The Unexpected Fruit of Dissent

Unlike followers of John Calvin, Catholics do not believe that God foreordains everything that happens to us. Rather, we believe He gives us freedom. With freedom comes responsibility. Our freedom is to be used to find Him, Who is all Truth.

We often use our freedom to stray from the truth, to find error, to sin. But the great Good News is that this is not the end of the story. Rather than abandon us to the consequences of our freedom wrongly exercised, God reaches out to us, to forgive us, to heal us. All we have to do is assent to God’s unmerited, remarkable offer, that is, to exercise our freedom towards the truth. When we do, we will be healed and restored. We can even learn from our mistakes.

Working through our freedom, God can always bring good from evil. Every repentant sinner will have an impact on those around him, and, maybe like St. Paul, transform the world itself. As Paul said, “We know that all things work for good to them that love God.” As Augustine put it, “God judged it better to bring good out of evil than to suffer no evil to exist.”

One example of this principle at work is the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, which just celebrated its 31st anniversary at its annual convention, held this year in San Antonio. Let me explain.

As we know, America – and American Catholicism in the late 1960s and early 1970s – was, to put it charitably, a mess. Important reforms in the Church and in the world had been badly misinterpreted. Vatican Council II in 1962-65 was being interpreted by many as an embrace of the world’s views. Humanae Vitae in 1968 sparked a wholesale rebellion of academics who took out an ad in The New York Times to proclaim they constituted a “second,” or alternative, magisterium. Freedom had become license…even for those licensed to teach the Catholic faith.

This was the Age of Dissent. On Catholic college campuses throughout the land, academics somehow thought it was a mark of true freedom to disagree, as publicly as possible, with the teaching magisterium of the Church. This is an astonishingly odd claim since the magisterium is simply the Holy Spirit speaking. It is bizarre to believe that “true” or “authentic” freedom can contradict Truth itself. But that is what these Catholic academics thought. Associations of academics and intellectuals were drowning in dissent, and poisoning the water as they drowned.

Academics loyal to the magisterium decided there was no one speaking for the Church on campus. So they decided to do something about it. In 1977, they formed the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.

As there are the four marks of the Church, there are the three marks of the Fellowship. It is a fellowship, it is Catholic, and it is composed of scholars, of those committed to the intellectual enterprise. Particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, the need for simple fellowship was pressing. Academics faithful to the magisterium were surrounded by colleagues who berated them for their Catholic orthodoxy. They were denied promotions and marginalized. They needed fellowship, human contact with and support from others who agreed with them, in order to stay strong. (They were not angels or supermen, after all, but ordinary men and women, and it is hard for anyone to endure alone.)

It was also a “fellowship” in the sense that it was not a corporate entity that took positions on behalf of its members. Rather, the members were, and are, free to exercise their God-given freedom to have their own opinions. But those opinions are always within the universe of orthodox Catholicism. (It is ironic that many non-Catholics think Catholic orthodoxy somehow restricts freedom. Rather, as Chesterton noted, by setting limits, it sets one free.)

And the founding men and women were great scholars – Jim Hitchcock, Joe Fessio, William Smith, Bill May, Germain Grisez, Ronald Lawler, George Kelly, Ralph McInerny, among others. By striving to be loyal to the Catholic faith, by refusing to give in to the world’s claim that either God does not exist or He speaks in a voice too dim to hear, they created a wonderful gift to the Church.

It is a gift that continues to inspire. At the recent convention in San Antonio, younger scholars like Joe Capizzi of Catholic University and Fr. Anthony Giampietro of the University of St. Thomas in Houston reflected upon the dilemmas posed for freedom of conscience by an increasingly hostile culture. As such, they are worthy successors to the great men and women who originally founded the Fellowship.

Some of the original founders – such as the cheerfully combative George Kelly and the gentle and resolute Ronald Lawler – have passed on from this life to the next. I have to think they received a joyous welcome into a different fellowship — with the saints and their Lord for exercising their freedom in service of the truth.


William Saunders is Senior Vice President of Legal Affairs at Americans United for Life. A graduate of the Harvard Law School, he writes frequently on a wide variety of legal and policy issues.