Father Charles Curran has done the Catholic Church a great service. He has made himself the test case for the validation of the principle of religious freedom in the American university. In a landmark decision, Judge Frederick Weisberg of Washington, D.C., upheld Catholic University’s right to refuse to rehire Father Curran as a tenured professor. “No one, least of all a Catholic priest and professor of Catholic theology, could have contracted with Catholic University without understanding the university’s special relationship with the Roman Catholic Church, and with all the implications and obligations that flowed from that relationship,” the judge wrote.
Father Curran’s dissenting views on abortion, homosexuality, and other issues propelled the Vatican and Cardinal Hickey of Washington, D.C., to impugn the Catholic credentials of Curran. Curran, for his part, contended that he had a contract with Catholic University, his academic freedom permitted him to teach theology as he saw fit, his positions were not outside the mainstream of Catholic intellectual life, historically the Church has persecuted dissidents and later honored them, moreover Curran supports fundamental Catholic dogma and only breaks ranks on a few issues, notably below-the-belt issues.
Having lost his suit, Father Curran bitterly remarks that “Academic freedom is now dead” at Catholic University. But in fact all the court decision proves is that academic freedom in pontifical departments at Catholic University is one of two primary conditions — the other being the special fealty to the Roman pontiff in whose name the departments grant degrees — and sometimes the two conflict. It is odd that a civil judge had to explain all this to a priest, professor, and theologian — an oddity the judge himself noted.
Does a Catholic university have the right to assure that its theology department remains Catholic, i.e., promotes ideas that are harmonious with Catholic teaching? If not, in what sense is a Catholic university Catholic? If so, then how can a Catholic university justify the continued subsi0 of a worldview that is not only inconsistent with Church teaching, but held by the Church to be positively immoral? This would be a recipe for self-destruction. Judge Weisberg saw the point clearly and steered the secular arm far clear of this. It would be highly improper, he said, for a court “to force Catholic University to accept a professor of Catholic moral theology whom the highest offices of the Church have expressly declared unsuitable and ineligible to teach that subject.”
Catholicism is not a do-it-yourself religion. Unlike a number of Protestant sects, which have privatized the faith, Christianity for Catholics is not a matter of private belief: to each his own. Even the Bible doesn’t mean what each of us may take it to mean. Rather, Catholicism believes in a community of faith. In that community there are inalienable rights, but there are also binding obligations. As with families, there is a mechanism for resolving the inevitable tensions and disputes that arise, even among well-meaning members. Without governing authority, Catholicism ceases to exist. In the Catholic faith the fundamental issue of freedom cannot be analyzed solely in atomistic terms, since reality is God-given and communally apprehended.
Of course, Father Curran is free to believe and act as he chooses. That is not at issue. In fact, Father Curran is doing exactly that at his current position at the University of Southern California. The question is whether Father Curran has the right to act as a member of a particular religious community, using the name and identity of the community, for purposes inimical to the good of that community. Judge Weisberg saw that when Father Curran joined Catholic University, he freely assumed certain obligations. Now he has abridged those obligations and Catholic University is not compelled to keep him on.
At a 1988 conference on religious freedom at the University of Virginia, Michael Sandel of Harvard argued that Americans too often proclaim an individualist conception of conscience, focusing solely on personal choice. But for Catholicism, as for Judaism, individuals do not merely exercise choices, they also fulfill obligations. These obligations are both personal and communal. Father Curran has suffered because he has violated the communal rule of faith.
Some sympathy should be extended to Father Curran. He is, by all accounts, a sincere and decent man, who stands up for what he believes. The fact that he may be theologically in error does not detract from his good intentions. And who can deny his long years of devoted service to the Church? We are glad that, in turning to the secular arm, having rolled the dice and lost, he has decided not to appeal. The scandal he has generated, based upon what Judge Weisberg saw as a utopian image of his contract, has done damage enough, to himself not least.
What, then, has Father Curran lost? Jude Dougherty, dean of philosophy at Catholic University, remarks that “the attention Curran received always derived from the fact that he claimed to represent the theological establishment. That’s over now.” Curran was especially surprised to see the officers of the fraternity — Cardinal Bernardin, President Father Byron of Catholic University — refuse to protect him and in fact testify against him. The biggest surprise, however, must have been the wisdom, common sense, and respect for communities of faith exhibited by Judge Weisberg.
Since Father Curran had virtually disappeared from the news, prior to his trial, his previous notoriety may have derived largely from the fact that in his post at Catholic University he could be taken as speaking for the pope. But no more. “This is Tom Brokaw at NBC. Pope John Paul was lambasted today for his defense of natural family planning by leading Catholic theologian Charles Curran of the University of Southern California….” It just doesn’t sound the same.
Giving up press conferences is no fun; Father Curran may suffer a mild case of perk withdrawal.
Of course, the broader question of the authenticity of dissent will outlast Father Curran at Catholic University and at other Catholic schools. Professor Dougherty points out that there are numerous Catholic academics who think that Church teaching must “catch up” with modern secular mores, especially regarding sexuality. Nevertheless, Father Curran’s case has helped clarify — and thus protect — the religious liberty of Catholic institutions to promulgate the teachings they hold dear and true. It’s over, Charlie.