Curran, Dissent, & Rome: A Symposium

The main defense offered on behalf of the destructive moral theology Father Curran has been teaching over the past several decades is that he has never dissented from a moral position infallibly defined as essential Catholic teaching. This is unconvincing on several counts.

Curran has long been identified with the view that there are no moral absolutes, so what in the world would infallible definition mean for him? In 1968, he edited and contributed to a volume entitled Absolutes in Moral Theology? Even in those far-gone days no one would have picked up this book expecting an affirmative answer.

In linking dissent, non-infallible teaching, and the task of the theologian, Curran invokes a setting that simply does not apply to the efforts of such undermining moralists as his own. Until the definition of the Immaculate Conception, it was permissible for theologians to treat it as an open question. Indeed, St. Thomas Aquinas was on the wrong side of that one. But the notion of theological discussion conjured up by such an example does not apply to Father Curran and company.

The addressee of “dissent” has been less other theologian than the secular media. The response to Humanae Vitae was a hurry-up statement for release to the New York Times, the wire services, and so forth. The model had become political maneuver, the attempted manipulation of mass opinion, the building of a constituency. This is not traditional theological freedom of discussion, but a claim to the right to foment rebellion in the Church. It is, alas, a sign of the times that those now heading our Catholic universities cannot tell the difference between scholarly exchange and PR.

I do not mean to suggest that Father Curran weighs in very heavily taken simply as a theologian. His introduction to the book mentioned above is an intellectual scandal. For him, renewal in the Church meant pitching out natural theology, doubting the existence of angels and devils, seeing doubt as integral to faith, and generally assuming that advances all along the cultural front mandate radical changes in Catholic doctrine. Disrespect for tradition? No, rather an historicizing apologia for its errors. Curran quoted Lonergan to the effect that Catholic theology usually arrives on the scene a little breathlessly and too late. Charles Curran clearly made up his mind never to be too late for the Zeitgeist.

Other theologians have the task of explaining the relevant paragraphs of Lumen Gentium to Father Curran. I am not troubled by him being a theologian but as a publicist. What has been the net effect of Curran and cohort’s determination never to miss the train of history?

They have become moralists of the kind Pascal excoriated in the Provincial Letters. They are accommodationists. They are in the business of making Catholicism easy, indeed indistinguishable from non-Catholicism, even from unbelief. Father Curran has been in the business of enshrining the American suburban ethos, bourgeois morality, as the Catholic moral message. Abortion, premarital sex, unnatural birth control, infidelity, sexual deviation? Father Curran knows no absolute prohibitions of any of them. Follow your conscience. Now anyone who does not know what that sounds like to ordinary people is irresponsible. It says: do what you like. Do what everyone else is doing. Do not worry that your faith may put you out of step with the sensuality of the day.

The connection between moral permissiveness and the so-called peace movement is more than obvious. What is rejected is any call upon the individual that interferes with his private pursuits.

Father Paul Toinet, a genuinely great post-conciliar theologian, has written of the Protestantization of the Church. Some defenses of Father Curran have gone beyond a laudable concern for his person to a quasi-identification of what he has been teaching with the “American Church.” That is the kind of fatal compassion I would like to think is the explanation of Curran’s own doctrinal aberrations.

This disciplinary move is long overdue. But let us not forget that Charles Curran is our brother. Triumphalism ill becomes those of us who have been suffering through the cultural Calvary of the post-conciliar Church in the United States.

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Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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