Curran, Dissent, & Rome: A Symposium

Rather than stating a thesis on the matter of Charles Curran vs. the Vatican, I will point to some logical categories and distinctions, which may aid understanding. I am emboldened to speak thus because it has been my duty for many years to wrestle with issues akin to those raised by the Curran affair, and in so doing to interact with Church authorities, the academic community, and interested constituents of both Church and university. Such spirited dialectic tends to make categories clear, if nothing else, and I hope a brief identification of some major categories may assist readers of this symposium.

(1) Universities are simply artifacts. With equal legitimacy, though with varying success, they can be built to any shape or size. Among American Catholic colleges and universities one of the primary differentiations is between those few with formal, juridical Church ties, on the one hand; and the great bulk without such ties, on the other. Charles Curran’s Catholic University is a canonically- erected institution, meaning it has direct jurisdictional and disciplinary relationships to Rome and to the American hierarchy. In that respect, it is unlike any other American Catholic university. The point is important for this symposium’s purpose because it may be that there is a pertinent and equitable Vatican action in such a place, which action would be neither apt nor just in a different Catholic university.

In Cardinal Ratzinger’s September 17, 1985 letter to Father Curran, announcing Rome’s final determination to withdraw Curran’s “license” as a Catholic theologian if he did not recant, the Cardinal expressly employs John Paul II’s Sapientia Christiana as a warrant. But Sapientia Chris tiana is expressly about canonically erected institutions and not about other Catholic universities, such as Marquette or Notre Dame. This may reflect Cardinal Ratzinger’s acceptance of a distinction, which has been made for him, forcefully and often. (Father Curran seemed to blur this distinction in a March 11, 1986 statement when he said “. . . that academic decisions in this country must ultimately be made by peers in the light of Catholic faith and the ongoing search for truth.” That would not necessarily be true of an institution wherein the Church reserved a capacity to act.)

(2) Most American Catholic universities have two basic traits, at least one of which sets them apart from the Catholic University model. First, regular faculty operates with standard guarantees of academic freedom, manifested in contracts and in the academic life and human fabric of the schools in question. Essentially, that means that these faculties are expected to follow their minds wherever analysis and evidence lead them in pursuit of truth. That is the distinguishing trait of universities, no doubt: their core employees have truth as their professional responsibility, and are given a freedom from external interference in seeking it. Error can ensue, obviously, but error can be combatted by scholarly argument, and the clear assumption is that, on balance, the good will be served. One question posed in the Curran affair is whether, in fact, at least for theological faculty, Catholic University has a different set of understandings and guarantees. Even if it does, and even if Father Curran is correctly disbarred for violating those understandings, it is crucial to realize that such action will have no transferability to the other Catholic universities.

Second, these other universities, typically during the 1960s, transferred ownership and control from religious orders to free-standing boards, usually lay-dominated. These educational corporations have no juridical relationship with Church authorities, though religious commitment may be (and in the institutions I know it is) as powerful as before. Universities by nature are purposive, and the Catholic university, even if juridically independent, can and should draw its purpose and special inspiration from the Church to which it pledges fidelity. But its essential relationship to that Catholic inspiration is a free response to the formative potential of Christ’s revelation and Church teaching, rather than a nexus of command.

Two asides may help to forestall customary confusions at this point. First, the separation of these universities from direct religious control need not result in an Ivy League-like drift away from religious roots and dynamics. The Catholic Church is a religious source different from those of the Ivies, in that its essential characteristics include doctrinal integrity, teaching authority, and hierarchical identity. As such, it is a much more powerful anchor for even voluntary fidelity than were the less authoritative and more individualistic Protestant churches from which the Ivies typically emerged.

Second, this separation is not justified by a desire to “get away from the Church,” but, rather, a desire to empower the Catholic universities for effective witness into the indefinite future. Every indication is that the bulk of Catholic university clientele — parents and students — want both academic power and religious commitment. The essential judgments behind the major traits of today’s freestanding Catholic universities were that, in the practical order, the best way to achieve both of those values in synthesis was to have attractive academic conditions, broad- based community support and leadership, and qualification for such financial support as distributive justice demanded from governmental sources. Those were practical judgments, not ideological ones. Unless one imagines and so defines that the only way to be “Catholic” is to have an online jurisdictional relationship, it is difficult to see a theoretical problem with such a judgment.

(3) One thing that is crystal clear is that, once the institutions have taken the form described above, there is no turning back. That is, the decisions made, in cooperation with and in full view of religious authority, are essentially final. Religious control is gone — but voluntary boards and administrations carry on the obligation to encourage and promote religious witness. Purgative capacity on doctrinal grounds is gone — but the administration and faculty pick up the responsibility to find other ways to give faithful response to the Catholic banner. How and how well this is done, of course, will depend on the sustained virtue of the people involved — as is true in every field of human endeavor.

