Curran, Dissent, & Rome: A Symposium

I am a journalist, not a theologian; my academic specialty was politics. So perhaps I should have no comment on the Curran affair. But wait. When he returned from his meetings at the Vatican, Father Curran called a press conference. Is this the world of theology, or of journalism? Soon groups of Curran’s supporters were collecting signatures on petitions. Is this a theological disputation, or a staged political event?

Late in March, the National Catholic News Service printed excerpts from Father Curran’s correspondence with the Vatican. That correspondence was “obtained by NC News Service” — in other words, leaked. As any political journalist knows, “leaks” do not occur by accident; they happen when someone believes that the publicity will help him. Selective leaking has become a standard political device. Only recently has it entered into the theologian’s repertoire.

The mass media, with their usual incapacity for understanding Catholic affairs, have depicted a sudden Vatican crackdown on Curran. The reality could not be more different. The Vatican began correspondence with Curran six years ago. And while Curran told the assembled press, “My posture is neither defiant nor disrespectful,” his letters to Rome were certainly not obsequious. In August 1983, he opened a missive with the announcement: “In the course of our correspondence I have constantly reiterated that the quality of dialogue is poor.” His letters consistently lecture the Vatican; they rarely provide direct responses to direct questions.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the correspondence, however, is the distinction Father Curran attempts to draw between the Vatican and the American bishops. The American bishops, he claims, “recognize the possibility of public dissent” in a way that the Vatican does not. Is he willing, then, to subject himself to the authority of the American bishops, but not to the bishop of Rome? That is a theological question, beyond doubt. But it is question with powerful political overtones.

Consider, too, the strategy Curran employed in responding to the Vatican’s complaints. After his last meeting in Rome, he rushed back to Washington. “Since I am a member of a university faculty and belong to the community of theologians,” he announced, “I have felt it imperative to communicate all these matters with my faculty colleagues and other theologians.” So he called a press conference. The people who attended that press conference — carrying television cameras and notepads — were not primarily professors, let alone theologians. Most of them had only a vague notion of the issues at stake. But they did supply plenty of publicity. Which, obviously, is what Curran had intended.

Why does a theologian crave publicity? By all accounts, Father Curran is an honest and sincere man. But evidently he believes that his confrontation with the Vatican is an inherent part of his theological work. To the Washington Post, he explained that a theologian “should always be in dialogue with the world . . . should always be in tension with the Church.” That’s not a misprint: dialogue with the world, tension with the Church. Stand that sentence on its head, and you have a reasonably accurate description of the Catholic theologian’s proper role.

In Curran’s view, many activities, which were once universally condemned (such as masturbation, fornication, homosexual acts, abortion, and contraception), may be morally justifiable. Many people agree with him. The official Catholic Church — and here Curran has been commendably forthright — does not. That Rome should overthrow two millennia of constant teaching on the strength of Curran’s theological dissent is, to say the least, unlikely.

But suppose, just for the sake of the argument, which some future synod could decide to accept Curran’s views. Suppose that the Church could, then, condone abortion and fornication. (The strain on the imagination illustrates just how foreign Currants ideas are to Catholicism, but leave that aside.) Why isn’t Father Curran content to work quietly toward that goal? Other theologians — John Courtney Murray and Henri de Lubac come immediately to mind — have continued their controversial work unobtrusively, avoiding public confrontations, and finally seen their ideas adopted by the universal Church. Why is it so vital that the whole world know — right away — what Curran thinks?

If the Church were to adopt Curran’s views the bishops, not the theologians and certainly not the general public, would make that decision. Yet that, precisely, is Curran’s complaint. He readily admits that the institutional Church rejects his views. But he hopes, using the leverage of public opinion, to force a change in the Vatican’s posture. (Or perhaps, more ominously, to promote divisions within the hierarchy — notably between the American bishops and Rome.) Therefore, in dialogue with the world and in tension with the Church, Charles Curran is true to his ideas.

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Philip F. Lawler, a former editor of Crisis Magazine, is the author most recently, of Contagious Faith: Why the Church Must Spread Hope, Not Fear, in a Pandemic.

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