The Place of Silencing in the Teaching of the Church

The Place of Silencing in the Teaching of the Church

by Jeannine Gramick, SSND

Presentation delivered at Haverford College, Philadelphia, PA, Sept. 16, 2000 

In the course of history, society has seen repressive regimes, such as fascist and totalitarian states, use the methods of secrecy and silencing to control the behavior and even the thoughts of the dominated masses. Because public discussion of issues can question and challenge the status quo and the rule of the current government, common dialogue is feared and forbidden under oppressive governments. Dissenters are silenced or disappeared. The power of the autocrats must be maintained at all costs. Religious authorities, no less than secular ones, have also used secrecy and silencing as methods of enforcing orthodoxy. In the history of the Roman Catholic Church, we have seen the index of forbidden books, secret trials of the Spanish and Roman Inquisitions, the silencing of scientific and theological views; e.g., Galileo and the early twentieth century modernist theologians. Closer to our own experience in the latter part of the twentieth century, many of us recall the silencing of Leonardo Boff, Matthew Fox, John McNeill, Yvonne Geberra and the disappearance of Hans Kung and Charles Curran from Catholic academic institutions. Are we to interpret these secrecies, silencings, and disappearances as an ecclesiastical counterpart to the abuse of power that civilized societies have witnessed in secular governments? Or is there a more benign interpretation?

We human beings can never fully understand our own motives, let alone those of other persons. Therefore, we cannot automatically assume that the actions of Church leaders in restricting diverse voices were or are motivated by the desire to preserve their own power, even though power was or is used to control others.

As reasonable persons who acknowledge the need for some form of governance, Catholics believe that Church authorities have the responsibility to articulate the truth that the Spirit of God continues to speak in the community. The manner in which we have seen this responsibility exercised in the past has mostly reflected a distinct worldview which Walter Brueggemann (1978), in his book, The Prophetic Imagination, calls the “royal consciousness.” The royal consciousness is a term Brueggemann employs to describe the dominant culture of the Israelite kings, who ruled the Temple and its priests. By controlling access to the Temple, the monarchy controlled access to God. In this consciousness or worldview, authority is conceived as divinely ordained and therefore not open to other worldviews nor open to criticism of itself. The faithful have the moral security of knowing that truth is possessed in its entirety and will be safeguarded unambiguously. Like the priests of the Jerusalem Temple, Church authorities will communicate divine law clearly to future generations. Because the Church hierarchy is protected by the grace of office, just as Israel’s kings were protected by the Davidic Covenant, their interpretations of the faith are free from error. This does not preclude a development of beliefs or a deeper understanding of them in the future, but the doctrine itself, it is maintained, has never been false. 

In such a system, the ecclesial community should be free from anxiety and confusion regarding church teachings. When one’s beliefs seem vulnerable, the Church’s representatives provide moral counsel with reassuring certitude. Priests and religious, as representatives of the Church, must uphold the teachings strictly. The faithful have confidence in their leaders and need not be troubled or unsettled by matters of creed or doctrine.

The hierarchy interprets any expression of doubt or inquiry about a teaching as weakening or threatening that teaching. Questioning a policy or decision is perceived as undermining authority. Silencing becomes a necessary means of dealing with controversies or dissenting views that can cause confusion among the faithful and pose potential threats to the unity of the Church.

Unlike military dictators who use the power of silencing and disappearances to maintain their own power, the persons who are enmeshed in the royal consciousness I have described may not be grasping to preserve their own power. They see secrecy and silencing as essential in preserving a system they believe to be divinely ordained and therefore to be honored and protected.

Secrecy and Silencing

At this point I wish to emphasize, if it is not already clear, that we are speaking of silencing dissident views or opinions from the public domain or prohibiting individuals from public discourse about their own experience. We are not speaking of appropriate silence in the public domain; i.e., the silence that an individual chooses without being coerced. We are not speaking of the right of individuals to keep personal or intimate matters private. We are not speaking of the obligation that professional persons assume to protect client information from unwarranted access by others.

We are speaking here of a conflict over power: the power of restricting or controlling the flow of information. We are speaking here of control over openness and free expression of ideas and experiences. The control of ideas usually involves secrecy.

Although there are appropriate times for secrecy, as in jury deliberations or when one votes in political elections, those in power positions need to be aware of the dangers of using secrecy. While secrecy gives the individual, such as the voter, freedom of choice, secrecy can destroy or limit the freedom of others. Secrecy in an organization can preclude inspection or review; it evades unwanted interference. Secrecy in any group, including the Church, can prevent its members from perceiving perilous situations that can damage the mission of the group. Secrecy and control guard against change and foster the status quo. Without freedom of expression on religious views within the Church itself, the community risks the danger of perpetuating erroneous views, such as its former position on slavery. Without freedom of expression, thought itself is stifled. 

