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Conclusion: Dissent in the Roman Catholic Church: A Response

  • Judith Gruber (a1)


The contributions to this roundtable weave a rich tapestry of dissent in the Roman Catholic Church. Together, they expose some of the divergent voices within the church—voices that resist easy reconciliation and unification. Dissent, this roundtable shows, takes many forms; it can be directed ad intra (Willard) or ad extra (Gonzalez Maldonado), it can be geared toward the justification of hegemonic structures (Slattery) or aim at their subversion (Steidl). Moreover, these contributions do not just highlight the multiplicity of voices within the church. Indeed, each of them points to conflict and contestation between the diverse Catholicisms they discuss: each of these sometimes-contradictory Catholicisms claims to be authentically and normatively Catholic. This indicates that a discourse about plurality within the church is at the same time a discourse about the struggle for sovereignty of interpretation over the church. Further, the contributions also show that these contestations over the right to define orthodoxy take place under asymmetrical relations of authority and power. The struggle over right belief and right practice is first and foremost a struggle over who has a voice to define Catholic orthodoxy in the first place—who can participate, from which position, in this struggle? Ultimately, therefore, this roundtable demonstrates that questions of normativity by no means become arbitrary or sidelined once we reveal the silent and silenced voices underneath the established master narrative of the church about itself as one and stable. Yet, at the same time, it also becomes obvious that established theological approaches to this inner-ecclesial plurality no longer hold. The dominant theological readings of Catholic tradition have always reckoned with a history of plural, deviant Catholicisms, but they have subjected this inner-ecclesial plurality to the theological ideal and a historical construction of unity and consensus. However, as Gaillardetz and Slattery point out, this narrative of unity has lost both its innocence and its self-evidence as the only legitimate framework for organizing the “raw material” of Catholic tradition. Rereadings of church history through the lens of power-critical studies make visible that Catholic tradition, too, is a power/knowledge regime. They reveal that orthodoxy is, in a literal sense, “heresy”: it takes its shape through epistemopolitical choices (αἵρεσις); it is forged through the exclusion of alternative theological narratives. Where do we stand after this destabilization of tradition, after this loss of innocence? Once stability and consensus have been problematized as the normative organizing principles of Catholic tradition, how else should we think of the church? Can we develop alternative models that take conflict and contestation into account as constitutive moments in our understanding of the church, rather than an afterthought to be eradicated?



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73 The relevant bibliography is by now extensive, and I will not attempt to provide a comprehensive list. (Rather random) examples for power-critical analyses of the pre-Constantinian era are Boyarin, Daniel, Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004); Royalty, Robert M., The Origin of Heresy: A History of Discourse in Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity (New York: Routledge, 2013); Burrus, Virginia, The Making of a Heretic: Gender, Authority, and the Priscillianist Controversy (Berkeley: University of California, 1995); Lyman, Rebecca, “Hellenism and Heresy,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 11, no. 2 (2003), 209222; Iricinschi, Eduard and Zellentin, Holger M., eds., Heresy and Identity in Late Antiquity (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008).

74 Cf. Keenan, Marie, Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church: Gender, Power, and Organizational Culture (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

75 Rancière, Jacques, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics (London and New York: Continuum, 2010); Butler, Judith, “Critique, Dissent, Disciplinarity,” in Conceptions of Critique in Modern and Contemporary Philosophy, ed. de Boer, Professor K. et al. (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 1029.

76 Pope Paul VI, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), December 7, 1965,

77 In his commentary on Gaudium et Spes, Hans-Joachim Sander has developed a strong argument for this reading of the document. See Sander, Hans-Joachim, “Theologischer Kommentar zur Pastoralen Konstitution über die Kirche,” in Herders theologischer Kommentar zum Zweiten Vatikanischen Konzil, ed. Hünermann, Peter, Hilberath, Bernd J., and Bausenhart, Guido (Freiburg and Basel: Herder, 2009), 581886.

78 See Jason Steidl, in an earlier, longer version of his contribution to this roundtable: “After the Christmas Eve action, however, CPLR's leadership became more concerned with legal defense than continuing protest. Although they organized one more protest, in which CPLR members symbolically burned their baptismal certificates, they would never reach the height of infamy that they achieved that Christmas Eve. In fact, most CPLR members would never return to the Church again. After the fallout from the protest, they believed the Church was more an obstacle for Chicano civil rights than a resource. Some, such as leader Richard Cruz, gave up their faith entirely. This begs the question—which cannot be answered—about the sincerity of their relationship to the church in the first place. Were they really concerned about the church for the church's sake, or was the ecclesial body a mere instrument to advance the Chicano civil rights agenda?”

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Conclusion: Dissent in the Roman Catholic Church: A Response

  • Judith Gruber (a1)


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