Does silence imply consent? Amidst the recent church conflicts over the Obama-Notre Dame commencement speech and conferral of an honorary degree, it has been claimed that the silence of the majority of bishops should be interpreted as an acceptance of the invitation. But no, reply others, silence can also signal disapproval, neutrality or even something so unspeakable that it should not be mentioned.
Other views of silence surfaced at a recent conference I attended. In a paper on feminist theories of silence the important distinction was made between silence and “being silenced.” Often powerful and self confident persons can be silent because in their authority they don’t need to engage in explanation or self-justification. As perhaps in “the lady doth protest too much?” Or in more scriptural instances, the silence displayed by Jesus before Pilate comes to mind.. And what does it mean when in the last days the seventh seal is opened and “there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.”(Rev.8:1.) .
In yet another take on the power of silence, a psychological article I came upon recommends silence as “the least reinforcing response” to extinguish unacceptable behavior. Inattention takes away the rewarding effects of recognition and the drama of punishment and conflict. Perhaps this silent treatment might be an effective strategy when encountering our current lapses from the Catholic mandate for “civility and charity.” in public life..
I can’t be the only one who has been so mortified over recent church squabbling and gaffes that a retreat from the fray seems tempting. My uncharacteristic detachment arises partly from embarrassment, but also partly from confident hopes in the future of our church. This too will pass. The current disarray is going to give way before the forces of reform and renewal begun in Vatican II. ..
P.S. At the risk of unseemly self promotion, I can’t resist recalling that when I received an honorary degree from Notre Dame and then later received the 1994 Laetare medal, the commencement speaker each time was the then Taoiseach, or Irish head of state. Afterwards, one (or both ?) of these RC dignitaries was indicted on corruption charges. Their speeches also were very, very long! By contrast, the Laetare speaker is strictly limited to 8 minutes. Mary Ann Glendon in her refusal to participate has admirably followed her conscience, but is her choice of silence as effective as her words could have been? In any event, all the faithful can take heart in the good news inscribed in gold on the Laetare medal. “Truth is great and will prevail” (I Esdras 4:41)