by Deacon Nick Donnelly

Over the past two years our world as Catholics has been turned upside down, to the point that we are often called ‘dissenters’, ‘ideologues’ or ‘fundamentalists’ for upholding the Faith of the Church as contained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I’ve come to the conclusion that these labels are being increasingly used by those seeking to change Church teaching in order to intimidate, dismiss and exclude faithful Catholics from public discussions about the doctrines of the Church.


The ‘progressive’ Catholic magazine The Tablet recently accused Catholics of dissent when they expressed concerns about Pope Francis’ pontificate. Michael Sean Winters wrote:

‘I’m reluctant to use the word hypocrisy, but remember when some of these conservatives were calling others in the Church ‘Cinos’ [Catholics in Name Only], ‘Catholyks’, and ‘Cafeteria Catholics’? Now they [Conservative Catholics] are dissenters because some teachings of Pope Francis don’t conform to the interests of American conservatism’.

Michael Winters concludes that these conservative dissenters should be feared because they could ‘organise resistance and destructive efforts to separate elements of the Church from the Holy Father’.

Cardinal Wuerl calls faithful Catholics dissenters

Such attacks against faithful Catholics have become commonplace from Catholic journals that oppose many of the Church’s doctrines, especially on sexual morality. But a new, and totally unexpected development, is cardinals and bishops espousing the same hostility by calling faithful Catholics ‘dissenters’. Cardinal Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, used his blog to launch an attack on Catholics critical about recent developments in the Church, which has been interpreted as a criticism of Cardinal Burke:

‘As I was watching the Holy Father on TV, my inbox was filling with a number of emails including an interview and an article by brother bishops who are less than enthusiastic about Pope Francis. Those emails reminded me of a much, much earlier time in my life when I first experienced dissent from the teaching and practice of a pope. ‘

Why disagreeing with Pope Francis at times is not dissent?

Cardinal Wuerl and other critics of faithful Catholics make a basic mistake when they characterise as ‘dissenters’ those who in any way disagree with, or criticise, Pope Francis. They are mistakenly elevating all the Holy Fathers words and actions to the level of magisterial teaching. Pope Francis himself has indicated that his daily homilies at St Martha’s and his interviews with the press must not be considered magisterial teaching. Fr Lombardi, the Director of the Holy See’s press office, has explained that this is the reason why they do not broadcast Pope Francis’s daily homilies:

‘We must insist on the fact that, in all of the Pope’s activities, the difference between different situations and celebrations, as well as the different levels of authority of his words, must be understood and respected.’

Pope Francis even indicates that his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium is not a magisterial teaching when he sets out the ‘Scope and Limits of the Exhortation’. The Holy Father writes, ‘Nor do I believe that the papal Magisterium should be expected to offer a definitive or complete word on every question which affects the Church and the world.’ (16). As Cardinal Burke explains, by stating that Evangelii Gaudium is not an exercise of the papal Magisterium it should be seen as an ‘expression of the pope’s personal thinking’ which we receive with respect, but do not interpret as teaching ‘an official doctrine’.

For this reason Cardinal Wuerl and Michael Sean Winters are misrepresenting the meaning of the word ‘dissent’ when they apply it to all disagreement with, and criticism of, Pope Francis. Such disagreement and criticism would only be ‘dissent’ if expressed against Pope Francis’ exercise of the papal Magisterium. The Second Vatican Council Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, makes clear the attitude we must take to any genuine exercise of the Magisterium by Pope Francis:

‘Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme Magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.’ (LG 25).

Simply put, all the faithful have an obligation to make a ‘religious submission of mind and will’ when Pope Francis exercises his supreme Magisterium as a witness ‘to divine and Catholic truth’ in matters of faith and morals. Having said this, it is important that we always listen to Pope Francis’ non-magisterial words with attention and respect as the Successor of St Peter.

