Curran, Dissent, & Rome: A Symposium

Bertrand Russell once observed dryly that religion could not be taken seriously as truth until it showed itself to be self-correcting, like science. Had Russell been more sympathetic to the whole Judeo-Christian tradition, he would have had to acknowledge its steady development of thought about faith and morals. But part of his intuition was correct: while science and religion both proceed toward fuller truth, religion, by the nature of its subject matter, shows much less restless rationalism and more organic continuity.

In the modern world, keeping the Church open to new intellectual currents is vital because we do not have adequate theoretical explanations for Christian faith and morals. In part, this is the result of centuries of philosophical and practical currents that have led to some terrifying dead ends. As William Barrett once remarked, the modern task has become to discover “how to let prayer re-enter the world of Samuel Beckett, which is where modernity leads us finally.”

The Charles Curran case has to be situated in this larger context if we wish to understand its full human and somewhat tragic dimensions. As the essential nihilism of modernity has appeared, the Church’s stubborn adherence to traditional truths no longer has the simple anti-intellectual appearance it once had for overconfident progressives. Father Curran is far from being a wild radical, in spite of his serious dissent from Church teaching on sexual ethics. But the weight of tradition is so strongly against him, and the sources of his dissent, however nuanced, so much a part of the atomizing tendencies of modern intellectual life (except for cases of rape, are there modern sexual ethics?), that the Church is prudent in withholding the name “Catholic” from his speculations.

The decision to be “Catholic” does not mean foregoing thought, but rather accepting certain truths. A Catholic may speculate about any number of things, but that does not make his thinking Catholic. We have had a spate of public figures recently — Geraldine Ferraro, Eleanor Smeal, even the excommunicated head of a Planned Parenthood office — who have invented a new personalist criterion for Catholicism which runs like this: I am a Catholic, I think x, therefore x is Catholic thinking. Not a very sound syllogism.

In the Curran case, the Vatican has pointed out a subtler, more significant lapse in logic. If a theologian specifically designated as Catholic dissents from longstanding Church teaching, must his thought also be automatically accepted as Catholic?

Other dissenting theologians and Catholic college presidents have warned of a number of dangers in removing the Catholic label from dissenting theologians. None of these dangers touches the core issue of who has the authority to define what constitutes Catholic thought. But they are worth considering as indications of what the Curran controversy is really all about.

Loss of Federal Funding. That the Vatican’s rules in general or the Curran case in particular would imperil funding to American Catholic colleges and universities is not self-evident. Many private Protestant colleges are currently receiving federal funds and student loans, even those that require students and faculty to agree to “faith professions” — much more restrictive formulas than those applied to Father Curran.

“External Control. In America, colleges and universities are deemed academically free when they are directed by an independent Board of Trustees and observe certain academic guidelines. Some Catholic university presidents see removal of the Catholic designation by Rome as threatening academic freedom and accreditation. But if trustees and presidents decide not to call anyone on campus a Catholic theologian unless he is recognized as such in Rome, they are not succumbing to “external control.” Their ruling, for the sake of designation, would be no more a loss of autonomy than a decision not to make anyone a full professor without a proper Ph.D.

Violation of Academic Freedom. In the Curran case and in similar cases, it is very difficult to see how removal of the title “Catholic theologian” would be considered an infringement of academic freedom. No one has suggested that Curran be fired from Catholic University, merely that he not be assigned to the specifically Catholic faculty of theology. Protestants, Jews, members of Oriental religions all explain their theologies and ethics on Catholic campuses without hindrance. But no one takes their teachings to be the official teachings of the Catholic Church. How would the removal of the label “Catholic” from Father Curran ‘make him any different?

The American Association of University Professors, which is responsible for accreditation and guaranteeing academic freedom, has recognized rights of conscience for Catholic professors and professors with other religious commitments. How would the insistence of a board of trustees that a designated Catholic theologian in fact be so, run afoul of rights to academic freedom?

Clearly, such action would run afoul of the large number of theologians at Catholic colleges and universities who also have dissented from Catholic teaching. Their reaction to the Curran case is typical of that of any special interest group. Trustees and presidents who either agree with the dissent or do not wish to face the protest might choose to accept as insuperable obstacles the points listed above and act accordingly. But they need not.

Adequate accounts of faith and morals are difficult for all of us to achieve under current conditioning. Mindful of our own dark and crooked paths, we should be reasonably tolerant of the views of dissenters. For some time to come the Church will face massive intellectual challenges and we must look for light from whatever quarter it may arrive. But one of these challenges is the. Church’s obligation to give light to the world by saying clearly “this is Catholic, that is not.”


  • Robert Royal

    Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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