In some circles an inquiring mind is an asset; in others, a liability. For Fr. Curran, it was both.
This book is Fr. Curran’s effort to explain his intentions and actions in a career that widely branded him, in a negative light, as a Catholic dissenter. But as he sees it, dissent has played an important role in nurturing Catholic theology and faith over the centuries.
Loyal Dissent takes the reader into and beneath the ecclesial crossfire that has colored the era following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). These memoirs are straightforward, largely nonjudgmental, always charitable and sometimes humorous, much like the man himself. Was he right to dissent as he did? History will be the final judge, he says.
What the book probably won’t do is change many minds. Fr. Curran has many friends -- and some implacable foes. As he notes, once one becomes a symbol in someone else’s cause, as he did, subtlety is lost; a persona becomes fixed. To some, Fr. Curran is a radical progressive; to others, an angry dissident. The truth is that he is neither.
His theology is to the progressive side of moderate, as the book attests, but in essentials he is a conservative, drawing from tradition, attempting to weave a relevant pastoral moral theology that stems from fundamental Catholic teachings contained in the paschal mystery: creation, sin, incarnation, death, resurrection and end times. Hardly the musings of a scurrilous renegade.
While Fr. Curran does not directly raise the question, his story does: “Does loyalty at times demand dissent?”
Born in Rochester, N.Y., in 1934, Charles Curran, bright from the outset, early on harbored a desire to become a priest. He passed through the corridors of Nazareth Hall elementary and St. Andrew’s Minor Seminary, on to St. Bernard’s Major Seminary where he was picked in 1955 to study at the North American College in Rome, breeding ground of future bishops.
But Fr. Curran was called to academia and moral theology. It was while in Rome that he first seriously encountered the writings of Fr. Bernard Häring, soon his mentor and friend. The historical development of Catholic teachings particularly seized him. As a theologian, he was inclined toward the Aquinas camp, where reason is seen as leading to moral wisdom, but he recognized that sin and human failing also shape the church. This separated him from the Augustinians, who see the church as the perfect counterpoint to a sinful world.
“There is no doubt that in my first years in Rome I was the quintessence of the uncritical and unquestioning pre-Vatican II mentality,” Fr. Curran writes, making the larger point that he never set out to become some folks’ enfant terrible. Circumstance and a commitment to truth, as he saw it, could be called the culprits.
As his interest in moral theology grew, the young and already respected theologian found himself pondering the pressing moral issues of the day. The year 1960 saw the introduction of the revolutionary birth control pill. By 1962, some 1.2 million American women were on it, a collective statement that begged the church to reconsider its absolute ban on artificial contraception.
Back in the United States and now appointed to teach at The Catholic University of America, Fr. Curran felt compelled to enter the fray, expressing ideas at odds with official teachings. He found traditional moral theology far too legalistic. He also questioned its pre-modern ideas concerning biology that viewed women as fetus incubators instead of co-creators. He taught that the experiences of loving Catholic couples needed to be considered along with the insights from 20th-century social sciences. People, not genital acts, he argued, should be the focus of Catholic sexual morality.
When Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the church ban on artificial contraception in his 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, Fr. Curran and theologian Dan Maguire quickly wrote a 10-paragraph response, disputing its primary conclusion. They pointed out -- at the dawn of the age of mass media -- that the papal document was a non-infallible utterance and Catholics in good conscience could disagree. Further, they gathered the names of more than 600 Catholic academics who signed on to their statement. Influential prelates, including trustees at Catholic University, were not amused, still smarting from an earlier unsuccessful attempt to have Fr. Curran removed from the faculty.
By then, Fr. Curran had become a lightning rod for traditionalists. While reformers placed their hopes on him, traditionalists feared him. It would take years, but they would take him down. It took the election of a conservative pope, the quiet, persistent actions of conservative U.S. bishops working hand in glove with other Roman prelates to get Fr. Curran removed from The Catholic University in 1986 despite strong backing from Catholic colleagues.
Why Fr. Curran? Why the concerted effort to remove him? Fr. Curran suggests it was to set an example, sending out a signal to firmly reassert episcopal authority. He writes he became “the perfect target”: a highly visible U.S. theologian at The Catholic University who had dissented on sexual morality.
Having been booted from Catholic University, the pilgrim theologian eventually ended up at Southern Methodist University where the good news is that he has been warmly received and is allowed to continue his interests in Catholic moral theology.
The dimensions of the loss are underscored in the stunningly eloquent final chapters of the book, including “My Moral Theology,” “My Relationship to the Catholic Church” and The Development of Theology in the Last Fifty Years” in which Fr. Curran lays out an inviting apologia for Catholic theology and faith.
Loyal? Dissent? Read the book and ponder its ending. And weep.
Tom Fox is a former publisher and editor of NCR.