Volume > Issue > What do the Dissenters in & around the Catholic Church Really Want? — Three Views

What do the Dissenters in & around the Catholic Church Really Want? — Three Views


By Herbert J. Ryan, Avery Dulles & Richard Malone | January-February 1989
Ed. Note: In a letter to the editor in our June 1988 issue, Sheldon Vanauken contended that the dissenters "appear to be not only denying but at­tempting to destroy the Magisterium (the teaching authority of the Church)." Yet, he expressed some perplexity as to what, deep down, they really want. "We need to know. Can we find out?" he said. "Not by asking [them] bluntly," he continued, fearing that they would be too defensive. So he asked that the NOR enlist some non-dissenting theologians to tell us. Accordingly, varied responses from three distinguished theologians follow. (As usual, com­ments from readers are welcome.)

Considering Dissent from the Perspective of History

Historians whose research centers on the ori­gins of Christianity constantly rediscover that the religious experience which Jesus of Nazareth had is the source from which the Christian movement sprang. So potent was that experience that Jesus’ followers believed him to be God’s final and per­sonal self-disclosure to the human race. The inner structure of Jesus’ religious experience radically al­tered what had been the traditional Jewish insights of monotheism and Yahweh’s covenant with his people. Followers of Jesus believed that the one God must be triune and that Jesus himself, when all was said and done, had to be the Logos or Word, the second person of the Trinity. Those who accepted God’s self-disclosure in Jesus to be nor­mative for their own religious experience did so be­cause they had received the gift of faith through the action of the Holy Spirit and thought of them­selves as members of a new people covenanted to the Triune God in Jesus.

Specialists in historical theology agree that it is not by chance that the first great theological de­bates to trouble the Christian movement were the Trinitarian and Christological controversies which convulsed the Christian communities of the first five centuries of our era. What was at issue ultimate­ly in these controversies was the very nature of God’s self-disclosure of what he was really like and what those to whom he was revealing himself might become. In the initial centuries of its existence, the Christian movement explained its own identity by proclaiming an understanding both of God and hu­mankind in Jesus. Yet the Christian Church could not have articulated its identity against Arius, Macedonius, Nestorius, and Eutyches in the first four Ecumenical Councils had it not even earlier in its history developed criteria for doctrinal discern­ment and a process to judge doctrinal dissent.

As Christianity arises from profound personal religious experience, so is it meant to deepen that experience for each Christian. Christianity’s clarity of vision of the triune God’s offer of a New Cove­nant in Jesus to all human beings depends on the prayerful and disciplined reflection of Christians on their communal faith experience. Christians re­alize that in accepting the Holy Spirit’s gift of faith, in responding to the revelation in Jesus, they join a community whose religious experience is in his­toric continuity with that of Jesus of Nazareth. Christians know that they ought willingly to share their religious experience with their faith commun­ity and anticipate that the community will deepen, nuance, and develop their faith experience in the light of the religious experience the community has had from Jesus’ time to their own.

By dialogue and discernment during the first 150 years of its existence, the Christian movement established criteria and found the personnel and processes for maintaining continuity with Jesus’ re­ligious experience. That continuity required Chris­tianity to separate from Judaism. Though distinct from Judaism, Christianity affirmed its Jewish roots against Marcion’s morally rigorist gnosticism which held that Jesus’ God was not the God of the Old Covenant. Justin Martyr and Irenaeus unabashedly borrowed from Greek philosophy in arguing against the Gnostics’ position that an evil God made the material universe and a good God made whatever is spiritual. Yet the Apologists’ very arguments direct­ed against the Gnostics forced Christians to modify the Greek philosophical understanding of God’s transcendence. A God covenanted to his people could not be unmoved by or indifferent to his crea­tion.

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