Observations: Lesson from Rome

In a sense the Curran case is none of my business. Although not a member of the Roman Catholic Church, I did not hesitate to enter the debate over the recent pastoral letters on nuclear strategy and the economy since they were addressed by the Catholic bishops to American society at large. But what concern is it of mine that Charles E. Curran, a Roman Catholic priest, has been forbidden by the Vatican to teach theology any longer at Catholic University of America?

The same question can be asked of all the newspapers and television programs which have given such extensive coverage to the Curran case. Not being affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, why should they be interested in an internal affair of a sovereign community of faith living by its own rules and traditions?

The cynical answer might be that we are all titillated by the fact that Father Curran was censured for his ideas about sex. As against the official doctrines of the Church, he teaches that contraception, abortion, premarital sex, homosexual acts and divorce are not always wrong. Indeed, in certain circumstances they may under Father Curran’s “theology of compromise” even be judged right and good.

Clearly this makes the Curran case more intriguing than it would be had Father Curran dissented from Church doctrine on such recondite issues as consubstantiation or the mysteries of the Trinity.

But, titillation aside, the sexual content of the case gives it greater sociological importance than a more technical theological dispute would have done. After all, a looser stand by the Church on sexual conduct would have an immense effect. Obviously it would reshape the daily lives of millions upon millions of Catholics. But its influence would also touch the rest of us by removing one of the few remaining barriers in contemporary society against the spread of sexual permissiveness.

The irony is that, deep down, even many liberals, while sympathizing with Father Curran, would be sorry to see this happen. To be sure, most of the people I have in mind would almost rather die on the rack than admit it, but they are increasingly troubled by the erosion of all sexual limits and restraints. Especially when they become parents, they find themselves (often to their own surprise) developing second thoughts about the easy availability of pornography, the widespread toleration and even approval of “sexually active” teenage girls, the acceptance and even encouragement of homosexuality among teenage boys.

Lacking as liberals and moral relativists any solidly grounded principle on which to oppose such things, these people are not altogether unhappy that others are willing to do the “dirty work” for them, at least to the extent of drawing a few lines and setting a few boundaries.

The most effective among those who have been performing this unpleasant task is the Roman Catholic Church. For unlike fundamentalist Protestants, who do not speak for all Protestants, and unlike Orthodox Jews, who represent only a small minority of their co-religionists, the Roman Catholic Church remains united and staunch.

This does not mean that all its members either agree with or live by the Church’s teachings on sex. In America, certainly, many — and where birth control and divorce are concerned, a majority — do not. Nevertheless, from the point of view of the Church such Catholics are in error when they disagree and are committing a sin when they act on their disagreement.

Thus Rome has not said that any Catholic who refuses to obey the Church is to be excommunicated. Rome has not said that any priest who disagrees with the Pope is to be defrocked. Rome has not even said that a priest like Father Curran — who not only disagrees with the Pope but attempts to persuade other Catholics to join in his rebellion against official Church doctrine — is to be defrocked. What Rome has said is that Father Curran has no right to spread ideas in the name of the Catholic faith that are contrary to the official doctrines of that faith.

In short, by forbidding Father Curran to teach theology in a Catholic university, the Vatican has demonstrated that it still has a definable identity whose integrity it will defend and whose violation it will resist.

More particularly, and in strict accord with its essential character, the Church has declared that a valid law remains valid no matter how often it may be broken. According to a Vatican official: “Father Curran presented statistics showing that rejection of Church teaching on artificial birth control was widespread in America in order to prove that he was in the mainstream. But instead of helping his case, that only increased the determination to deal with him firmly.”

I for one wish that Father Curran had been dealt with just as firmly for calling himself a “clergyperson” and for referring to God as “she.” But that is perhaps asking too much even of a Church which, in standing up for itself against a challenge from within, puts to shame all the other institutions of our day, most notably the universities, which have failed in analogous circumstances to behave with similar self-respect.

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Podhoretz served as Commentary magazine's Editor-in-Chief from 1960 (when he replaced Elliot E. Cohen) until his retirement in 1995. Podhoretz remains Commentary's Editor-at-Large.

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