We are reminded of the character Winston Smith in George Orwell’s novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, who tried to maintain his autonomy in spite of the thought-police. Not only prohibited from voicing unorthodox views, Winston Smith was forbidden even to think them. 

The Church’s Teaching

What justification, if any, is there for the use of secrecy and silencing in the Church’s teaching? Does Scripture or tradition have any insights to offer the Christian community on the moral value of these means of preserving unity and eliminating confusion? Regarding the Church’s tradition, I shall explore some of the social documents of the Church that represent a relative newness in the tradition. In particular, I shall examine Pacem in Terris (1963), Dignitatis Humanae (1965), and Justice in the World (1971) in reference to their teachings on human rights and expressions of opinions.

Since the aggiornamento inaugurated by Pope John XXIII, Catholic social teaching has departed from the culture of the royal consciousness in favor of the prophetic imagination, to use Brueggemann’s terminology. Pacem in Terris, Pope John’s encyclical dealing with peace in the global political community, opens with a discussion of philosophical principles of order. It paints a broad picture of the rights and duties of individuals, public officials, nation states, and the world community. 

Pacem in Terris teaches:

The dignity of the human person…requires that every person enjoy the right to act freely and responsibly…Each one acts on his or her own decision…without being moved by force or pressure brought to bear externally (PT, 34). 

Does this mean that Church leaders are exercising force when they impose penalties of silencing on any person? Is silencing considered an external pressure brought to bear on an individual? Human reason provides an affirmative answer to these questions.

In one of the introductory paragraphs of the encyclical, we read:

By the natural law, every human being has the right to respect for his or her person, to a good reputation, to freedom in searching for truth and—within the limits laid down by the moral order and the common good—in expressing and communicating his or her opinion…” (PT, 12).

This papal encyclical says quite boldly that every person has the right to express and communicate his or her opinion. It should be noted here that the document is dealing with the public domain. It is no mere private communication of beliefs that is legitimated. 

However, does the nuance—within the limits laid down by the moral order and the common good—imply that perhaps silencing can be justified because it is somehow within the limits of the moral order and in keeping with the common good? My answer is negative. I shall explain why. In speaking of the essentials of the common good, Pacem in Terris states: 

The common good is intimately bound up with human nature. It can never exist fully and completely unless…the human person is taken into account (PT, 55).

If the human person is to be taken into account in ascertaining the common good, then any injustice to persons cannot contribute to the good of the whole. If silencing constitutes an injustice to persons, then silencing does not foster the common good. How then can it be said that silencing causes unjust injury to persons?

To answer this question, I rely on the insights of Margaret Farley (1987) in her article entitled “Moral Discourse in the Public Arena.” The essay explores the effects of silence on the moral order of the Christian community. Her thesis is that silencing is a futile strategy for developing the moral life, that it involves unjust treatment of persons, and ultimately that it does not serve the common good.

The primary argument for silencing is to prevent confusion among the People of God caused by contentious issues. Farley makes the point that, in the contemporary world of electronic and print media, it is impossible to keep people uninformed about moral controversies. Abortion, homosexuality, women priests, genetic engineering, and euthanasia, for example, are discussed regularly by the mainstream media. The traditional case for silencing has collapsed.

Such reasoning, moreover, is patronizing. It treats adults as children who must be protected. There is a difference between adult and child education. Part of becoming a moral adult involves the ability to tolerate a lack of certitude. Protecting individuals from confusion and ambiguity does not respect their autonomy as complete moral agents; in fact, it impedes their full moral development. Becoming an adult in the faith means a readiness to reject a self-righteous certitude. Fallible human beings will never possess all the answers. Inhibiting individuals from moral development by claiming certitude is an injustice to persons and cannot, therefore, contribute to the common good.

Silencing also deprives the whole Church from listening to justifications for all the arguments of a complex issue. Hoarding knowledge, instead of sharing it, is an injustice to persons and so offends the common good. Therefore, by reason and the natural law, as Pacem in Terris states, every person has the right to express and communicate his or her opinion.

Subsequent to Pope John’s encyclical, Pacem in Terris, one of the documents to emerge from Vatican II was Dignitatis Humanae, the Declaration on Religious Freedom. It states: 

…In matters religious every manner of coercion on the part of any individual should be excluded (DH, 10).

Because of compromise with the traditionalists at the Council, this document deals only with immunity from external coercion by the secular state. But the theory enunciated here forms the basis for positing that silencing a person’s religious views, even by that person’s religious institution, is a violation of a basic human right. It harmonizes with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which is the basic right to speak by every human individual. 

In addition to these two documents, a third aggiornamento document that is relevant to the issue of silencing was produced by the Second General Assembly of the 1971 Synod of Bishops. Entitled Justice in the World, and affirmed by Pope Paul VI, it asserts that the Gospel mandates justice for the liberation of all people and that the Church first must be just itself in its institutional practices. It clearly teaches that there must be freedom of speech within the Church, as well as outside it. It says: “The Church recognizes everyone’s right to suitable freedom of expression and thought. This includes the right of everyone to be heard in a spirit of dialogue which preserves a legitimate diversity within the Church” (JW, 44). 

