Moral theologian says church dissent is normal


ROCK HILL — An audience of more than 100 came to hear Father Richard McCormick speak at The Oratory for the 17th Cardinal Newman Lecture. The Oratory’s Newman Lecture has become one of South Carolina’s classic Catholic annual events. The day po ses a unique opportunity for people of faith to listen to a contemporary Catholic thinker discuss critical current topics. Father McCormick, a Jesuit priest and professor of Christian Ethics at the University of Notre Dame, spoke on two topics — dissent i n the church and physician-assisted suicide.

The author of seven books on moral theology, Father McCormick’s scholarship and his analytical and often wry teaching style illuminated the morning talk on questions of dissent in the Church.

Father McCormick argued that dissent in today’s Church is not necessarily a destructive experience that undermines the faith of loyal Catholics. Indeed, disagreements at all levels of the church occur, he said, because the Second Vatican Council intent ionally unlocked the Church’s doors to a spirit of openness and critique that had not previously existed in the Church.

To support his claim, Father McCormick pointed to key themes in the constitutions of the Second Vatican Council. Among other factors, the council recognized the newness of problems in rapidly changing times. Council documents point to the need to enter tain a variety of competencies among lay people, while recognizing with modesty its own competencies in the modern world. Documents also point to a need for free inquiry, for independence of the sciences, and acknowledgement of legitimate pluralism.

These and other factors are why dissent is more apparent in the post-conciliar church. “If you squirm,” said Father McCormick, “it says something about your psychology, but it doesn’t take from what the Council said.”

Turning his attention to the question of what dissent in the Church means for us, Father McCormick said that critical responses by competent, responsible Catholics to the teaching of the magisterium indicates a “docile personal attempt to assimilate” t he teaching of the Church. Dissent, he argued, has to be properly understood as the end “of an arduous, prayerful process to make the teaching my own,” as much as it is a beginning of a new reflection in the Church.

Father McCormick’s afternoon lecture on physician-assisted suicide was part an outline of some of the key issues and part an effort to affect public opinion. Pointing to the sympathetic treatment of physician-assisted suicide in two important appellate court decisions, Father McCormick warned of the “sea change” in public opinion concerning this topic.

A key element in this new, sympathetic response to physician-assisted suicide is what Father McCormick called the “absolutization of autonomy,” or a Kevorkian-like emphasis placed on patient/customer needs over the doctor’s authority and expertise. Con nected to this is the medical profession’s increasing focus on the business side.

When business judgements override professional judgments, he argued, a shift in medical values occurs, which adversely affect everything from the doctor/patient relationship to a doctor’s motives for practicing medicine.

When Father McCormick’s listeners had a chance to respond at the end of the day, they completed and colored in the more conceptual and analytical elements of his talk with their own experiences, memories, and stories.