Curran, Dissent, & Rome: A Symposium

A new “crisis” now grips American Catholics. The popular professor of moral theology at Catholic University, one of the most esteemed in the United States, the Reverend Charles Curran, has been informed that Pope John Paul II rejects some of his approaches to questions of sexual ethics. The Vatican has specifically cited some of Father Curran’s work on euthanasia, homosexuality, abortion, masturbation, pre-marital sex, artificial birth control, and divorce.

This intervention by the pope, through Cardinal Ratzinger, has raised the ire of many American Catholic theologians. A very sharp editorial has appeared in the National Catholic Reporter (NCR), March 21.

It is all too ironical. Many of the same persons who have shouted from the housetops that laissez-faire economics is unorthodox now defend laissez-faire theology. In economics they invoke authority, to regulate economic acts between consenting adults. In theology, they want no such regulation. In medicine and pharmaceuticals, they want a very slow and careful Food and Drug Administration. In religion, they want direct access to the public.

In economics, they stress solidarity, the social nature of human beings, and community control. In theology, they favor individual dissent. In economics, they see mostly group behavior, but in religion they discover individual conscience. They despise consumerism in economics but love it in religion.

Theology, writes the editors of the NCR, “is not a dry academic subject that takes only past teaching into account; it also embraces life as a starting point and measures that life against the Sacred Scriptures and the Sacred Scriptures against life.” That way of putting it sounds rather more Protestant than Catholic, doesn’t it?

It certainly expresses poorly the Catholic sensibility — in the latter’s respect for the genuine authority of the papacy and of tradition. The NCR, in fact, is not very nice to Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II, describing them as “the pessimistic and narrowly focused forces” working through a “bemused” Congregation of the Faith.

The NCR argues that many loyal Catholics have “more wholesome, understanding and compassionate views on human sexuality, on the failings of marriages, on the actuality of homosexuality than the Vatican dares to share.” NCR seems to mean that such Catholics are more permissive than Rome.

“Finally,” writes NCR, “and we have to ask this, is Curran being made an example of because he is an American?” NCR was by no means conspicuous in arguing that the U.S. Catholic bishops were not sufficiently “American” in the first two drafts of their letter on the U.S. economy. (But, then, some writers in the NCR always blame America first.)

Left-wing Catholics reject the nuclear policies of American governments since 1945. They reject the originality and genius of the American political economy. When challenged, however, they take refuge in being “American.” “The Vatican does not understand” today’s “simultaneously questioning and loyal” Catholics in America, NCR writes.

But what are such Catholics “loyal” to? To the Pope? To the Vatican? Not in this instance, but to “life” and “the sacred Scriptures.” The pope and the Vatican are also loyal to “life” and the “sacred Scriptures.” So what happens to “loyalty” when the Vatican and “loyal” Catholics disagree?

One obligation of a Catholic theologian is always to think clearly, conscientiously, and with intellectual integrity. Another is to understand with clarity and respect both what the Church passes on as the received Word of God, and why it formulates the matter thus. There are always reasons for such formulations, although not always obvious ones. Harsh experiences down the centuries have shaped them. There have been many “slippery slopes” on which innocent-seeming phrases generated disaster.

To some extent theologians are an avant-garde, struggling in darkness to shape illuminating formulations for the future. (That is how I regard my own poor work on Catholic social thought and democratic capitalism.) We theologians may be wrong. In any case, we propose. It is for the pope and bishops — sometimes far ahead in the future, after a period of trial and error — to dispose. Rejected today, we may win tomorrow. Lionized today, we may be dismissed by posterity. Theologians need to take the long view. We are part of a community-in-time, down the centuries.

Cardinal Ratzinger, in his much acclaimed book The Ratzinger Report (San Francisco, Ignatius Press), blames the dissent of the Catholic left precisely upon — capitalism. “Economic liberalism,” he claims, “creates its exact counterpart, permissivism, on the moral plane.” Too many liberal theologians, he says, “have aligned themselves as influential supporters” of the dominant liberal culture.

In my opinion, this analysis is not exact. Genuine liberal thought does not favor pure laissez-faire. Instead, genuine liberalism establishes political economy. It recognizes the need for the political system and the moral system to regulate and to check the economic system — not excessively, but prudently, with practical wisdom.

It is not “liberal” to be “permissive.” On the contrary, the liberal society requires for its own survival a high development of character and virtue. It requires discipline, savings, the postponement of gratification. It instructs each citizen thus: “Confirm thy soul in self-control.” Only self-governing citizens can achieve liberal self-government.

There is no contradiction between liberal self- government and opposition to permissiveness. Nor is there any contradiction between a life lived according to classical, traditional, moral values and the demands of democratic capitalist living.

To be a fully free citizen of the American republic, one need not follow a permissive morality. Indeed, the classic virtues and classic forms of character are indispensable to the health of the liberal society. So also are the disciplines of authentic social teachings, such as those of the diverse Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish religious communities.

Father Curran deserves respect, but it is not necessary as a Catholic or as an American to agree with his moral teaching. Should the pope find Curran’s way less than Catholic, others need not find Curran’s way more Catholic than the pope’s.

Clearly, Pope John Paul II is sending out a warning. It is not enough for theologians to focus on the attractiveness of dissent; it is also necessary to give thought to the reasons for (and communal utility of) authority. Humans do not live by permissiveness alone. “Solidarity” has its intellectual dimensions, too. Those who asked for “solidarity” in economic matters allowed themselves little grounds for celebrating dissent in theology.

As for the rest of us, we have argued during the four- plus years of the existence of this journal that “the signs of the times” call for a new era of neo-orthodoxy. We have said that the principle of papal authority is not at odds with the ideal of the “open church.” The papacy without a vital theological community is sterile; a theological community without the papacy is cut off from its life. To preserve the community, it is necessary despite the pain to hold both in unity. The times are perilous, permissive, and loose. When the pope requests unity of doctrine, it is not too much publicly to give it. One can do one’s pioneering in quiet, in the silence, sowing seeds for another season, as John Courtney Murray did.

  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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