It is significant that, in a document of this high level of authority, the right to express dissenting views is legitimated. The importance of this document exceeds the importance of any document produced by a Vatican dicastery because it bears the weight of the world’s bishops in communion with the Bishop of Rome. This fact should be noted, especially by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [CDF], which has silenced theologians and pastoral workers even after Vatican II. A higher authority than the CDF has validated free expression and public debate on controversial theological issues.

The phrase “suitable freedom” implies that some “freedom of expression” may be unsuitable. We are not free, for example, to tell falsehoods or to malign another’s reputation. Counselors and confessors, for example, are not free to reveal information about their clients or penitents. But this is clearly not the content of information or the context of silencing that is the focus of the present discussion. Justice in the World clearly states that the freedom of expression that is meant is the freedom to express views that preserve a legitimate diversity in the Church; i.e., the articulation of theological arguments which differ from hierarchical teaching. Therefore, Justice in the World does not justify silencing as a means to control divergent views.

In addition, Justice in the World tells us that this freedom to express ideas in a spirit of dialogue, which safeguards legitimate diversity, is also the right of priests, religious, bishops, cardinals and popes. In speaking of rights within the Church that must be preserved, the document says:

No one should be deprived of his or her ordinary rights because he or she is associated with the Church in one way or another. (This includes) those who serve the Church by their labor, including priests and religious…(JW, 41). 

So the notion that Church representatives are obliged to uphold the party line, so to speak, is challenged. All the people of God have the right to express their opinion so that the Spirit of God may be made manifest through the entire community. 


Thus, we see that the recent tradition of the Church reflected in Pacem in Terris, Dignitatis Humanae, and Justice in the World makes a case against silencing a person’s freedom of speech. Do the Scriptures condemn or discourage the use of silencing? Is there any defense in Scripture for using secrecy and silencing to maintain peace and harmony and to avoid disorder and turmoil? Or are the Scriptures silent about silencing?

There are at least two Scripture passages that suggest silencing of religious views among the People of God is inappropriate. The first text occurs in the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus teaches about the reign of God, with the parable of the weeds and the wheat. When the workers come to the owner of the field and ask if the weeds should be pulled up and destroyed, the owner replies that the weeds should be allowed to grow with the wheat until the harvest (Mt 13:30). If Church authorities regard unorthodox views as weeds that are choking the wheat of truth, the parable suggests that both traditional and unconventional opinions should be allowed to flourish until the final time of gathering and gleaning.

The second Scripture relevant to the discussion of silencing is found in the Acts of the Apostles. The Sanhedrin took its second action against the early Christian community by the arrest and trial of the apostles. The high priest rebuked the Twelve for disobeying the silencing order already imposed. They were “not to teach about that name” (AA 5:28). Gamaliel, a member of the Council that passed judgment on Peter & the apostles, advised the Sanhedrin to take no punitive action. Gamaliel counseled, “My advice is that you have nothing to do with these men. Let them alone. If their purpose or activity is human in its origin, it will destroy itself. If, on the other hand, it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them without fighting God herself” (AA 5:38-39). 

Gamaliel’s famous words intimate that silencing should not be employed to suppress dissension or radical views on the grounds that a movement or idea will collapse on its own merit if it is not from God. It is ironic that a student of Gamaliel, a Pharisee named Saul, later appears in the Acts of the Apostles as the worst silencer and persecutor of the early Christian community before his conversion. With God’s grace, the People of God may witness the transformation of modern day Sauls into Pauls.

I would like to conclude this discussion of silencing by reiterating a principle put forth by Farley in the article previously mentioned. Shared public discourse is necessary in an honest search for truth. The truths of our faith concern the whole Christian community. Living our faith through a close relationship with God is not the result of merely accepting doctrines or rules. Living our faith through a close relationship with God comes from pondering our life experiences and finding divine meaning in them. Therefore, everyone’s reflection, not just that of the bishops or theologians, is essential to discern where the Spirit is leading the Church. Everyone’s reflection is essential for the faith life of the Church. The experience of all, especially marginalized groups of people, must be included in theological reflection. 

“Not every voice can speak for the community; but the truer voices will be better discerned not by excluding dissent but by protecting the most fragile voices in our midst” (Farley, 184). 

Discourse in the public arena, not silencing, is a moral imperative.


Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978.

Farley, Margaret. “Moral Discourse in the Public Arena.” In Vatican Authority and American Catholic Dissent: The Curran Case and Its Consequences, William W. May (Ed). New York: Crossroad, 1987. 

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One Comment

  1. The implication here is that the CDF has been acting “ultra vires” for years but nobody seems to be taking this up.

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