Search and Witness

Book cover
Loyal Dissentby By Charles E. CurranGeorgetown Univ. Press. 280p $26.95

Whenever I assign a book by Charles Curran in a moral theology course, my students’ first questions are always: "Have you met him? What is he like?" It is not surprising that they are curious about Curran. As this newly released memoir recounts, at a relatively young age Curran became, by choice and circumstance, the most infamous American Catholic theologian of his time. It is not surprising either that my students look confused when I respond that the qualities I most associate with Charles Curran are his warmth, his humility and his love for the church. For as he admits, Curran is the very symbol of dissent in the church.

In the ecclesiastical climate that has prevailed for much if not all of my students’ lives, public disagreement with the magisterium, particularly on highly charged issues of sexual morality, cannot be reconciled with a sincere desire for the good of the church. My students are accustomed to the casting of theological disagreements between conservative and progressive Catholics as mortal battles between those who love the church and those who would destroy it.

The details of Curran’s confrontation with church authorities over Humanae Vitae are well known: the seven-year investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that ended with the declaration in July 1986 that Curran was not suitable nor eligible to teach Catholic theology, the subsequent loss of his tenured position at The Catholic University of America, and his eventual move to Southern Methodist University as the Elizabeth Scurlock University Professor of Human Values. There have been several scholarly treatments of the theological and political issues surrounding Curran’s case, including his own Faithful Dissent. The virtue of Loyal Dissent,his personal memoir, is its ability to place his public choices, and ultimately their costs, in the context not only of deeply held theological convictions, but also of his vocation as a priest-theologian. It is because we get a glimpse of his early religious formation, his call to the priesthood, the intellectual and spiritual transformations that occurred during his years as a student in Rome, and his enthusiasm as a young professor at C.U.A. and desire to create a vibrant faith community among faculty and students, that we can understand what it meant for him, in the wake of the action by the C.D.F., to become a nonperson within the institutional church.

It is no small irony that the Vatican’s action gave Curran international visibility and opportunities he might never have had otherwise. He is widely acknowledged as one of the most prominent and prolific scholars of Catholic moral theology today. Yet because he was barred from speaking in Catholic dioceses, is not recognized as an authority within the church and was not hired by any Catholic college or university after leaving C.U.A., he has served the church as a theologian primarily from the outside. One does not have to agree with Curran’s positions to wonder how great a loss his professional status represents, not only for him, but for Catholic higher education and the intellectual life of the institutional church.

Loyal Dissent is characteristically self-critical and modest. Curran does not try to justify his disagreements with official church teaching on such contested issues as contraception or homosexuality so much as to place them in context within the fundamental beliefs about the nature of truth and the mission of the church that have informed his adult life as a Christian and a scholar. Although he insists on the importance of an ecclesial climate in which broad consultation and open debate on matters of vital importance are encouraged, he is never in this book simply the radical dissenter he has been made out to be. Whether or not we share his conviction that the Vatican’s action against him had to be publicly challenged as a matter of justice - he acknowledges that even some of his supporters disagreed with his appeal to the media - it is obvious that he is driven not by antagonism toward the church but by his confidence in its character as a community of moral discourse and in the shared responsibility of believers to search for and witness to the truth in love.

This book is more than a reflection on Charles Curran’s life. It is also a reflection on the American Catholic Church in the aftermath of Vatican II; the deep and unresolved tensions between the council’s call to ressourcement (recovery of Scripture and tradition) and its invitation to aggiornamento (renewal in light of the needs and wisdoms of the time); the relationship between conscience and authority, certainty and contingency in an age of religious and moral pluralism; the limits of academic freedom in Catholic universities; and the contested intersection of sexuality, authority and Catholic identity. The most baffling question this memoir raises, however, is why Curran has remained committed to a church within which he has experienced so much pain.

Along the way, I could not help but recall the French Dominican Humbert Clerrisac’s observation that "[i]t is easy to suffer for the church, the difficult thing is to suffer at the hands of the church." It is Curran’s answer that makes this neither an angry nor a bitter book, but a hopeful one: To be a Catholic Christian is to understand oneself as part of a communion that always transcends the human institution; to believe but also to act as if the Spirit is alive and working in the church; and to stake one’s life on the confidence that "in all things, God works for the good of those who love God" (Rom 8:28).

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