But it is clearly illogical and unjust to harangue those institutions for not doing what they cannot do — for example, terminate a faculty person who, in pursuit of his or her professional duties, evolves a position contrary to Church teaching. There are countless things a responsible institution can do in such a case; for example, insist that the professor at all times distinguish his position from Church teaching; ensure that students are not unwittingly entrapped or confused; work with the local ordinary to identify anything contrary to Church teaching, and encourage Church articulation in such cases; mount positive presentations and magisterial teaching. But purgative capacity in the sense often called for does not exist. That is why the Draft Schema on Catholic universities, even if adopted by Rome in its present shape, will not have the revolutionary effects many refer to. Summarily, the Church cannot mandate the boards of control, which own and operate the universities. Accordingly, if adopted as it stands, the Draft Schema would be stillborn. But it would have two clear destructive effects, even so. First, it would portray the Vatican as a paper tiger. Second, it would further convince some onlookers that the schools are defiant, when in this case they are just impotent.

(4) If institutions cannot rightly be criticized for failing to do that which they cannot do, neither can a scholar be criticized for following his or her analysis to its logical conclusion. That is exactly what a scholar is to do. If the scholar’s institution has built doctrinal tests into its rules, and those extend to professors’ scholarship, then so be it. The professor who arrives at a position contrary to doctrine should, presumably, be separated and be prepared to be. But that has nothing to do with the prior commitment to follow his mind. Galileo should not be asked, in the name of some churchly raison d’etat, to believe that the sun circles the earth, whatever else happens to him for thinking the contrary.

It is a bit amazing to me to see Father Curran explaining and defending himself (as he did in a USA Today interview, March 18, 1986) by analogy to civil disobedience. To make that argument is to wrap oneself in political categories genuinely irrelevant to intellectual debate, in which debate “disagreement,” not “dissent,” is the relevant category. It seems, then, to cast the issue precisely as an authority question — in which case Father Curran must lose. Whether he also must lose his particular position at Catholic University is exactly a question of authoritative contract, not of intellectual legitimacy.

(5) Another large issue implicit in the Curran matter — and explicit in the Draft Schema — is whether today’s argument is confined to theology faculty only. Departmental boundary lines are entirely artificial, after all, and if one sets out to protect doctrinal purity within Catholic institutions by purgative methods, it is not easy to see why the effort would stop with theology. That seemed an incongruity of Canon 812 — and it appears to have been cleansed in the Draft Schema. In the latter document, the doctrinal test is extended, as logic would seem to insist, to any person or area working on matters about which the Church teaches. To the extent this broader spirit is the issue today, then one should not imagine that the Church-university difficulties might be resolved by some isolated sacrifice of theology.

(6) Without question, the largest issues posed by the Curran affair have to do not with Church-university relations but rather with the distinctions between extraordinary and ordinary magisterium. To the extent that the Vatican pushes and Curran resists (with the support of many others), the bottom line at which they will arrive will deal not with academics, and not with theology, but with the Church’s clarity and consistency about its teaching authority; and the Catholic’s integrity in responding to that teaching. I think it very important to ask whether “theology” and “theologians” are even keys to the current controversy. Experience suggests to me that, considerably, the Currans of this world have lagged, not led, two crucial realities: the practice of the faithful, which, without instruction from anyone, moved away in great proportion from various Church moral teachings; and the so-called “pastoral practice” of the church in which clear Church teachings were effectively negated (without intellectual reconciliation of the negation) in the desire to accommodate the flock’s practice.

The impression I have, indeed, suggests that the key to understanding (not to be confused with approving) the work of many contemporary Catholic moralists, as they so clearly disagree with or ignore this or that Church moral teaching, is that they are trying to form a theology which somehow puts an umbrella over what look like wholly incompatible things: clear Church teaching, and clear contrary popular practice. In that situation, it should not be surprising that some ask the Church to speak clearly and rigorously to the question of extraordinary and ordinary magisterium: are they essentially the same at the level of Catholic obligation? Are they essentially the same at the level of speculation? Or should they be distinguished in such categories, and does such a distinction provide room for, even demand, unfettered intellectual inquiry by Catholics?


Quentin L. Quade, when he wrote this article, was the Executive Vice-President of Marquette University. He later went on to open the Blum Center in 1992 for the purpose of collecting, organizing, synthesizing, and distributing information regarding school choice efforts across the country.

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