Silencing priests weakens Church authority — Sean O’Conaill
Why exactly does the Catholic magisterium seek to prevent Catholic priests from questioning magisterial positions, even on merely disciplinary matters?
The only good reason surely must be to strengthen the authority of those positions, to persuade us that those positions are the only correct ones.
However, I have to say that for this particular Irish Catholic the action recently taken against six Irish priests has had precisely the opposite effect. I strongly believe that the authority of the magisterium itself, and of all clergy who expressly support its positions on controversial disciplinary issues, has never been more seriously undermined in Ireland than by this action.
The reason is that in Ireland we tend to give authority to teachers in proportion to their disinterestedness – the degree to which they obviously derive no personal benefit from what they teach. So, the few Catholic clergy who disregarded the Irish penal laws of the period 1691-1750 gained authority from the fact that they had nothing to gain and everything to lose by staying in Ireland and proclaiming what they taught.
It is no accident that the authority of Catholic clergy in our own era has declined markedly in proportion to what they may gain by supporting automatically the positions of the magisterium. It is obvious for example, that Irish clergy had everything to lose in terms of promotion in the church by questioning Humanae Vitae in 1968.
That is not to say that those who supported Humanae Vitae then and since necessarily lost their authority. That position was unpopular with many, so adherence to it could also be a sign of integrity.
Now, however, every priest in Ireland who adheres vocally to the magisterial line on any controversial matter will be subject to the gibe: “But you must say that, mustn’t you?”
By placing sanctions on all contrary positions, even on merely disciplinary matters, the magisterium has attached a disproportionate institutional advantage to every position it seeks to uphold – and inevitably weakened those positions. We now cannot know whether a compliant Irish cleric really believes what he says or writes, (on, say the need to maintain mandatory celibacy), or is doing so merely for personal advantage.
The situation reminds me very strongly of the era when communist theory lost authority everywhere because of the suppression of all dissent in the Soviet Union. Committed communists in every country lost credibility because of that unanswerable question: “But you must say that, mustn’t you?”
How sad this is when we recall the Vatican II declaration on religious freedom: “Truth can impose itself on the mind of man only in virtue of its own truth, which wins over the mind with both gentleness and power.”