We must be vigilant that any disagreement with the Holy Father does not descend into calumny and detraction which are mortal sins. I’m sad to say that I’ve seen some Catholic blogs that post tirades of vitriol and hate against the Holy Father which are gravely immoral and fill me with concern for the mental health and eternal destiny of the authors.

Not only dissenters, but also fundamentalists

Over the past two years not only have faithful Catholics been dismissed as dissenters, but we have also been stigmatised as ‘fundamentalists’. In 2014, Cardinal Kasper accused faithful clergy and laity who uphold the Church’s teaching on marriage and adultery of espousing a ‘theological fundamentalism which is not Catholic’. By characterising faithful Catholics as ‘fundamentalists’ Cardinal Kasper appears to be seeking to portray those who defend the Church’s doctrine as having something in common with the intolerance, hate and violence that is the root cause of terrorism. By using the pejorative ‘fundamentalist’ Kasper is clearly attempting to discredit and nullify all who uphold the doctrines of the Church.

I have personally witnessed the opponents of the Catholic faith attempt to discredit and exclude from public discourse those who uphold her doctrines by using the label ‘fundamentalist’. In 2007 I worked closely with Bishop Patrick O’Donoghue on his pastoral renewal programme Fit for Mission?, part of which included his publication of Fit for Mission? Schools, that set out his directives on safeguarding the Catholic ethos of schools. Among other things, Bishop Patrick insisted that Catholic schools must teach the Church’s doctrine on sexual morality and chastity, while also prohibiting the teaching of the ‘safe sex’ contraceptive mentality to children.

Barry Sheerman MP, the Chairman of the House of Commons select committee for Children, Schools and Families took great exception to the fact of a Catholic bishop publicly insisting that Catholic schools teach the Catholic Faith to Catholic children. Barry Sheerman expressed his outrage in the anti-Catholic newspapers The Observer and The Guardian newspapers:

‘'It seems to me that faith education works all right as long as people are not that serious about their faith. But as soon as there is a more doctrinaire attitude questions have to be asked. It does become worrying when you get a new push from more fundamentalist bishops.’

Back in 2007 I would never have imagined that seven years later a cardinal attending an Extraordinary Synod on marriage and the family would use the same accusation of fundamentalism against fellow bishops and the faithful for upholding doctrine. It seems to me that Cardinal Kasper likewise objects to Catholics being serious about their faith.

Living in hope of reconciliation?

I’m concerned that this ‘demonisation’ of faithful Catholics for resisting the pressure to accept adultery, and sex outside of marriage in all its immoral forms, will only increase as we approach the 2015 synod. I also fear that the attacks against Cardinal Burke and the other faithful cardinals will become more personal and violent. We have already witnessed the spokesman for the Canadian Basilian Order, Fr Timothy Scott, post an obscene tweet demanding that Cardinal Burke ‘shut up’.

The French ‘progressive’ Catholic magazine, Golias, has taken this hostility towards faithful Catholics to its natural conclusion by demanding that Catholics like Cardinal Burke should be driven out of the Church by the ‘authorities’ as soon as possible.

I take consolation from the example of St Athanasius of Alexandria who was ‘demonised’ and persecuted for his steadfast fidelity to the doctrines of the Church. We must hope that like St Athanasius our resolute and loving witness to the truth will eventually lead to the conversion of our accusers, as occurred in St Athanasius’ life-time. In his ‘History of the Arians’ St Athanasius recounts the reconciliation he was able to reach, through the grace of God, through his example:

‘How many enemies repented! How many apologised who had formerly accused him falsely! How many who formerly hated him, now showed affection for him! How many of those who had written against him, recanted their assertions. Many also who had sided with the Arians, not through choice but by necessity, came by night and apologised themselves. They anathematized the Arian heresy, and besought him to pardon them, because, although through the plots and calumnies of these men they appeared physically at their side, yet in their hearts they held communion with Athanasius, and were always with him. Believe me, this is true.’ (Triumph of Athanasius).