Curran, Dissent, & Rome: A Symposium

The Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has asked Father Charles Curran of Catholic University to “reconsider and to retract those positions which violate the conditions necessary for a professor to be called a Catholic theologian.” Unless he does so, he will be unable to continue teaching theology at C.U., in accordance with norms laid down a number of years ago for “pontifical universities,” which have a special juridical relation with the Church.

But the impact of any action with regard to Father Curran will go far beyond pontifical universities. Many American academics and university administrators are scurrying fearfully to mobilize opposition in an attempt to head off the action, because they see it as the first step in a broader process. The draft of a schema on Catholic higher education is currently being circulated for comment around the world, and it would provide similar norms, in this regard, for any educational institution which puts itself forward as Catholic.

The academics are right to be fearful. There is considerable truth in at least the last part of Father Curran’s statement that “it is unjust to single me out when so many other Catholic theologians hold the same basic position,” namely, that they are free to dissent from what they call these authoritative but non-infallible teachings. Let me first deal with the issue of Father Curran, and then the broader issue.

Father Curran’s main line of defense has been that he has a right to dissent from non-infallible Church teaching. For the record, I think that it is not correct to characterize those teachings as non-infallible. The teaching on divorce is defined, for example. The other issues, I think, fall into the category of teachings that are irreformable though as yet not formally defined. But putting that to the side, and assuming for the sake of argument that they were non-infallible, there is still no right of dissent such as he and his supporters assert. The Church’s authority is not simply coterminous with its infallibility, but extends well beyond it.

Parents have authority in the family, though none of them makes any claim to infallibility. The pope and the bishops should not be treated as “individuals with merely private opinions, unless they invoke the power to define infallible teachings.” Vatican H, for example, is very strong on the authority of “non-infallible” teaching. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church says that “loyal submission of the will and intellect must be given, in a special way, to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra in such wise, indeed, that his supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect, and that one sincerely adhere to decisions made by him.”

Nor would it make any sense to create such an artificial gap between “the teachings that are binding” and “the teachings that are not binding.” That would suggest that if the Church really wanted to be obeyed in any matter, it would have to invoke its power to define infallibly. Is that what the dissenters want? Or, knowing that the Church explicitly uses that power only rarely and cautiously, do they use this argument as an excuse to evade the Church’s authority?

Are all non-infallible teachings binding in such a way that dissent from them is illegitimate? The above citation from Vatican II indicates how “ordinary” teachings are to be adhered to: “conformably with his [the Roman Pontiff’s] manifest mind and intention, which is made know principally either by the character of the documents in question, or by the frequency with which a certain doctrine is proposed, or by the manner in which the doctrine is formulated.” Does anybody have any doubt as to the pope’s “manifest mind and intention” in regard to the matters at issue in Father Curran’s case? In all candor, it must be said that one would have to be willfully obtuse to find grounds for dissent on these issues in the voluminous writings and allocutions of John Paul II and in documents approved by him; on the contrary, traditional Church teachings are stated clearly and in very strong terms, with every indication one could expect that they are not open to debate among theologians.

It is difficult to see much substance in Father Curran’s case, then. Nor is it a requirement of justice that the Vatican move at the same time against each and every theologian who shares those views. As a matter of fact, dealing with Father Curran as an individual is one way for the Vatican to make its “manifest mind and intention” known in a less draconian way.

But—moving from Father Curran to the broader question of the alleged threats to the legitimate freedom of American Catholic universities — does this truly portend an era of “Vatican repression” in Catholic universities (assuming that they would rather bow to the Church than drop their identification as Catholic — a very uncertain assumption)? Some people interpret the action in Father Curran’s case, together with the new schema on Catholic higher education, as a basis for “search and destroy missions,” with authoritarian Church officials seeking out and discharging people they disagree with. A more accurate characterization is that the Church is merely acting in self-defense against an extraordinarily dangerous and powerful attack.

One of the distinctive features of Catholicism — what makes it different from other Christian churches — is that it claims that Christ gave authority to Peter and the apostles, and that this authority was handed down to subsequent popes and the bishops in communion with them. This authority is of such great importance because it is the guarantor of the Church’s unity, which is one of the marks of the true Church: Christ prayed “that all may be one, even as Thou, Father, are in Me, and I in Thee; that they also may be one in us, that the world may believe that Thou hast sent me.” Moreover, it provides a clear, readily identifiable source of guidance as to what God asks of Christians, thus sparing them the paralyzing incertitude that would inevitably flow from making themselves the arbiters of what God had revealed.

Today this authority is under sharp attack. Unlike earlier attacks, however, which led people to leave and set up other churches, today there is a concerted effort to reject authority and to claim that this reflection is perfectly compatible with Catholicism. Theologians who attack the Church’s teaching, with the support of many in the media, claim that one can remain faithfully Catholic not only while privately rejecting, but also while publicly agitating against, the Church on moral and dogmatic issues.

What is at stake for the Church, then, is its very identity. Does Catholicism demand adherence to the teaching of the pope and bishops, or can Catholics turn to some other source of authority: private theologians, “public opinion” in the Church, or their own isolated consciences?

Now in this context, what is taught as Catholic theology in Catholic universities is of profound importance? If leading Catholic universities provide a platform for the teaching of “Catholic” theology by theologians who dissent from and agitate against the Church’s teachings, they are — whether intentionally or not — throwing their weight into the battle on the side of the dissenters. They provide them with their “credentials” as Catholic theologians, without which they would have a much more difficult time getting people to take them seriously.

As a matter of simply defending its own identity, therefore, the Church cannot permit theologians and universities to employ the name “Catholic” and then serve as a sounding board for those who undermine official Catholic teaching.

None of this means that teachers and students are to be muzzled and prevented from studying any teaching that is contrary to the Church’s. Part of education is studying views with which the ideals of the educating institution may be at odds, and there will certainly be times when it is appropriate to study ethical views at odds with the Church’s. Nor is there anything objectionable about non-Catholics teaching in a Catholic university, since there are perfectly reasonable grounds to study non-Catholic teaching and to foster a dialogue between Catholic and non-Catholic scholars. What is objectionable is that non- or anti-Catholic teaching be taught as if it were perfectly consistent with Catholicism.

That is what the debate on Father Curran — and, in the background, the new schema on Catholic higher education — is all about. If teachers and universities want to call themselves Catholic, then they must be willing to let those who have the authority to say what is or is not Catholic teaching, exercise that authority to prevent the teaching of “Catholic” theology by those who actually oppose it.

Perhaps under those conditions, as I suggested above, American Catholic universities will simply choose to stop calling themselves Catholic, preferring to have leeway to let their people teach whatever they want. (Whether they can prosper or even survive without being Catholic is a question, which may cause some of them to hesitate, however). That would be unfortunate, I think — much better that they renew themselves within the Church’s fold — but it would have the virtue of clarifying the situation. They would no longer be in the position of obscuring for many people an essential part of what it means to be a Catholic.


  • Christopher Wolfe

    From 1989 to 2021, Dr. Wolfe was President of the American Public Philosophy Institute, an interdisciplinary group of scholars from various universities, supported by local business and professional leaders, that promotes a natural law public philosophy rooted in the principles of the American Founding. The APPI is now the Dallas Forum for Law, Politics, and Culture, and Dr. Wolfe is President Emeritus. He also is one of Crisis Magazine's original writers.

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