Silencing No Safeguard of Truth

Article excerpt

Tactic seen as injustice and offense to the common good

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 Kung 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. …