I knew that the letter—approved by Pope John Paul II and issued by then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—was unlikely to be good news.
Because, for one thing, Curran had been openly undermining, scoffing at, rejecting, and attacking key moral teachings of the Church since the mid-1960s. (Quick note: the Summer 2009 issue of Nova et Vetera has a great essay, "The Cultural and Ecclesial Situation 1964 to 1967: Paving the Way for Dissent From Church Teaching on Contraception", by Dr. William E. May, which provides a lot of helpful information and context.) Note how long the process of evaluating and dealing with dissenters takes—a loooong time. And yet the common (mis)perception is that "the Vatican" or the CDF deals in a knee-jerk, off-the-cuff, reactionary manner. False. Completely false. This priest was publicly rejecting the Church's moral teachings for almost twenty years before he was finally stripped of his ability to teach theology at a Catholic school.
It was 1986, and for the previous seven years, Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—the office charged with safeguarding official theology—had been investigating my work.
Seven. Years. That's. A. Long. Time. See point above.
As a professor at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., I lectured and wrote about traditional church teachings."About." Well, how to say this? It's a rather meaningless word in this case; in fact, it's something of a weasel word. As in: Arius spoke and sang about the Logos. Nestorius wrote and spoke about the Theotokos. Hans Küng has written volumes and volumes about Christianity. What Curran doesn't make clear here is that as far back as 1966 or 1967 he was already contradicting Church teaching on contraception. A sympathetic (to Curran) September/October 1989 article in Academe (PDF format) states:
In articles and in his first book, Christian Morality Today, published in 1966, Professor Curran established himself as a scholar who subjected accepted views, including noninfallible teachings of the Church, to careful scrutiny and did not hesitate to publicize his conclusions. An interest in sexual ethics led him specifically to dissenting views on such subjects as abortion, birth control, and homosexuality.TIME magazine reported in an April 1967 article: "Curran had been fired by the trustees, without a hearing, largely because of his unconventional teaching on doctrinal issues — most notably, approval of birth control." Curran, you see, had been fired by Catholic University of America for holding and teaching positions directly contrary to clear Church teaching. But, it being the late 1960s, all it took were some student protests and threats, and CUA caved. (Hey, it was all the rage back then.) And so Curran continued to lecture and teach "about" traditional Church teachings. And:
But I also pointed out areas where I believed Catholicism and modern life were misaligned, including Rome’s opposition to birth control for married couples; its stance on homosexuality, divorce, and remarriage; and the status of women in the church.
Hmmm. "Misaligned." That's a nifty way of putting it. First, a weasel word. Now a slithery word. But note what Curran is saying, plain as day: he, as a young Catholic priest (he was 33 in 1967), was solidly and publicly on the side of "modern life" over against Catholicism and Rome. He was opposed to the Church's teaching on homosexuality, divorce, contraceptives, women's ordination, masturbation, euthanasia, and sterilization (goodness, what's left??). And so he as ever been.
The Vatican had finally had enough. “One who dissents from the Magisterium as you do,” the letter said, “is not suitable nor eligible to teach Catholic theology.”
Despite that rebuke, I remain a committed Catholic, a priest in good standing, and a professor of Catholic theology (albeit at a Methodist institution).
I bet good money that a Methodist would do a better job of accurately and fairly teaching Catholic theology than Curran, but I digress. Curran, who is something of an American Hans Küng (a dissenter who whines in the press, mocks or openly attacks the pope and Church teaching, but insists on being a "Catholic theologian" despite denying nearly every point of Catholic doctrine), likes to have it both ways, as most dissenters do. He wants to be recognized and known for rejecting the Church, but then complains that he is a victim, a martyr, when the Church says, "Uh, we have a problem..." He's been employing this stunt routine for over forty years, a routine that Jeremy Lott reported about in the October 2006 issue of Catholic World Report:
In response to the  Vatican condemnation, [Curran] 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.
And this from a man who had, as Lott notes, "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.'" Curran, in other words, is not only a one-trick pony, he is the poster boy for Catholics who want to be "Catholic" without actually being Catholic (the ponies and the posers go well together, actually). And, of course, he is constantly trying to justify his legless position:
I also continue to care deeply about the church, which I believe is facing a crisis that predates the sex-abuse scandal of recent years. Today, about a third of people who were raised Catholic have left the church; no other major religion in the United States has experienced a larger net loss in followers in the last 30 years.
Ah, the last thirty years. Say, isn't that the same era during which the many wonders and joys of "modern life" finally came to full fruition, with the sexual revolution in bloom, contraceptives as common as candy, divorce rates skyrocketing, cohabitation likewise, etc., etc., and so forth? What, then, is Curran's point? Is he suggesting that if the Church had embraced and endorsed divorce, contraceptives, premarital sex, abortion, et al, that those Catholics would not have left the Church/stopped going to Mass? You have to either be smoking crack or be a full-blown, hyper-committed believer in The Glories of Modern Life to believe such rot. You either have to be quite stupid or quite arrogant to go for that line of argumentation:
Many of the issues that troubled me decades ago have contributed to this decline. Some, like those related to contraception, homosexuality, and family life, are considered matters of divine or natural law—the will of God—and, therefore, are immutable. I disagree, and I’m not alone, but we have been unable to persuade the church to make changes.
