Countering the Culture of Dissent Within the Church

Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church "

By George Weigel
Basic Books, 2002


One would expect Pope John Paul II's leading biographer, George Weigel, to have some appropriate and relevant comments concerning the sexual scandals which have rocked the Church in the United States. As the senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, he notes in his 'Introduction', echoing many other observers of the American Catholic scene:

"In the first months of 2002, the Catholic Church in the U.S. entered the greatest crisis in its history."

Readers will find his analysis of the deep-seated causes of the crisis - whose ramifications have affected all sectors of Catholic life - comprehensive and compelling. "At the bottom of the bottom line," he observes, "every crisis in the Church is a crisis of fidelity." Starkly put, it has been infidelity to Church teaching on the part of bishops, priests, religious, and laity that has led to the current crisis of clergy sexual abuse, fueled by an alarming "culture of dissent" that has developed in the Church since the revolt against "Humanae Vitae" in 1968.

Our author writes that one cannot underestimate the damage done by the "wrecking crew" of dissident moral theologians who thumbed their noses at "Humanae Vitae" and brought into question the entire spectrum of Catholic sexual ethics. The virtue of chastity was the special casualty of the corrupt moral theology and "therapeutic" human sexuality education provided not only to youth but also to priests and religious who were thereby freed from the "authoritarian" and "rigid" teaching of the Magisterium.

Mr. Weigel is unsparing in his criticism of bishops for their failure to deal with the "culture of dissent." By "culture of dissent," he refers not only to the priests, women religious, theologians, catechists, Church bureaucrats, and radical activists of the "Catholic left," but also to some bishops who believe that what the Church proposes as true is actually false. This widespread "culture of dissent" has taught:

"two generations of Catholics that virtually [believe] everything in the Church was questionable: doctrine, morals, the priesthood, the episcopate, the lot."
(p. 72)

"Cafeteria Catholicism" and "Catholic lite" were the children of the 1968 "Humanae Vitae" controversy wherein:

"the lesson learned was that rejecting moral doctrines solemnly proclaimed by the Church's teaching authority was, essentially, penalty-free."

Weigel spares neither American bishops nor Roman authorities for the distressing failures to deal with the "subtle, interior, invisible schism" resulting from the rejection of "Humanae Vitae" that would create the present fissures and fractures in the Church today. With the erosion of her moral credibility, the Catholic Church is in serious danger of being reduced to but another denomination on the American scene.

Our author gives a splendid defense of priestly celibacy and handily refutes other facile explanations of the crisis in the Church:

  • the Church is too "authoritarian";
  • Vatican II;
  • the Church's unrealistic and obsolete sexual morality;
  • the problem among wayward priests is pedophilia, not homosexuality;
  • media bias is exclusively to blame; and so forth.

In reality, the root cause is the theological failure by American bishops to live up to their vocation and to implement Vatican II properly. They have become managers rather than apostles:

"They have failed to live the truth of who and what they are."
(p. 96)

Weigel insightfully explains how the Catholic university system, seminaries, and the burgeoning bureaucracies of the Church on the national and even parochial levels must be reformed.

In treating the "culture of dissent" as weakening Catholic resistance to the growing inroads of the secular state, our author surprisingly omits the key sentence found in the final statement of the U.S. cardinals at the conclusion of their Vatican summit meeting:

"The pastors of the Church need clearly to promote the correct moral teaching of the Church and publicly to reprimand individuals who spread dissent and groups which advance ambiguous approaches to pastoral care...."

Also overlooked is mention of the U.S. bishops' unfortunate 1968 pastoral letter "Humanae Vitae in Our Day" which sanctioned "responsible dissent" by theologians, thereby unleashing the tidal wave of "faithful dissent" which continues to trouble the Church in the United States.

George Weigel has written a truly courageous book that not only exposes the evils that have rocked the Church but also heralds real hope for the future of the Church in the United States. He rightly concludes:

"Living the adventure of orthodoxy is the only answer to the crisis of fidelity that is the crisis of the Catholic Church in the United States.... Rediscovering the courage to be Catholic is the way in which all the people of the Church - bishops, priests, laity - will transform scandal into reform, and crisis into opportunity.... It will happen."
(p. 231)

About James Likoudis
James Likoudis is an expert in Catholic apologetics. He is the author of several books dealing with Catholic-Eastern Orthodox relations, including his most recent "The Divine Primacy of the Bishop of Rome and Modern Eastern Orthodoxy: Letters to a Greek Orthodox on the Unity of the Church." He has written many articles published by various religious papers and magazines.
He can be reached at:, or visit  Mr. James Likoudis' Homepage