Father Charles Curran, professor of moral theology at the Catholic University of America, a “Pontifical” university, announced on March 11 that he has refused to retract his dissenting views after being requested to do so by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith.  “My positions are neither rebellious nor radical,” he stated, claiming that his theological positions represent the main stream of Catholic theology.


The letter containing the request for a retraction was dated September 11, signed by the Cardinal Prefect Joseph Ratzinger, approved by Pope John Paul II and received by Father Curran on October 11.  The letter declared that the American theologian is “in dissent” with the Church teaching in four areas:

  • Artificial contraception and direct sterilization
  • Abortion and euthanasia
  • Masturbation, pre-marital sex and homosexuality
  • The indissolubility of sacramental and consummated marriage

Father Curran was given two months to retract which he allowed to pass without responding to the request.


The basic differences between the moral theologian and the Church’s teaching authorities may be summarized as follows, stating Father Curran’s position first:

  1. contraception or sterilization are not intrinsically evil but can be good or evil depending on circumstances (Church: both are inherently wrong)
  1. (a) abortions may be performed before individuation when truly human life has not yet begun.  Individuation occurs between the 14th and 21st day after conception.  Afterwards, an abortion is permissible when the life of the mother is at stake or “for a value commensurate with life itself.”  (Church: abortions are never permitted; the individuation theory is an incorrect interpretation.)

(b) during the process of dying there is no difference between the act of omission (not using extraordinary means) and the positive act of bringing about death.  (Church: there is a difference and the latter is absolutely prohibited.)

3.       (a) masturbation is normally not very important.  However, it is not entirely praiseworthy.  (Church:  it is not praiseworthy at all and may well be important and involve grave sin.)

(b)  homosexual acts of a genuine homosexual in the context of a loving relationship striving for permanence are moral.  (Church:  homosexual activity is a moral disorder and is not permissible.)

(c)  premarital relationships are sometimes permitted.  (Church:  they are never permitted.)

The Church’s position on all three of these points is that the deliberate use of the sexual faculty, outside of normal and legitimate conjugal relations, essentially contradicts its finality, the purpose intended by the Creator.

4.       Church should change teaching on indissolubility of marriage and allow divorce in certain circumstances.  (Church: the teaching cannot be changed.)


Fr. Curran, in a memorandum, issued at the press conference announcing that the Sacred Congregation had found him dissenting from Church teaching on sexual ethics, claimed that he had always presented the positions of “the hierarchical magisterium” with great respect.  “Even in my dissent…I appeal to the broader Catholic principles of stewardship and responsible parenthood,” he said.

The moral theologian stated he does not disagree with any dogmas or defined truth and said his basic position is that it is “legitimate for a Roman Catholic to dissent in theory and in practice from non-infallible Church teaching.”

The traditional church stand is that teaching of the ordinary magisterium on faith and morals is certain teaching.  While an individual may withhold interior assent if his or her informed conscience proves irreconcilable to this teaching, such dissent does not give license to publicly dissemble the dissenting positions through lectures, articles, books, conferences as if these positions are (a) legitimate; (b) to be followed by others.  The “deposit” of faith, that is the teaching of Christ, can and should be explored and better understood but cannot be changed in the sense of teaching one thing one time, and its opposite at a later date.

Dispute widens

The dispute threatens to widen divisions among (American) Catholics.  It has been simmering for a number of years with some theologians developing a claim to a teaching authority of their own, a theologians’ magisterium do to speak, as distinct from what they call the “hierarchical” magisterium.  (Magisterium means teaching authority).

Past presidents of the Catholic Theological Society of America and the Catholic Theology Society who have sided with Fr. Curran are:  Walter Burghardt and Richard McCormick, both Jesuits; Richard McBrien, David Tracy, Rodger Van Allen, Gerard Sloyan, Vera Chester, Bernard Cooke and Luke Salm.  Most, if not all, these have criticized Church teaching on moral questions themselves, especially the birth control encyclical, Humanae Vitae of 1968.  They are now organizing a signature campaign to build public pressure.  Also supportive of Curran is his diocesan bishop, Matthew Clark of Rochester, and such journals as Commonwealth and the National Catholic Reporter.

On the other hand, Archbishop Hickey of Washington, Chancellor of the Catholic University, has declared: “I want to stress that it is the right and duty of the Holy Father and the Bishops in communion with him throughout the world to hand on the full and authentic teaching of the Church and to assure that it is presented with fidelity in our parishes and institutions of learning.”

Similarly, on March 14 the president of the National Conference of Bishops, Bishop James Malone said in a statement:  “It is clearly the right and duty of the Holy See to safeguard the authenticity of Catholic teaching throughout the world.”

Among journals which support action against Curran are The Wanderer, Homiletic and Pastoral Review and the National Register.

In Canada dissenting views similar to those of Fr. Curran are quite common but more hidden from the public eye, except, perhaps, in Quebec.  Similarly, because of a lack of Catholic journals in English Canada, public opposition to teaching dissent in Catholic institutions has been muted.