Curran, Dissent, & Rome: A Symposium

Whatever you may have heard, or thought, please be assured that there are no similarities between the case of Charles Curran and the case of Galileo Galilei. Whatever similarities there are, are superficial, not significant. The Galileo case occurred ‘way back, in the pre-Vatican II church.

Someone may rashly claim a resemblance between Galileo’s meeting with Cardinal Robert Bellarmine in Rome on February 26, 1616, and Father Curran’s meeting with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in Rome on March 8, 1986. Cardinal Bellarmine, it is true, courteously met Galileo at the door when the Florentine scientist arrived, and Cardinal Ratzinger courteously offered coffee to the American theologian. But the comparison ends right there.

Clearly, the words of Cardinals Bellarmine and Ratzinger were rather different. When Father Curran said that many other respectable theologians hold views similar to his own, Cardinal Ratzinger replied, “Well, Father, would you want to accuse these people? The congregation will look into it.” Historians have adduced no evidence that Cardinal Bellarmine said such words to Galileo.

The 1616 meeting was intended to remind Galileo of non-infallible hierarchical church teachings, namely, that the opinion about the sun being immovable is “foolish and absurd in Philosophy, and formally heretical” and the opinion that the earth moves is “at least erroneous in the faith” (words written by theological consultants to the Holy Office). The 1986 meeting, on the other hand, was intended to remind Curran of other non-infallible hierarchical church teachings, namely, that “every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life,” of “the inviolable character of human life from the moment of conception,” that “masturbation, premarital intercourse and homosexual acts . . . are intrinsically immoral” and of “the indissolubility of sacramental and consummated marriage” (words written by Cardinal Ratzinger).

Someone reading these words may allege that “non-infallible” means “fallible,” that is, capable of being in error. “Capable of error” according to whom? Don’t we Catholics need a central office to decide about non-infallible error and non-infallible truth? Otherwise we would be thrown back on our own non-infallible consciences. And might it not be that some non-infallible hierarchical church teachings are more non-infallible than others? We need to know.

It takes time and patience to sort these things out. Pope John Paul II currently has a special commission working to make a final judgment on the Galileo case. The jury is still out. Until all the facts are in, prudence surely requires that we adhere to non-infallible hierarchical church teachings. Whether Copernicanism or contraception better stick with non-infallible (I didn’t say “fallible”) teachings.

It is true that the non-infallible hierarchical church teaching on Copernicanism turned out to be more non-infallible than expected. But with regard to a subject like contraception — not to worry. There is no comparing these two non-infallible teachings. Astronomy is not sex.

The only important Galileo-Curran similarity should be in our attitude. In both cases we need to appreciate the Vatican’s point of view. Think of the many people who were disturbed to learn that Galileo thought the earth moved and the sun stood still. Today many married Catholics are no doubt similarly upset to learn that Curran thinks that contraception in some cases in morally acceptable. It is crucial to keep in mind that the Vatican acts in the interests of all Catholics — and all mankind. We need to recognize the quality of its best efforts, past and present.

There is no reason to take my word for all of this, although as the television commercial says, “You have my word on it.” To decide for yourself — though I cannot recommend that approach in all cases — while you are reading the newspaper reports on Charles Curran, try reading a book on Galileo Galilei in parallel. I suggest Galileo by Stillman Drake or The Crime of Galileo by Giorgio de Santillana. You’ll quickly come to see what I mean.

  • Robert Spaeth

    Robert L. Spaeth came to Saint John’s University, Minnesota, as a visiting professor in Liberal Studies and director of Freshman Colloquium in 1977. He was appointed dean in 1979 and held that post for nine years. He resigned in 1988 to return to teaching. He died in 1994.

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