Charles E. Curran, “Public Dissent in the Church”
An Introduction to Christian Ethics. New York, Paulist Press, 1989, pp. 383-396
Abstract by Brad Bergan
Curran's article first appeared in Origins in 1986. It was the year the Vatican barred Charles E. Curran from teaching Catholic theology. The article was written to discuss the role of the theologian in the Catholic Church. The article stemmed from a talk he was scheduled to give on “Authority and Structure in the Churches: Perspective of a Catholic Theologian,” which he revised after his dismissal from The Catholic University of America. Curran was dismissed because of his public dissent with the Vatican on the papal encyclical, “Humanae Vitae.” He renamed his talk “Public Dissent in the Church” (383).
Curran freely admits that his words are a defense of his position and his own view of the role of a theologian. He describes the Catholic theologian “as somewhat independent and cooperative with regard to the hierarchical role in the Church” (385). Curran points out that a shift of power for the theologian came about with the revision of the Code of Canon Law in 1983. Theologians were no longer “missioned,” but rather, the new code (Canon 812) said “Those who teach theological subjects in any institution of higher studies must have a mandate from the competent ecclesiastical authority” (385). In other words, theologians taught because the heirarchary of the church allows them to do so. Curran viewed this change as a major one.
He contends that his dissent on the artificial birth control issue led to an examination of all his teachings and writings because he exercised what he believed was his right to dissent from a non-infallible church teaching. Curran says, “the only acceptable form of dissent on these issues [artificial birth control] is that which is neither written nor spoken publicly” (387). Curran contends that the restrictions prohibit the theologian from doing more. He continues, “At most the theologian can think in a dissenting way, perhaps even discuss the matter in private and write private letters to the proper authorities explaining the reason for one's dissent” (387).
Curran believes Humanae Vitae was not an infallibile teaching document and that the Vatican Congregation for the Faith was wrong to restrict public dissent on a non-infallibile document. He says, “The central point at issue in the controversy is the possibility of public theological dissent from some non-infallible teaching” (388). His dispute is not about infallible documents and he clearly states this in this article and says, “I am in no way questioning what is an essential matter of the Catholic faith” (391).
Curran expands his argument in defense of dissent by claiming that it applies to more than just theologians. He calls into view, “the possibility and legitimacy of dissent on the part of the members of the church. In a very true sense my present controversy involves more than just the role of theologians in the church” (392). The crux of Curran's argument is that theologians have to deal with issues that affect people's lives, like contraception, homosexuality, abortion and divorce. They are realities of life and as such, Curran maintains, the members of the church have a right to know what theologians are thinking about them. He says, “These issues are being discussed at great length and in all places today, and theologians must be able to enter into the discussion even to the point of dissenting from some official Catholic teaching” (393).
Yet, Curran's main argument remains that the Vatican has failed to define what “public” dissent from non-infallible issues really means. He says, “it is necessary for the congregation to state its position on public theological dissent from non-infallible teaching” (394). He contends that their failure to do so leaves in question the “justice and the credibility of the church's teaching office” (396) because they will not define their norms on what constitutes public dissent.
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