Curran, Dissent, & Rome: A Symposium

The current discussion on the proposed Vatican action to void the right of Father Charles E. Curran to teach Roman Catholic doctrine has aroused a variety of comments and responses. All are interesting, but only several focus on the central issue. Let us say in the beginning that all parties would be well served to refrain from extraneous issues and to engage in the discussion in a calm, cool, and collected fashion.

Father Curran is a popular professor at my alma mater, The Catholic University of America. His erudition is well known. His academic peers respect him. It is also apparent that a good number of Catholic clergy and laypersons concur with his opinions on sexual issues. Some even hold that a majority of American Catholics accepts some of Father Curran’s views.

The central issue is whether an official spokesman or representative should teach the official doctrine of an organization. Father Curran has a canonical mission to teach at the Catholic University of America.

There are some organizations where there is no official doctrine. In some churches each believer can accept or reject any teaching, but still remain a member in good standing. In other organizations, there are official positions that must be publicly held by anyone having an official capacity with that group.

I have held two posts where my position required me to reflect the official capacity. As an Ambassador of the United States, I had a clear duty to communicate the official position of my government. I was selected for that reason and, when taking the oath of office and acquiring the authoritative title of Ambassador, agreed to do so as long as I held that title. As a University President, I am the official representative and report to the Board of Trustees. This organization, too, has official positions. There is freedom in styles, timing, and circumstances, but none in what the official position is. As President, I cannot, on official matters, speak differently. As an Ambassador, I could not publicly disagree with the official position of my government.

In both these capacities, there has not been an honorable alternative to representing — to teaching — the official position. If, in either case, I could not do so, I had the other honorable alternative — to resign my official position.

Father Curran’s position of influence springs from his being a member of the theology faculty at the Catholic University of America. This is one of the three departments at the Catholic University chartered by the Vatican. He speaks from an influential position because of his official role.

Consequently, the issue is Father Curran’s continued authorization to teach in the name of the Catholic Church. No one has ever claimed that the Catholic Church decides doctrine based on what people do or want. The Catholic Church is the Church where certain teachings are “given.” There is no question that many Catholics do not follow some Church teachings on sexual ethics. Human weakness has existed since the beginning of the human race. However, on this important policy matter — whether an official spokesman can disagree with an official position — the Church has no choice but to clear up the confusion. The authoritative nature of the Catholic Church requires that official teachers of the Church must teach what the Church teaches.

It would be quite a different matter if Father Curran’s teaching appointment did not carry the official imprimatur of the Church. If I did not accept the official position of the United States government, I would not expect to retain the title of the official spokesman for my government. If I could not follow the policies of the university trustees, I would not expect to remain as president and as their official spokesman.

Father Curran has an excellent reputation as a teacher. He is popular with many of his students and respected by his peers. He has been clear and candid in the areas where he disagrees. The issue is clear: he does not accept some of the official Vatican views on sexual ethics. Consequently, he should not be authorized to teach in the name of the Catholic Church. There are various subjects that he could teach, but not as the authoritative teacher for the Catholic Church.

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Thomas Patrick Melady (born 1927) served as an American ambassador under three presidents and as a sub-cabinet officer for a fourth, and remains active in foreign affairs and international relations. Since 2002, he is Senior Diplomat in residence at The Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC. When he wrote this article in 1984, he was the President of Sacred Heart University.

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