Richard McBrien of Notre Dame is one of the most high profile dissenters from Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality. In his latest column, he marks the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae by quoting both his own words and those of other dissenting theologians and bishops.
Now, what I want to draw attention to is the fact that this dissenting column is published in the official paper of one of the largest archdioceses in the United States, Los Angeles. We might safely assume that the paper’s publisher, Cardinal Roger Mahony, is in agreement with McBrien’s questioning (of this and related Catholic teachings, which often make up the substance of his columns). “Diogenes,” writing for Catholic World News, notes McBrien’s call for debate and says, “Great idea: a serious discussion, a real debate. Just one thing: It won’t be easy to have a real debate until there’s room in the newspaper columns for someone other than Father McBrien and his allies.”
Some of those concerned about papal power point to Humanae Vitae as an example of papal authoritarianism. The fact that after 40 years theologians, reputable Catholic publications, and even bishops and archbishops still snub it forces us to reconsider the nature of Catholic authority. Contrary to what Protestants tend to think, it is not centralized in the pope, but is in fact localized at many different levels, in the person of each bishop and parish pastor. Whether a pastor wants to encourage dissent or faithfulness from the pulpit, the bishop won’t stop him (unless, from the pulpit, he criticizes the bishop or a diocesan office). Whether a bishop wants to require NFP for every couple who wants a Catholic wedding or make it hard to find, the Vatican won’t step in. Whether a diocese encourages teaching of Catholic theology or sticks it in a pigeonhole as one option among many, it’s up to the bishop and his bureaucrats. There’s no accountability; only the concerted effort by each authority figure to maintain his own authority.
See also John Allen’s op-ed in the New York Times.