Many American Catholics disagree with Church teaching on matters such as contraception, pre-marital sex and lying. Moreover, while in the case of lying, the disagreement might be attributed to ignorance of the Church's teaching, in the case of contraception and pre-marital sex, the media ensure that almost everybody basically knows what the Church teaches in this area (albeit not why).
I want to argue that the dissent should worry even those liberal theologians who themselves disagree with the Church's teaching. Why? For I suspect, albeit without scientific data, that the following are true of typical dissenting American Catholics in the case of disagreement with the Church's moral teaching:
- They are unaware of the best theological and philosophical arguments given for the Church's teaching, both historically and presently.
- They do not know the degree to which they themselves rely on Catholic tradition in the case of the teachings they do accept (such as those on the Trinity, or those against targeting civilians with nuclear weapons).
- Their reason for dissent is not due to having a knock-down theological or philosophical argument for their position, but rather their disagreement with the Church can be explained by a combination of the following factors: (a) certain perceived benefits of acting not in accord with Church teaching, (b) the fact that the surrounding society sees the Church's teaching on this matter as absurd, and, let us charitably suppose, (c) the individual conscience's failure to prohibit the activity which the Church prohibits.
Now let us say that the liberal theologian agrees with the typical dissenting American Catholic on the concrete matter—they both think, say, that contraception is not wrong. Nonetheless, the liberal Catholic theologian should not be pleased about the dissent. For if dissent is ever permissible, surely it is only permissible after one has reviewed the very best arguments in favor of the Church's teaching. There is, after all, a presumption that the Church is right—surely to accept such a presumption is essential to Catholicism—and to overcome that presumption, a very strong argument is needed. This strong argument requires an examination of the arguments to the contrary, unless the argument against the Church's teaching is a knock-down argument, which it is not (point (3)). Hence, (1) is going to be a serious problem.
Dissent from the Church's teaching is a serious decision. It should be important to the liberal theologian that the decision be made on the right grounds, in a sufficiently knowledgeable way, on consistent principles. Point (2) is a problem here. The liberal theologian may have a story as to why she accepts the consubstantiality of the three persons of the Trinity and the impermissibility of targeting civilians in war, while rejecting the impermissibility of pre-marital sex, even though the rejected teaching is about as well supported by tradition and Scripture as the accepted teachings. The story may involve a sophisticated account of what is central to the Christian life. (I doubt that in the end such an account would do the job here, but the liberal theologian may think it will.)
Finally, observe point (3), which should particularly worry the liberal theologian. According to the liberal theologian, the typical dissenting American Catholic rightly thinks pre-marital sex is permissible. But in light of (3), this rightness is merely a matter of good luck. As the liberal theologian will be among the first to argue, there are often things that a society takes for granted as permissible, and opposition to which society thinks absurd, that are in fact wrong. Until recently, many racist and sexist behaviors were like this. Currently, many Americans think it is obvious that they have no duty to give up some of their property to feed the starving. It is seen by many as obvious that one can do with one' s property as one wills, as long as one does no positive harm.
Insofar as the dissent from the Church's teaching on, say, pre-marital sex is driven by conformity to the views of surrounding society, the liberal theologian should be very concerned. Nor should the liberal theologian allow for dissent on the grounds that someone's conscience is silent on an issue. After all, it is a sad fact that the individual's conscience often does fail to condemn activities whose permissibility our society takes for granted. Here it is important to note that one cannot attribute to conscience the statement that something is permissible. Conscience speaks in a "stern voice", to use Cardinal Newman's phrase: it says what one must do or not do, but not what one may do. What we call conscience's permission is really conscience's silence. And the argument from silence is always weak. We should always be prepared for the possibility that our conscience is insufficiently sensitive. (A complication is that in some cases, a liberal Catholic might there is a positive duty to contracept or use pre-marital sex, in which cases conscience might affirm this duty. Such cases are, I think, rare, given the availability of alternatives.)
And the mere fact that benefits can be listed for the prohibited activity is not sufficient reason to dissent, since we are not utilitarians. One can likewise easily list the benefits of targeting the civilians in Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in that doing so terrorizes the population into surrender, but to target the civilians was or would have been clearly wrong (I suspect civilians were in fact targeted, but that is a historical question).
Thus, the liberal theologian should be deeply concerned about the fact that the widespread dissent among U.S. Catholics is insufficiently informed, and is largely a reflection of the views of surrounding society, rather than of a theologically or philosophically deep rethinking of the issues.
There is an asymmetry here between dissenting from and agreeing with the Church's teaching. If a Catholic dissents, even if the dissent is permissible, the onus is her to justify her dissent. If she agrees with the Church's teaching, she simply goes along with the presumption that the Church is right. Thus, while may be in some ways unfortunate, it is not a serious problem if someone agrees with the Church's teaching without much knowledge of the issue. But to disagree, if it is permissible at all (I suspect not), one has to have much knowledge. After all, one has to think that one knows better than the Church does.
[Edited: Fixed a typo--thanks, David.]