April 07, 1986 12:00 PM

The letter from the Vatican’s Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger carried an ultimatum: Recant or lose your status as a Catholic theologian. Once again the Rev. Charles E. Curran—known to almost everyone as “Charlie”—had caught lightning. As a tenured professor of moral theology at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., Curran has kept up a spirited dissent from church teaching on birth control, masturbation, premarital sex, homosexuality, divorce, abortion and euthanasia, arguing that in some cases they may not be absolutely wrong. Now, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wants to silence the turbulent priest, and Curran is fighting back. “I continue to hold my basic position that dissent from authoritative, noninfallible church teaching is possible and in certain cases is justified,” he told a press conference called to answer the warning from Rome. “My position is in keeping with a long-standing tradition. I cannot and do not retract it.” (The Pope is infallible on faith and morals only when speaking ex cathedra. Since Vatican I in 1869-70, this has occurred only once, in 1950, when Pius XII issued a decree on the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.)

The controversial Curran has gone head-to-head with church authorities twice before. In 1967, when Catholic University’s board of trustees decided—with no explanation—not to renew his contract, a strike by students and faculty convinced the board to keep him on and promote him to associate professor. In 1968 he spearheaded U.S. Catholic resistance to Pope Paul VI’s reaffirmation of the church ban on artificial contraception, organizing some 600 theologians and other academics who declared that Catholic couples could in good conscience practice birth control. His continuing dissent on issues of human sexuality has earned him the ire of American Catholic conservatives, who have bombarded the Vatican with complaints about his views. In 1979, as part of Pope John Paul II’s drive for orthodoxy, the Congregation launched an investigation of Curran that has culminated in the Vatican’s latest threat. “This is much more serious than 1968,” says Curran. “This is intervention by the Holy See.” If he loses his status as a Catholic theologian, he says, “I won’t be able to teach theology at any Catholic school in the country.”

Many feel that would be a great loss. Tall and slim, easygoing with a ready sense of humor, the 52-year-old teacher is as beloved of his students as he is of controversy. Shunning clerical garb, he prefers to wear a coat and tie. When California Republican Congressman Robert Dornan, a Catholic conservative, asked him why he dressed in civvies and let people call him by his first name, the priest replied, ” ‘Cause Jesus did.” But Curran, who lives in a two-room suite above the theology department offices, is no self-styled radical guru. He teaches only graduate courses, mostly to students in their 30s and 40s, and is known for assigning a grueling work load. “He presents Roman Catholic teaching clearly, fairly and objectively,” says Sister Sally McReynolds, 47, who studied under Curran and is now a Ph.D. candidate in systematic theology. “He emphasizes the strengths and the weaknesses, but he emphasizes the strengths more.”

Curran maintains that his differences with church teachings on sexuality fall well within the mainstream of Catholic theology. The great majority of Catholics in this country reject the birth control ban, Catholics are divorced in the same proportion as the general population, and a recent Gallup poll found that 58 percent of Catholics do not believe premarital sex is morally wrong. Ratzinger nevertheless cites four major issues on which Curran departs from church doctrine:

•The church teaches that artificial contraception and sterilization are intrinsically wrong. Says Curran: “I’ve maintained that these actions are not intrinsically evil but can be good or evil insofar as they’re governed by the principles of responsible parenthood and stewardship.”

•Ratzinger says, “Every true Catholic must hold that abortion and euthanasia are unspeakable crimes.” Curran argues that “truly individual” human life does not occur until the second and third week after conception. “One can be justified in taking truly individual human life,” he adds, “only for the sake of the life of the mother or for a value commensurate with life itself.” Curran tentatively proposes a case for euthanasia: “When the dying process begins there seems to be no difference between the act of omission [not using extraordinary means to prolong life] and the positive act of bringing about death.”

•Ratzinger terms masturbation, premarital intercourse and homosexual acts “intrinsically immoral.” Curran says that while masturbation “falls short of the full meaning of human sexuality and should not generally be seen as entirely good or praiseworthy, it is not normally a serious issue…. For an irreversible, constitutional or genuine homosexual, homosexual acts in the context of a loving relationship striving for permanency can in a certain sense be objectively morally acceptable. The full meaning of human sexuality involves a permanent commitment of love between a man and a woman. Pastoral practice here requires prudence in dealing with people who do not accept such an understanding in practice…. Only in very rare and comparatively few situations would I justify premarital sexuality.”

•Ratzinger says marriage is “an indissoluble bond.” Curran replies, “The Catholic Church should change its teachings on indissolubility and allow divorce in certain circumstances.”

Because the teachings he questions are not declared “infallible,” Curran argues that his caveats fall within the bounds of permissible dissent under church law. “Infallibility is like pregnancy,” he says. “Either you are or you aren’t. It is unjust to single me out for disciplinary action of any type when so many other Catholic theologians hold the same position.”

Curran, born the son of an insurance adjuster (and leading Democrat) in Rochester, N.Y., is what seminarians call a “womb-to-tomber.” He entered St. Andrew’s Minor Seminary at 13 and eventually took his two doctorates in Rome before returning to his home diocese to teach at St. Bernard’s Seminary. He moved on to Catholic University in 1965, when it became clear his opinions on birth control were not welcome in Rochester. “One thing I’ve inherited from my father is cynicism,” he once said. “If you’re cynical enough, you don’t fall for everything that comes down the pike. And I never fell for all the folderol [in Rome].”

This time, however, Rome means business, and the current attempt to rein in Curran has divided the American church. “I welcome the action,” declares Auxiliary Bishop Austin Vaughan of New York. But nine former presidents of the Catholic Theological Society of America support Curran and have circulated a statement—already signed by more than 600 Catholic theologians—challenging the Vatican position. Curran’s home bishop, Matthew Clark of Rochester, says that questioning Curran’s status as a theologian is “a serious setback to Catholic education.” Chicago’s Joseph Cardinal Bernardin has urged Ratzinger to accept a compromise suggested by Curran that would point out the theologian’s errors but allow him to continue teaching. But Ratzinger appears unswayed.

Though 300 students turned out at a rally to support Curran, he can’t count on Catholic U. to go on strike this time. “While the contributions Father Curran has made to this community cannot be ignored,” editorialized the student newspaper, The Tower, “the right of the church to protect faithfully her teachings and guide those who would teach as Catholic theologians is paramount.” Curran chooses to see the controversy as an educational opportunity. “No matter what happens,” he says, “I want to make this a teaching moment.”

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