Curran, Dissent, & Rome: A Symposium

Among its many dimensions, the Curran case focuses attention on the social role of the theologian in our time. Father Curran and his supporters argue that theologians have the right to pursue their researches (more precisely, their speculations) freely, unmolested by threats from outside the academy. Only in such a serene, tolerant environment, it is argued, can truth germinate. Yet Father Curran is, and has been for many years, much more than an academic theologian, and were his writings mainly aimed at other scholars they would probably not have drawn the Holy See’s attention. Father Curran has constantly sought, and attained, the widest possible public forum for his opinions. Like many dissenting theologians, he has become something of a media star.

The circumstances, under which he achieved academic tenure, in 1967, were hardly in keeping with the usual procedures of the academy. On that occasion organized protests and public demonstrations were used to bring pressure to bear on the university board to reverse its earlier decision against him. His position at Catholic University was attained through extra-academic means common on American campuses at that time but deeply destructive of the peace and integrity of the universities.

The next year Father Curran orchestrated the public attack on Humanae Vitae (describing his role in that affair with remarkable candor in the volume Journeys, edited by Gregory Baum). There Father Curran admitted that his main concern was publicity and expressed pride that “American Catholics could read in their morning papers about their right to dissent. . . .”

The Jesuit theologian Donald Keefe has pointed out (in Communio, Summer, 1977) the way in which Father Curran’s stand on abortions is intertwined with a rather garbled understanding of church-state relations, the nature of a pluralistic society, and the Second Vatican Council, causing him to defer to the state in moral matters in a way which hardly does justice to the seriousness of the issues. Once again, what seems to govern Father Curran’s thoughts are not purely intellectual and academic considerations but a certain sense of the social role of the theologian, defined in part by “outside” agencies like the government.

Over the past two decades some American Catholics have had the experience of objecting to certain ambiguous (or worse) teachings about sex found in catechisms and other Catholic books, only to be met with the reply that such theories are in harmony with the work of Father Curran, a professor at the bishops’ own university and a man whose orthodoxy must therefore be assumed. There is, and continues to be, a “catch 22” at work here — if the Church repudiates Father Curran’s theories, it is accused of tyranny; if it does not, those theories are treated as presumptively orthodox.

The question of academic freedom is scarcely adequate to encompass the far-reaching issues which are ultimately at stake here.


  • James Hitchcock

    James Hitchcock is Professor of History at St. Louis University. He is the author of many books including The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton) and, most recently, The History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium (Ignatius, 2012).

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