Catholic Identity: Balancing Reason, Faith and Power

Michelle Dillon
Yale University

Date: October 30, 2000

 Boisi Center, 24 Quincy Road


How do so many Catholics who actively dissent from specific teachings remain active members of their Church? What resources do they draw upon to sustain their Catholic identity and commitment? Michele Dillon, associate professor of sociology at Y ale University, discussed these questions in a luncheon colloquium at the Boisi Center on October 30, 2000. Commenting on her presentation were Professor Lisa Cahill of the Theology Department, and Professor Lynn Davidman, Visiting Scholar at the Boisi Center and professor in Judaic Studies, American Civilization, and Women Studies at Brown University. 

Dillon’s research, which is reported in her book, Catholic Identity: Balancing Reason, Faith and Power (Cambridge University Press, 1999), draws upon interviews with Catholics who are openly gay or lesbian, advocates of women’s ordination, and pro-choice activists, to explore how they remain actively committed to the Church while rejecting Vatican teachings.

Dillon discussed how these dissenters remain deliberately and self-consciously engaged with Catholicism and draw upon strains of thought from within the Catholic tradition to legitimate their dissent. Their emphasis on the importance of community, doctrinal reflexivity, reasoned theology, and pluralism allow them to them to sustain an identity within the Catholic tradition, but disagree with Vatican statements. Looking at the history of doctrine, they see ambiguities and discontinuities within the unfolding tradition. This method of "doctrinal reflexivity," using previous changes as an opening to argue for new ones, Dillon found "very powerful."

Dillon also commented on the possibilities for common ground between liberals and conservatives. She pointed to the divisions among those on the left and noted that, while each group disagrees with some church doctrines, there is often agreement on others. Finally, she remarked that, despite the official opposition of the Catholic League, surveys show that thirty percent of the members think that some positive effects would come from women’s ordination.

Cahill stressed the differences between the dissenters of the 1970s and the young people of today. Thirty years ago, anger at the Church prompted many to leave or to try and change the structure through activist organizations. Many young people today, she claims, think the church irrelevant and find it easier to ignore negative aspects and identify with the positive. Dillon agreed that more young people today are apathetic but emphasized that when they return to the church they are more critical, unlike some older Catholics who are less willing to discuss religion.

Davidman’s comments addressed the theoretical framework of the book. Davidman thought that more attention to Foucault’s emphasis on the role of power in structuring discourse would prove useful. Dillon replied that Foucault’s rejection of the use of language and other institutional procedures as a vehicle for transforming attitudes and practices was too pessimistic and that her research showed that pro-change Catholics were able to draw upon "emancipatory resources” within their tradition to argue for and build a more inclusive church.

The response from the interdisciplinary audience was lively and continued informally beyond the end of the presentation. Because of the strong response to the program, a second talk by Dillon, co-sponsored by the Boisi Center, the Sociology Department and the National Association for Women in Catholic Higher Education is being scheduled for the spring.