Curran, Dissent, & Rome: A Symposium

In De Moribus Ecclesiae Catholicae et de Moribus Manichaeorum, St. Augustine writes, “there is no sounder principle in the Catholic Church than that authority should precede reason.” Scripture, tradition, and the teaching authority of the Catholic Church take precedence over philosophical speculation in determining Catholic teaching on faith and morals. Fr. Curran and many other moral theologians rely on the discoveries of reason in the present age as the main source of moral knowledge; they claim that there is no such thing as a specific Christian morality. In this perspective moral theology becomes virtually indistinguishable from moral philosophy, and faith is separated from morals. If moral theology depends primarily on reason, disagreement can only be settled by rational discourse.

Fr. Curran admits that he publicly dissents from the teaching of the Church on contraception, sterilization, abortion, euthanasia, masturbation, premarital sexual acts, homosexual acts, and the indissolubility of marriage. Objection to such dissent is not possible, according to Fr. Curran, because the matters under discussion fall into the area of non-infallible Church teaching. “It is generally admitted by theologians,” writes Rev. Richard McCormick, S.J., “that the Church’s authentic teaching on concrete moral behavior does not, indeed cannot, fall into the category of definable doctrine.” In one of his responses to Cardinal Ratzinger, Fr. Curran explains that he is open to further nuance or change in his positions “in the light of persuasive and convincing reasons.” Given his premises, Fr. Curran logically concludes that reason alone is decisive in settling disagreements on moral matters.

Fr. Curran’s rationalistic perspective on moral theology, shared by many other contemporary theologians, is a radical departure from the longstanding Catholic beliefs on the theological basis of Christian morality, on the unity of faith and morals, and on the authority of the magisterium. If Fr. Curran were correct in asserting the autonomy of reason in moral matters, there would be no significant place for a magisterium in the moral arena; any refusal on the part of the magisterium to allow public dissent would make no sense. If Fr. Curran’s moral positions were within the range of legitimate pluralism, then it would be proper to proclaim them from the pulpit and to make them part of catechetical instruction at the appropriate level. To imagine in detail such a scenario should be enough to make one understand why Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger had to invite Fr. Curran to retract.

The very nature of the Catholic Church, with its authoritative loci theologici, precludes public dissent by Catholic theologians in defiance of the magisterium. In Cardinal Ratzinger’s words: “Integrity seems to me to require that the person who dissents should not, precisely because he cannot, teach in the name of the Church, or even give that impression.” The recent Synod in Rome clearly pointed out that the Church is having great difficulty throughout the world in making known Catholic teaching on faith and morals. Public dissent only intensifies this problem.

Fr. Curran says that theology “should always be in dialogue with the world … should always be in tension with the Church.” Given the way of the world and the nature of the Church, Catholic moral theology is more appropriately in tension with the world and in dialogue within the Church. Catholic moral teaching ought to challenge people to a life of holiness or virtue. To be sure, such a challenge requires a willingness to dialogue. Disagreements within the Church are appropriately resolved by familial discussion, not by public dissent from the authoritative teaching of the magisterium.

Fr. Curran says that he is in the mainstream of Catholic moral theology. This is true; many moral theologians today do dissent more or less from established Catholic teaching. They also embrace a view of historical consciousness that at times is indistinguishable from historicism. Furthermore, they focus on quandaries and exceptions to norms instead of stressing virtue or moral excellence.

I do not doubt Fr. Curran’s sincerity in proposing his positions. Nevertheless, his well meaning but erroneous teaching can still have very harmful consequences. One of John Paul II’s themes is that people sin but don’t call what they do by that name. Parts of Curran’s moral theology reinforce that tendency. His endorsement of exceptions to norms cannot but generate more than the usual number of hidden sins from which we must all pray with the Psalmist for deliverance. The last thing young people need today is an invitation to judge for themselves whether there are exceptions to traditional norms governing moral behavior.

Moral theology needs to rediscover virtue and the common good. Young people and adults need a positive vision of how to imitate Jesus Christ in every aspect of their lives. Moral theologians have the difficult task of talking about moral excellence and the common good in a manner that will truly enlighten the mind and awaken the will. In order to do this, they need learning in a number of disciplines and the opportunity to read and discuss every pertinent, significant point of view. Moral theologians also can and should be of help to the magisterium in a number of ways — for example, explaining perennial teachings for each age, formulating responses to new questions, and prodding the magisterium to speak out on matters of faith and morals.

L’affaire Curran is not without its share of irony. Defenders of Curran deplore Ratzinger’s invitation to retract as a threat to free theological inquiry. The greater threat, of course, is to traditional Catholic moral teaching. There is probably not a major university in the country — Catholic or not — where Curran’s positions are not enthusiastically taught. Could the same be said for the moral teachings of Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger, Augustine, or Aquinas?


  • J. Brian Benestad

    J. Brian Benestad is a member of the Theology and Religious Studies faculty at the University of Scranton.

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