Dissent is an art form.

There are those who come right at you and question the teachings of the Church. They are the hacks. The really talented dissenters are crafty. They know through years of experience that they do not need to challenge a Church teaching head-on. In fact, increasingly they know that such clumsy dissent can get you in hot water. No, the really crafty dissenters know that they need not directly challenge any doctrine or dogma, the real art form is in sowing doubt.

A frontal assault can get you in trouble and you might also need to try and back up your argument with facts and research. Too bothersome. Too messy. The top tier dissenters know that they need only plant the seeds of doubt — preferably when no one is looking — and move on. They are sure to always maintain some semblance of plausible deniability.

Fr. Richard McBrien is a master dissenter. A doubt sower of the first rank. In a recent article in the Tidings, McBrien writes a seemingly pointless article about the fact that we have never had a Pope named Joseph. Innocuous enough it would seem. He walks us through a little history regarding how and when Pope’s started choosing new names. No problem. Then, pointing out that there has never been a Pope Joseph, McBrien lays this on us. Pay attention.

Joseph, however, disappears from the New Testament after the family’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem (Luke 2:42-52). He probably died sometime before Jesus began his public ministry.

Because of the biographical gaps, a number of apocryphal writings attempted to fill in the blanks. The Protoevangelium, or Infancy Gospel, of James claimed that Joseph was already an aged widower with children when he married Mary. How else to explain the many references to Jesus’ brothers and sisters in Mark 3:31; 6:3; Matthew 12:46; 13:55; Luke 8:19; John 7:3-5; 1 Corinthians 9:5; and Galatians 1:19?

New Testament scholar Jerome Neyrey, S.J., however, discounts the various traditional explanations. The evidence for “stepbrother,” he writes, is “merely legendary” (referring again to the Infancy Gospel of James 9:2 and 17:1).

On the other hand, the linguistic evidence for “brother” meaning “cousin” is “very thin.” We have but one example in the whole Old Testament where a cousin might be called a “brother” (1 Chronicles 23:22). [See Father Neyrey’s “brothers of Jesus,” The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, pp. 198-99.]

What did he just say? Nothing really. But what is the overall effect? He suggests that The Protoevangelium of James builds a back story for Joseph to cover for the numerous references to Jesus’ brothers in the Gospel accounts. He asks a simple question, “How else to explain the many references to Jesus’ brothers and sisters?” How else indeed. He then quotes others to do the dirty work for him. Having one scholar discount the possibility of step-brothers and also discounting the possibility that “brother” could have meant “cousin.”

See what he did there? He calls into question the very belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary and doesn’t even get his hands dirty. Quote some scholars, discounts some possibilities, sow some doubt and move on.

He then returns to the topic Popes named Joseph. Those seeds of doubt have been planted and you never even saw it happen.

Fr. Peter Phan is a hack because he got caught. Professionals like McBrien know that the truly great dissenters are like thieves in the night. You never even know they were there until you discover your faith is missing.