In reviewing those whom I have viewed as spiritual mentors, I realized that a majority of them would fit the definition of dissident: “disagreeing especially with an established religious or political system, organization, or belief”. In general there have been two types of Catholic dissidents. The first are those whose faith is a stepping stone to protest against an existing government or issue. Examples of this type of dissident would be Dorothy Day and Daniel Berrigan. Dorothy Day, a convert to Catholicism, believed her faith called her to speak out on behalf of the poor. Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest, followed his faith in protesting the Viet Nam war and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
The second type of dissident is one who speaks out against some dysfunctional aspect of the Church itself. St. John XXIII in his effort through Vatican II was such a dissident. The other such dissident was Jesus Christ Himself whose efforts to reform the Judaism of His day led to His death. Other dissidents such as Thomas Merton and Pope Francis straddle both areas.
What does it mean to be a Catholic dissident? Rather than being influenced by the politicians of the day, the Catholic dissident uses the teachings of Jesus as his/her reference point for determining a stand on the issues of the day. This, I believe is what Pope Francis is trying to do in addressing the moral and political issues of the day. He has endured brutal criticism as a result.
The Catholic dissident will speak up to anyone from a parish priest to a Bishop regarding the issues of the day. Essentially the Catholic dissident finds his/her voice. The Catholic dissident does not sit passively in the pew but is willing to take risks to address issues, whether political or specifically Catholic.
Some Catholics ranging from Thomas Merton to Garry Wills are able to voice their dissident opinions in writing, thereby gaining a larger audience. Such writers are at times censured by the Catholic establishment. Teilhard de Chardin and Matthew Fox are examples.
Catholic dissidents who favor a more compassionate approach to issues such as sexual identity and abortion need to be aware that within the Church is an increasingly vocal Right Wing intent on returning the Church to a more traditional, male-dominated structure. This Right Wing is becoming increasingly vocal bot in print and in protest. Thus, those dissidents who speak up on behalf of the poor and the marginalized can expect a hostile reaction from the Catholic Right.
At this time Catholic dissidents remain active in holding the Church accountable for its failures in addressing the sex abuse scandal. Dissidents are actively moving their organizations in a more environmentally sensitive direction to honor Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si. In a few Churches we are even hearing women preach.
Becoming a dissident Catholic can bring an element of vitality to one’s faith. It can also bring attack. Thus, in my own effort to encourage a diocesan response to the sex abuse scandal, I was labelled an enemy of the Church. So it goes.
Finally the Catholic dissident must find within his/her heart a capacity to listen to those of another belief. The political and religious exchanges of the day are greatly missing any efforts to listen. The Catholic dissident must also speak from a humble heart that gives rise to a desire to help and heal but not to be “right”.