Curran, Dissent, & Rome: A Symposium

The case of Charles Curran, as it has come to be called, deserves all the considered attention that it can receive. The Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome has demanded that Father Charles Curran “retract those positions [he has publicly stated] which violate the conditions necessary for a professor to be called a Catholic theologian.” Father Curran, a much admired and respected theologian in this country, has offered a compromise: 1) He would not teach sexual ethics, the area of his teaching to which the Congregation has directed most of its criticism; 2) the Congregation would issue a statement pointing out what they judge to be errors and flaws in his teaching; 3) he would retain his status as Catholic theologian in good standing.

There are a large number of serious matters involved in this confrontation. In his theological teachings on sexual ethics, Father Curran has developed positions on such issues as contraception, premarital sex, homosexuality, and abortion that the Congregation declares to be “in open contrast with the teaching of the magisterium.” With one or more of Father Curran’s developed positions, many Catholics — laity, theologians, priests, and bishops — are in agreement. They are issues that touch them directly, deeply, and many would like the case of Father Curran to concentrate on these issues.

Father Curran is a tenured professor of moral theology at the Catholic University of America. He has quoted leaders of Catholic higher education on the responsibilities and limits such a position entails: “The Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.” Father Curran himself added that although the hierarchical magisterium in the Roman Catholic Church has a proper teaching role, “academic decisions in this country must ultimately be made by peers in the light of Catholic faith and ongoing search for truth.” Many Catholics, as well as many who are not Catholic, would affirm Father Curran’s statement. They believe that the present impasse between Father Curran and the congregation can be resolved by the invocation of the gravy principle of academic freedom. They assert this in spite of the fact that the department of theology, at the Catholic University of America, is chartered by the Vatican — a distinction with a difference.

A number of commentators have posed their concerns — and adopted their positions — in terms of freedom of conscience and the right of the inquiring mind. Apart from the strong and justified claims these principles exert in themselves, Gaudium et Spes can be read as a recent and powerful confirmation of such claims. Recent findings in history, philosophy, and science raise new questions, the document says, demanding new theological investigations. The closing lines of the section concerning theological sciences and culture refer to those who pursue such questions and investigations: “In order that such persons may fulfill their proper functions, let it be recognized that all the faithful, clerical and lay, possess a lawful freedom of inquiry and of thought, and the freedom to express their minds humbly and courageously about those matters in which they enjoy competence.” For many observers of the Curran case, the decision turns on the interpretation of these claims. And when the principle of freedom of conscience is accompanied by the historical memory of courageous individuals who suffered cruelly under the imposed judgments of church officials, the proper decision seems to them clear and unequivocal.

Some commentators have chosen to emphasize what might be loosely termed the political struggle in the present confrontation. It is most usually posed in terms of conservative versus liberal, or traditional versus progressive, or some less appealing variants. Many of those who side with Curran agree in large measure with those who side with the congregation about what is at stake; they differ sharply, however, in the outcome they would prefer. Under the differing banners of “freedom” and “authority,” and trading accusations of rigidity and anarchy, the two factions tend to see the Curran case in terms of a power struggle, and each anticipates with a degree of excitement an outcome satisfactory to its position.

All of these considerations merit attention but none of them can be determinative in the case of Charles Curran. The determination of his case must be made in the light of the nature of the Catholic Church and the charisms appropriate to its different offices. John Henry Newman and Friedrich von Hugel, among others, have variously described the trinity of these offices, or principles, as the priestly, the prophetic, and the royal; or, as those of the scholar or cleric, the saint or mystic, and the pastor or ruler. These exist as complementary principles that are frequently in tension with each other, as they are in this case.

A forced conscience is an abomination, and no one can force Father Curran to believe what he does not believe. He is a scholar and has a right and obligation to develop his scholarly gifts. But neither he nor any group of scholars, even Catholic theologians, has the task of defining authoritative teachings of the Catholic Church. If they had such gifts, such responsibilities, they rather than the bishops of the church should sit in solemn conclave to formulate those teachings. The teaching authority of the church rests outside of the scholarly community, in the hierarchy. It is the magisterium that defines what is authoritative teaching in the church. It is this principle to which Monsignor John extends only to dogmas and the defined truths. If such were the case, Church teaching on non-infallible questions would be regarded as matters of prudence merely and some would conclude that the dissenter and the teaching authority had equal right and liberty to make those prudential decisions. If such were the case, it would mean that this authority, which includes that of the pope, could not act in the concrete circumstances of the intellectual life in history.

If we concede that in our time and in our place there is a serious danger that minds will interpret moral ideas in a spirit of permissiveness, in a spirit of rationalization, which always looses obligations and favors desires, we must also concede that a true pastor must take that spirit into account in his role as leader. As he attempts to counter “the spirit of the age,” he might err on the side of greater discipline. For the gift of the teaching authority is not accompanied by a gift of impeccability in non-infallible matters; the history of the Catholic Church is replete with incidents that would contradict such an assertion. It is the application of the various checks and balances appropriate to the various offices that partially accounts for the zigzag course the Church has taken through history. This does not, however, negate the authority, which still has the right and responsibility to speak and to teach. In the case of Father Curran that authority has delimited what a theologian can teach in the area of sexual ethics and still be regarded as a Catholic theologian. This limitation does not preclude future investigation of many of the issues of sexual ethics to which Father Curran devotes his attention.

This decision may confuse and disconcert those who do not recognize or acknowledge the teaching authority of the magisterium. It is likely to dismay theologians who are not Catholic, secular scholars, and other dissenters within the Church. But it reveals the special privilege and the special burden of the Catholic theologian. His commitment is different in significant ways from those of other Catholic scholars, other non-Catholic theologians. His commitment is to follow his intellectual pursuits with intellectual courage and complete integrity and at the same time to remain faithful to the legitimate authority of the church.

Historically and inevitably there is tension in this commitment. The burden of that tension is particularly trying during periods of turmoil and disruption within the church, and falls with a particular weight on individual persons. We are living though such a period today and Charles Curran is one of the persons who is called upon to bear that weight. Those who support the congregation and the pope as they delimit the boundaries of what a person can teach as a Catholic theologian, should also pray that the outcome of the case of Charles Curran will instruct and strengthen the church and all of its adherents.


  • James Finn

    James Finn is author of Protest: Pacifism and Politics, a study of the Vietnam peace movement, and, when Crisis was originally published in 1982, he was editor of Freedom at Issue, the bimonthly journal of Freedom House.

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