The Curran Controversy: A Crisis Editorial

The exercise of discipline is often a painful experience — not only for the one disciplined, but for the one who disciplines him as well. Although the Vatican did not intend to cause Father Curran distress (indeed, the Sacred Congregation made every effort to find a mutually acceptable solution), no one can deny that his situation now is painful. Cardinal Ratzinger, too, is now thrust into a public controversy which he would prefer to have avoided; likewise Pope John Paul II, the American bishops, and administrators at Catholic University. Setting aside the theological and ecclesiological questions at issue, one can readily acknowledge the heavy personal cost of l’affaire Curran.

Still, discipline, however painful, is a necessity. Without discipline there can be no community; without community, no Church. In the quest for salvation, the Church requires personal sacrifices of all its members. Anyone who boards Peter’s barque must be ready to acknowledge the primacy of the universal Church — ready to serve the demands of the common good.

For a pilgrim Church, constantly facing new challenges and meeting new demands, different eras require different sorts of sacrifice. For a generation, since the close of the Second Vatican Council, Catholicism has seen a dramatic period of experimentation and renewal. (The human cost of that change, too, is all too obvious today.) But that era of dramatic change is now drawing to its close.

Like Pope John XXIII before him, Pope John Paul has read the signs of the times, and seen new requirements for the common good. In Pope John’s time, the primary need for the Catholic Church was renewal; in Pope John Paul’s, the primary need is restoration. The Pope sees perilous times ahead for the Church. To prepare for the coming trials, he was called for greater unity within the church. Toward that end the Pontiff has demanded discipline first from those who are closest to him. So John Paul (and his subordinates, in this case Cardinal Ratzinger and the Sacred Congregation) turn to those who speak in the pope’s name — theologians at pontifical universities.

In this process of consolidation, one crucial task is the restoration of theological consistency. After twenty years of upheaval, the Church must restore the right of ordinary Catholics to receive accurate instruction in their faith. Thus the case of Father Curran. And here the issues are blessedly clear. No one, least of all Father Curran himself, denies that his views on sexual ethics are at odds with the teachings of the Magisterium.

On the spiritual level — the only level that matters — the Catholic Church is the communion of saints. The Pope’s authority comes not from his own person, nor from some ordinary organizational process, but from the Holy Spirit working through the millions of ordinary prayerful Christians, both the living and the dead. To explain the authority of tradition, Chesterton spoke of the “democracy of the dead.” Nowhere is that authority, that democracy, more powerful than within the Church. When the Roman Pontiff is called the “servant of the servants of God,” that title implies his responsibility to all the faithful, living, dead, and yet unborn. The Pope is not a free agent; his authority is tightly circumscribed by, and subordinate to, the overarching authority of living Catholic tradition. As helmsman on Peter’s barque, he holds the rudder; but he does not govern the winds.

Thus when Cardinal Ratzinger — clearly acting under the Pope’s instructions — revoked Father Curran’s license to teach as a Catholic theologian, he was not exercising his power arbitrarily. Quite the opposite; he was responding to the implacable demands of the common good. He had no choice.

Newspaper headlines and television interviews have produced a remarkable confusion about the case of Father Charles Curran. To restore some clarity to the discussion, it is important too to recognize what issues are not involved.

First, in removing his license to teach as a Catholic theologian, the Vatican did not compromise Curran’s academic freedom. He remains free to speak, to write, to research. Press reports to the contrary notwithstanding, Curran has not been “silenced.” He may remain on the faculty at Catholic University; he may teach theology at some other school. The Vatican is simply making it clear that when Curran speaks, listeners should not assume that they are hearing authentic Catholic theology. In everyday terms, we might call this an issue of truth in packaging.

Second, the Vatican action is not intended as a personal punishment for Father Curran. Neither Cardinal Ratzinger nor any other competent official has questioned Curran’s moral character, his commitment to scholarship, or his love for the Church. Nor, for that matter, has anyone questioned his professional competence as a theologian. The question is whether he might accurately be called a Catholic theologian.

Third, the Vatican action is not an attempt to “extend the authority” of the papacy. For centuries loyal Catholics have recognized their bishops, and principally the bishop of Rome, as final arbiters on matters of faith. In American jurisprudence, we recognize the Supreme Court’s authority to determine the constitutionality of a law; similarly, Catholic theologians recognize the authority of the Magisterium to define what is, and what is not, Catholic teaching.


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