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Doctrine and dissent

'Certain moral theologians have introduced a sharp distinction, contrary to Catholic doctrine'

Strong popes generate strong responses, not all of them harmonious.

John Paul II was no exception. Even as Catholics the world over responded to his forceful personality and decisive leadership, large numbers of the faithful disagreed with him on specific issues. Usually it was liberal Catholics who differed with John Paul, on such matters as contraception and homosexuality. Yet conservative Catholics objected to his stands on other questions, such as his opposition to the Gulf and Iraq wars and his critique of capitalism.

INAUGURATION DAY: On Oct. 22, 1978, the cardinals inaugurated Karol Wojtyla as leader of the world's nearly 1 billion Roman Catholics. The new pope took the name John Paul II and used his decisive and forceful leadership style to rein in progressive Catholics. (AP File Photo)
    More generally, there was John Paul's unwillingness to seek compromise or brook opposition from any quarter. ''He treats us like altar boys,'' the late Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago once complained. It was not an unrepresentative comment.

''It's not just dissent but dialogue that he eschews,'' said Michele Dillon, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire, and author of ''Catholic Identity: Balancing Reason, Faith, and Power.'' ''This clearly contravenes [a] much longer history of a plurality of ideas within the church itself on various questions.''

Not all agree. ''John Paul's 'alleged authoritarianism' and 'strict view toward dissent' just won't wash,'' said George Weigel. Added Weigel, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of ''Witness to Hope,'' a biography of the pope, ''The pope's declared theological enemies remain in control of many faculties of theology around the world, 24 years into the pontificate; if this is repression, it's very ineffective repression.''

Yet John Paul did not hesitate to use his authority throughout his pontificate, the fourth longest in history. Declaring that priests and nuns had to stay outside partisan politics, he ordered US Representative Robert F. Drinan (D-Mass.), a Jesuit priest, to give up his seat in Congress in 1980. There were highly publicized disciplinings of the theologians Hans Kung and Charles E. Curran in 1979 and 1986, respectively. A monitor was appointed in 1985 to oversee Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen of Seattle, because of his opposition to church teachings on contraception, homosexuality, divorce, and related matters.

John Paul did not restrict the exercise of his authority to either side of the political spectrum. In 1985 Leonardo Boff, a Brazilian Franciscan, was punished with a year of ''obedient silence'' because of his efforts as a leading theorist of liberation theology to meld Marxism and Catholicism (he later left the priesthood). Three years later French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, a rightist dissident, was excommunicated.

Speaking at a 1987 meeting with US bishops in Los Angeles, John Paul called it a ''grave error'' to think a person could dissent from church teachings and remain a good Catholic. That same year, he said, ''What is taught by the church on contraception is not a matter that can be discussed freely by theologians.''

Such statements did more to inflame opposition than quell it. In 1989, about 400 Catholic theologians signed the ''Cologne declaration,'' charging the pope with requiring blind obedience and with ignoring the church's historic practice of constructive questioning. The Rev. Bernard Haring, a moral theologian who differed with the Vatican on contraception, said of the 1993 encyclical, ''Veritatis Splendor (Splendor of the Truth)'': ''It is directed, above all, toward one goal: to endorse total assent and submission to all utterances of the pope.''

The controversial Catholic journalist John Cornwell has written, ''John Paul has presided over a bias toward centralized power ... unprecedented since the reign of Pius XII.''

Kung, the Swiss theologian, said by the time of the pope's 25th anniversary John Paul had returned the church to a pre-Vatican Council era of ''obey, pray, pay, and suffer.''

Archbishop John R. Quinn, retired head of the San Francisco Archdiocese and a leading moderate voice in the church hierarchy, offered a more measured view. ''While John Paul II has tended toward increasing centralization,'' Quinn said, ''he has repeatedly spoken of the importance of collegiality and of changing the way the papacy is exercised, making it more collegial. There is a certain disparity between public policy and public stance on this issue.''

Differences arise under all popes, of course. ''Dissent is a problem in any institution that stands for a body of truth,'' said Cardinal Avery Dulles, a conservative and prominent theologian. ''Even if the church were democratically organized, there would be a problem. If you want to stand for one definite position, you have to exclude another.''

Yet few modern pontificates have known a more consistent or vigorous exercise of authority than John Paul's. Some see the roots of his style of leadership in his background. Karol Wojtyla grew up in an authoritarian society, prewar Poland. He endured the Nazi occupation during World War II and was briefly arrested by the Gestapo. As archbishop of Krakow, he was a symbol of opposition to Soviet Communism.

''He never lived in a free, pluralistic society,'' said Rev. Thomas P. Rausch, a Jesuit theologian who teaches at Loyola Marymount University, in Los Angeles. ''The church in Poland survived under communism because it was absolutely united under its bishops and spoke with one voice. A pluralistic church would not have survived.''

A more pluralistic church was widely seen as one of the chief legacies of the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II began under John XXIII and concluded early in the pontificate of Paul VI, more than a dozen years before John Paul became pope. Yet its effects continue to be felt. ''It may well be one of the reasons for the crisis that occurred following the council was that people had been led to think that kind of openness and readiness to rethink and change would continue,'' said Rev. Francis A. Sullivan, a professor of theology at Boston College.

Did John Paul consolidate the reforms of Vatican II or undercut them? How one answers this question largely determines how one sees his relationship to dissent.

A natural compromiser, Paul VI did not confront many of the conflicts the council gave rise to - or those inspired by his 1968 encyclical on contraception, ''Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life).''

''In the later years of Paul VI's pontificate, there was a sense of drift,'' Dulles said, ''and people did not know what could or could not be proposed in the church. There was a great vagueness about doctrine; everything had been opened up by the Second Vatican Council.''

John Paul, who as auxiliary bishop and later archbishop of Krakow attended every session of the council, did not follow Paul's conciliatory yet indecisive approach. ''When John Paul was elected pope,'' Rausch said, ''he came in with a sense that some firm control was necessary, that a reassertion of discipline was very important.''

This reassertion of papal discipline was felt most acutely in Western Europe and North America, where affluence and democracy have long encouraged independent thinking, even in religion. For example, a 1999 Gallup poll showed 80 percent of US Catholics - and 50 percent of US priests - approved of artificial contraception; and in 2001 The Economist magazine cited a University of Maryland poll in which two-thirds of US Catholics surveyed thought that when their conscience differed from what the pope taught, they should follow their conscience.

One sign of this independence has been the rise of lay Catholic groups across the political spectrum, such as Voice of the Faithful, Future Church, and Coalition of Catholic Faithful. The argument has been made that the occurrence of dissent during John Paul's pontificate was exaggerated because a disproportionate share of it took place in the West, which accounts for barely a third of the global Catholic population. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, once dismissed dissent among US Catholics as indicative of ''bourgeois Christianity.''

John T. McGreevy, who teaches history at Notre Dame and wrote ''Catholicism and American Freedom,'' criticized that view as limited. ''The larger issue is modernization,'' McGreevy said. ''For most of the world, democracy has become part of becoming a modern society. In that sense the intensity of Catholic dissent on gender/sexuality issues isn't simply an American problem ... but a problem for any vibrant local Catholic church in a modernizing society.''

Regardless of whether the issue of dissent in the church is seen as more regional or global, its place in the pontificate of John Paul comes back to John Paul.

''No one would accuse John Paul of being a weak or vacillating pope,'' Dulles said. ''He is not afraid to create some ripples.''

Mark Feeney can be reached at

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