Curran, Dissent, & Rome: A Symposium

Many of my colleagues in the Theology Department have urged for acceptance of a “compromise” in the confrontation between Father Charles E. Curran and the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This compromise would require Father Curran to refrain from teaching sexual ethics at the University, require the SCDF to recognize Father Curran as a Catholic theologian in good standing, while publishing a statement pointing out what the Congregation regards as errors and ambiguities in his teaching, and allow Father Curran to teach other courses in moral theology at the University.

This compromise is not acceptable. Father Curran’s central claim concerning dissent affects not only his teaching on issues of sexual ethics but also his whole understanding of the relationship between the conscience of a Catholic and the teaching of the magisterium. It is consequently central to his teaching of fundamental moral, and indeed of all, questions in morality. According to his view, no specific moral teachings of the magisterium have been infallibly proposed. He further holds that one can dissent from any teaching not infallibly proposed, i.e., from every specific moral teaching of the magisterium. By this he means that moral teachings contradicting the specific teachings of the magisterium, no matter how urgently and insistently proposed as expressing the mind of the Church, can be considered both “Catholic” and normative.

The Congregation holds that Father Curran’s view of dissent is false, and for that reason it judges that he cannot be considered a Catholic theologian so long as he holds this view. In essence, the issue is this: who speaks in the name of Christ on specific issues of morality, and upon whom are the faithful to rely in seeking to shape their lives in accordance with the requirements of the gospel? Father Curran proposes that the faithful can substitute, on every specific moral issue, the judgments of theologians for the firmly expressed judgments of the magisterium.

I think this proposal of Father Curran is false. Thus I do not think that the compromise urged by many of my colleagues is acceptable.

Should the majority of the faculty of the School of Religious Studies adopt the view of my colleagues, I think a change should be made in the title of the statement adopted. It should be “Statement of Some (or Most) Members of the Theology Department of The Catholic University of America Regarding Father Charles E. Curran,” rather than simply “Statement of Members. . . .”


William E. May is the Emeritus Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology, Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America and Senior Fellow at The Culture of Life Foundation, Washington, D.C.

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