The Charles Curran Case: From March 29, 1986
The Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, after having reviewed the matter with the Holy Father, has written the Rev. Charles E. Curran a letter dated Sept. 17, 1985, to inform Father Curran that he can no longer teach Catholic theology in the name of the church unless he retracts certain positions having to do mostly with sexual morality. Since the threatened loss of Father Curran's theology professorship at The Catholic University of America is similar to a controverted censure previously imposed on the Rev. Hans Kung, there is sure to be concern within much of the American theological community. This is all the more true because many moralists, including Father Curran, regard his positions as well within the mainstream of present-day Catholic theology. Even a preliminary review of the principal issues in this case reveals their potential for causing disruption within the American Catholic community unless they are addressed with both clarity and charity.
Dissent from authoritative but noninfallible teaching of the church. This is the crux. If a teaching is not infallible. Father Curran maintains, dissent from it is in principle possible, and in certain circumstances justifiable. In fact, he came to be known in 1968 as spokesman for theologians who dissented from the teaching of Humanae Vitae that artificial contraception is always evil. Cardinal Ratzinger disallows that dissent, as well as certain other of Father Curran's positions that he says vary from the church's authoritative, noninfallible teaching on homosexuality, masturbation, premarital sex, abortion and euthanasia. The Cardinal cites Vatican II's "Constitution on the Church" (No. 25), which calls for "submission of mind and will" to teaching of this sort, and also Canon 752 of the new Code, which incorporates the thought of Vatican II on the matter. But to see how inconclusive citations can be, one has only to read the commentary of the Canon Law Society of America on c. 752: "Dissent is possible because the teachers mentioned in the canon [Supreme Pontiff and College of Bishops] can be and de facto have been mistaken."
Role of U.S. hierarchy. On March 12, Father Curran's bishop, the Most Rev. Matthew H. Clark of Rochester, N.Y., issued a statement supporting Father Curran, who he says has always been "responsible" in his teaching. Bishop Clark thinks the contemplated Vatican censure would be a "setback" for the U.S. church and suggests that U.S. bishops should have more say in such matters. Chicago's Cardinal Joseph L. Bemardin, chairman of the board of trustees of Catholic University, and Washington's Archbishop James A. Hickey, university chancellor, both supported a compromise, which nonetheless remains unaccepted by the Vatican till now, whereby Father Curran would refrain from teaching sexual ethics but would remain a Catholic theologian at the university. In dissenting from noninfallible teachings. Father Curran says he has adhered to the U.S. bishops' explicit criteria for such dissent—"if the reasons are serious and well-founded, if the manner of the dissent does not question or impugn the teaching authority of the church and is such as not to give scandal"—as set forth in No. 51 of the pastoral letter "Human Life in Our Day," issued Nov. 15, 1968, soon after Humanae Vitae. Father Curran says he accepts these criteria of the U.S. bishops but wonders if the Vatican does.
"Academic freedom" in the United States. This is not only a specific and personal matter with civil implications for a tenured professor, but also a broader issue of long-range academic integrity in U.S. Catholic higher education. Nine past presidents of the Catholic Theological Society of America put it this way in a signed statement of support for Father Curran: "Enemies of the Catholic Church in the United States have argued that Catholic colleges and universities are not independent academic institutions....If Father Curran were removed from his position as a professor of theology at The Catholic University of America, it would be far more difficult to rebut this charge."
"Due process" and the singling out of Father Curran. The investigatory procedure of the Sacred Congregation involves many steps of which the subject is unaware and to which, therefore, he has no access. It is no condemnation of such procedure to say that it is not "due process" in an American sense. That is simply a fact. Apart from technical analyses of the comparative justice of Vatican or American processes, there emerges an issue of fundamental fairness that any American Catholic can appreciate, and it has to do with another fact: In the American church, there is widespread teaching, not to mention pastoral practice, that does not adhere strictly to all the official teachings mentioned in Cardineil Ratzinger's letter—for example, with respect to contraception. Is it just to single out Father Cur- ran? Is it sensible? After all, several of his opinions are typical rather than exceptional, especially among the church's middle managers (chancery personnel, pastors in their 4O's and 5O's, religious women and men in service and education posts) who keep the ecclesiastical apparatus running. Surely such facts and questions must be taken into account by those wishing to provide the church with intelligent and pastoral leadership.
Father Curran says that, no matter what happens, he will continue to love and serve the Catholic Church. He feels "at home" in it precisely because the Catholic tradition insists that faith and reason do not contradict each other. His views, he says, are both Catholic and reasonable. He does not deny that the teaching of the church should be normative, nor does he deny any of the church's dogmas or defined truths. Many pastoral considerations, therefore, as well as a care for the American Catholic experience and for the good of the universal church, lead to the conclusion that, at the very least, the compromise endorsed by Cardinal Bernardin should be accepted by the Vatican. Father Curran is a respectful son of the church and deserves to be respected as such.