity seem to have been disaffected by the bishops’ preaching about sexual morality that is increasingly incredible.” While Tilley is not specific, one can presume that he would include at least some of the above list. However, the above enumeration is hardly the fruits of a holy life founded upon the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Note, contrary to what Fr. Martin asserts—that Fr. Weinandy claims Tilley actually supports abortion—Fr. Weinandy makes no such claim. He challenges the legitimacy of Tilley’s method by noting how others who argue in a similar way—that is, who employ a similar theological method to ascertain sound theological models—also espouse such things as contraception, abortion, and so forth. The closest Fr. Weinandy comes to doing what Fr. Martin claims is Fr. Weinandy’s quote from Tilley in which he refers to what he regards as laity’s seeming disaffection from the bishops’ teaching about sexual morality, which Tilley characterizes as “increasingly incredible” and Weinandy says that “one can presume that he would include at least some of the above list.”
Thus, again, Fr. Martin concludes from this statement that “because Professor Tilley happens to argue in a particular way, he also supports abortion—a breathtaking leap of logic.” There is indeed a breathtaking leap of logic here—but it is on Fr. Martin’s part. But perhaps I am being unkind to logic, which probably has no interest in being associated with such obvious feats of mediocre, clumsy sophistry.
One more from Fr. Martin:
Father Weinandy’s letter reveals once again the double standard often employed by many of Pope Francis’ critics. Under Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, no dissent was tolerated. Now some of the same people who were charged with enforcing rules against dissent are themselves dissenting.
If by “dissent” Fr. Martin means openly contesting, questioning, or denying Church teaching about, say, the ordination of women, sexual morality, contraception, the nature of the Eucharist, and so forth, then let’s cue the laugh track. In fact, the pontificate of John Paul II witnessed countless theologians and professors dissenting—and rarely if ever getting called on the carpet. Fr. Martin’s remark is not funny, but it is very misleading, even deceptive. Could it be that magic, not comedy, is Fr. Martin’s focus?
But, again, the big question here is: what is “dissent”? One can rightly question and criticize the way or timing of Fr. Weinandy—and I say that as someone who thinks his letter is entirely accurate and on point on every point. But one cannot, with any sort of intellectual integrity, make the case that Fr. Weinandy has dissented from Church doctrine or dogma. (Those interested in a brief if rather technical piece on dissent should read “Authority and Dissent in the Catholic Church” by the late Dr. William E. May.) On the contrary, as so many have already noted, Fr. Weinandy’s concern is that the authentic, clear, and consistent teaching of the Church is being obscured, undermined, or dismissed by the current pontiff, who certainly does have a low and even antagonistic view of theology and doctrine.
As I remarked in an editorial back in May, pondering some comments by Pope Francis:
… how does doctrine become an ideology? The problem, in part, is that Francis’ use of the term ideology is something like a shotgun blast: it sounds powerful and gets attention, but the exact target can be hard to locate. But it is clear, in keeping with the first point, that Francis sees ideology as being closed to the Holy Spirit. However, can true doctrine be ideological? It’s an interesting question. On one hand, it’s true that claiming a doctrinal statement captures the entirety of the mystery of Faith is incorrect, even dangerous; it is true that saying a particular school of theology perfectly and completely expresses the Faith has an ideological character; it is unsound and unwise. But adherence to true doctrine, it seems to me, cannot be ideological simply by holding fast to true doctrine. (There is, after all, a reason the Creed is recited every Sunday, to give just one example.) On the contrary, to defend and hold to doctrine is not only not ideological, it is part and parcel of being a Christian. So, for instance, if someone claimed that holding to the Church’s teaching that God is One (in nature) and Triune (in Persons) needs to be open to other views, would it be ideological to hold fast to the Church’s basic doctrine? Of course not.
A dissenter does not seek to uphold Church teaching, does not protect doctrine from misrepresentation, does not stand up for the perennial teachings of the Church, does not suggest the Church hold fast in the face of fanciful fads and popular passions. No, a dissenter likely tends to talk constantly of “dialogue” without any clear or firm purpose for such dialogue, probably hurries to assure his disciples that the Church will soon “update” and “change”, possibly argues that the Catechism needs to be rewritten to mean something opposite of what it once said, and perhaps even encourages actions that are directly contrary to the Church’s teachings and practices.
Fr. Weinandy protests on behalf of Church teaching. Fr. Martin apparently protests in frustration with Church teaching; he would do well to discern the log in his own eye before blindly seeking the non-existent splinter in someone else’s eye.