Arrogant it is.
Other matters are considered a product of human law, which is alterable if the church thinks that doing so is in its best interest. The vow of priestly celibacy is one such statute: none, I believe, would be easier to change or, quite possibly, is more important to the short-term health of the church.
Because, of course, what motivates Curran is his love for the Church—the same Church whose consistent and credible teachings on sexuality and morality he has spent his entire adult life rejecting, undermining, and dismissing. Please. This is like a five-time divorcee explaining, with nary a hint of irony or cynicism, that he not only loves the institution of marriage, he is a completely devoted husband who is so in love with wife #5. Spare us.
Lifting the ban might help address the pedophilia crisis—which, at least in the popular mind, was caused in part by the frustrations of celibacy.
Is that...an argument?
More important, it would reverse a damaging shortage of clergy. Between 1975 and today, the number of Catholic priests in the United States has slid from nearly 60,000 to about 40,000. Protestant churches, which allow their minsters to have families, have suffered no such struggles. I can only conclude that celibacy laws are to blame.
Right. And the rapid rise of the divorce rate from the late 1960s into the mid-1970s wouldn't have happened if all of those darned marriage laws hadn't made spouses feel so constricted, misunderstood, tied down, and otherwise obligated to fulfill their marriage vows. Why has divorce increased so much in the past forty years? I can only conclude that marriage laws were to blame!
The shortage has created related problems. For example, the church has tried to make up for the shortfall by using foreign priests. Without strong English skills or a knowledge of American culture, however, some of these substitutes struggle to connect with their followers.
Which is completely different from having an American priest who rejects most or all of Catholic teaching trying to pastor a parish where the majority of the parishioners accept and adhere to Catholic teaching. Right? Besides, this sounds more than a little xenophobic, even rather racist, doesn't it?
Some parishes are closing because no one can be found to lead them, while others remain open but no longer offer the eucharistic liturgy—the heart of Catholic faith and life—because there’s no priest to preside at it.
Again, Curran's concern for the health of the Catholic Church is so...unbelievable. It's like the aforementioned divorcee complaining that married couples just don't get enough quality time together because of all the obligations that come with marriage and family life. Perhaps Curran hasn't figured out that when the Catholic laity see priests denounce or disregard Church teaching and thumb their noses at the pope and the Magisterium, they get the message: "Do whatever you want. The Church has no meaningful or real authority. Why bother being here if it isn't true?" Need I point out that many Catholics have gotten that message over the past forty years and have acted on it?
(Catholic bishops have had to devise alternative services for those communities.) In essence, by mandating celibacy, the church contributes to a dilution of Catholicism.Because, as everyone knows, clerical celibacy has been dragging down the Church for centuries! Of course, if celibacy were the real problem, the Church would have gone away in the early medieval era, or earlier. Curran continues to implicitly argue that the problem is that the Church hasn't embraced "modern life" enough, when a big part of the problem is that many Catholics have, in fact, embraced "modern life" with life-killing gusto over the past several decades.
Now, I’m not wholly at peace with would-be reformers placing all the emphasis on the celibacy issue.
Oh man, I just spewed coffee all over my computer. (Not really, but close.) Well, if anyone knows something about "would-be reformers," it would be Curran. Would-be, has-been, and who-cares?, all rolled into one.
Women, whom the church treats as second-class citizens, are hurting most today;
Yes, yawn. Which is why approximately 85% of those working for the Catholic Church in the U.S. are women. (Which is not, by the way, a criticism, just a factual observation.) Oh, wait, I think he's referring to priestettes:
changing the laws that forbid male clergy from marrying will do nothing to speed women’s path to the priesthood. We should treat rewriting the celibacy laws as an initial edit—a change on the way to redressing the multitude of other needed reforms. Even at the risk, I’d argue, of getting an unfriendly letter one day from Rome.
Ooh, he's soooo courageous, trying to turn the Catholic Church into a branch of the Episcopalians! And, as we all know, the Episcopalians—who support everything Curran does while also rejecting the Magisterium—are thriving, bursting at the seams! Turning down seminarians! Sending out missionaries to all of the world! Building new churches! Uh, no, not really. (Had you going there, didn't I?)
But Curran, who misread the "signs of the times" back in the mid-60s, is still madly trying to remake the times, even though time is now against him. The young Catholics who are filling the pews across the U.S. and throughout the world not only reject Curran's religious devotion to the "modern life," many of them are sick of much that "modern life" brings, and most of them have never heard of Curran. He and his fight to Episcopalinize the Church is quickly becoming a matter of ancient history, even while the ancient teachings and moral stances of the Church are as life-affirming and vibrant as ever.
• Authority and Dissent in the Catholic Church | Dr. William E. May