Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Call Me Charlie

by Jeremy Lott


In this article Jeremy Lott, a convert to Catholicism, provides a review of Loyal Dissent: Memoir of a Catholic Theologian by Charles E. Curran, published by Georgetown University Press. Fr. Curran's priesthood and teaching career have been mottled by his dissent from many Church teachings on morality including contraception, abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, and indissolubility of marriage.

Larger Work

The Catholic World Report


44 – 45

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, October 2006

Pardon this convert for his ignorance, but before I read Charles Curran's autobiography I didn't understand why some conservative coreligionists made such a big deal out of "dissent." The word, that is. I got why orthodoxy is important, but it sounded odd to hear theological liberals described as "dissenters." It reminded me of the gag from Annie Hall, where Woody Allen said that the political journals Dissent and Commentary had merged to form (wait for it) Dissentary.

Now I understand. When people say "dissenters" what they mean is roughly "people like Charles Curran." Fr. Curran wrote, edited, contributed to, or was the subject of Dissent in and for the Church, The Responsibility of Dissent, Dissent in the Church, Faithful Dissent, Vatican Authority and American Catholic Dissent, and now we have Loyal Dissent. The subtitle is "Memoir of a Catholic Theologian."

The Vatican would disagree with that self-description. In 1986, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), headed then by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, declared that "one who dissents from the Magisterium as you do is not suitable nor eligible to teach Catholic theology."

According to Curran, Rome basically declared him a "non-person," which is a bit of an overstatement. He wasn't defrocked or excommunicated or barred from parish ministry. He was simply forbidden to teach theology, including moral theology (i.e., ethics), until he rethought some of his ideas. He writes that he could not, in good conscience, sign the Vatican's "loyalty oath."

Those who thought that would be the end of it did not know Charles Curran. When Chancellor (and Washington, D.C. archbishop) James Hickey insisted on removing him from the Catholic University of America's (CUA) department of theology because of the ruling, it wasn't the first attempt to get rid of him. And there was no certainty that the administration would succeed, even after Rome had spoken. After all, the last attempt at getting rid of this meddlesome priest had ended in disaster.

In 1967, Curran had been fired because of his loud support for artificial contraception. In his own words, he had attended a White House conference on population control, where he made the distinction "between Catholic moral teaching and public policy issues in a pluralistic society." The Vatican, in turn, had pressured the CUA to make the distinction between a Catholic theologian and Teddy Kennedy.

Curran and his allies in the department of theology used his dismissal to give the administration of CUA two black eyes. They rejected an offer that Curran could meet with some trustees to try to smooth things over as "too little, too late." Outraged students filled the 450-seat McMahon Auditorium to overflowing and then started marching, with the support of some faculty and religious. Curran avers, "The strike was on!"

The New York Times ran a picture of two nuns carrying a sign that read, "If there is no room for Charlie in the Catholic University of America, there is no room for the Catholic University in America." One student waved a placard that said "Even my mother supports Father Curran." The marches grew in size and every faculty of the school except for the School of Education voted to protest the firing.

CUA caved, and Curran thought that had settled the issue. But, in retrospect, he admits that by focusing narrowly on the procedural injustice he was delaying the inevitable. "The press," he explains, "asked a lot of questions about my teaching, especially in the area of artificial contraception, but we tried to keep that issue from becoming the primary focus. We knew that on the narrow academic issue we could expect support from all corners of the campus."

After the CDF contacted Curran in 1979, he stalled and tried again to play the procedural card. The initial letter was accompanied by 16 pages documenting the "errors and ambiguities" in his writing and a request that he reply to them in the next month. When he did get around to responding, Curran again "pointed out the serious flaws in the [CDF's examination] process," claiming that the "procedure violates the basic principles of justice in that it does not recognize the right of the accused to hear specific charges, to know who are the accusers, to have a copy of all the files against one, and to have representation of one's own choice."

The exchange continued in the same vein, with the CDF trying to wring answers out of Curran, and with the professor continuing to lecture them about the unfairness of the process. At one point, an officer of the CDF wrote to Chancellor Hickey to ask if he could please find some way to hurry Fr. Curran along. I don't know how to adequately convey to readers how tedious the back-and-forth is except to say that reading about this episode made me pine for martial law.

Or, at the very least, an expedited appeals process. Even after the ruling, Curran's supporters insisted that he should be allowed to teach moral theology at CUA. A committee that represented the faculty battled the administration and board of trustees over his competence to teach theology and his right to tenure and eventually lost.

The bureaucratic struggle at the university and the lawsuit in D.C.'s Superior Court (which also went against Curran) were more interesting for what they didn't produce than for any specific outcome. This time, there was no mass strike. Some professors and students professed outrage, and members of the various professional associations signed letters, but that was about it. The university went about business as usual.

Therein lies the most interesting story that this book inadvertently has to tell — the story of the decline of liberal Catholicism.

Curran tries throughout to downplay his theological radicalism. "I am a progressively moderate Catholic theologian," he insists. But his autobiography tells a different story. In 1967, Catholics at CUA and around the country took up the cause of an eccentric priest who defended the right of married Catholics to use condoms. But over the next 20 years, practicing American Catholics and Curran moved in roughly opposite directions.

In response to the Vatican condemnation, he insisted to reporters that "I neither denied nor disagreed with the core elements of the Catholic faith." Rather, he had "dissented from noninfallible church teachings on a few moral issues . . . far removed from the core beliefs of the Catholic faith."

So what, exactly, were all those peripheral issues that the Vatican was making such a fuss about? "I was asked to reconsider and retract my positions on contraception and sterilization, abortion and euthanasia, masturbation, premarital sexuality, and the indissolubility of marriage," he writes. In other words, by the mid-1980s, he had come to disagree with the Vatican on pretty much every moral issue in the catechism.

What's more, he didn't even look the part any more. He no longer wore a Roman collar because he had come to believe that "distinctive clerical dress and titles help to perpetrate the sacral notion of the priest, which I now see as an error . . . " He quit wearing clerical garb in the early 1970s except at peace marches and he also "discourage[d] people from addressing me as Father Curran." Instead, people were told to call him "Charlie."

Curran believes that history will vindicate his approach to life issues, sexual ethics, and church governance. The Vatican will eventually have the scales fall from its eyes, or at least be forced by a newly restive church to back off. He writes movingly of the rise of the non-Western braches of the Church without realizing, apparently, that these conservative churches in Africa, Asia, and South America aren't interested in his brand of Catholicism.

"The Catholic Church is as much my church as it is the pope's," Curran argues, in one of the book's more pointed passages. In a sense that's true. Neither of them own the Church. But the difference is that popes have tried to think with the Church, while Curran has tried to rethink the Church.

It's a task for which Curran is particularly ill suited. The bitter irony is that teaching is not a profession he would have even chosen had superiors not pushed him toward it. When he was doing his theological studies in Rome in the 1950s, he received a letter with instructions from Bishop Lawrence Casey, "the auxiliary bishop of Rochester, who . . . for all practical purposes ran the diocese." The letter told Curran that he was "to go on to get a doctorate in moral theology at the Gregorian in order to teach at St. Bernard's Seminary."

Curran reflects: "I had felt no calling to teach and had thus opted for the diocesan priesthood. But now I was told that I was to get a doctoral degree and prepare to teach in the diocesan seminary. I did not choose what was to become my life's work; I simply obeyed the order."

The Church would have been better off if he had dissented.

Jeremy Lott is author of In Defense of Hypocrisy, recently released by Nelson Current.

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