Charles Curran's Rocky Road

Tom Shipka

Charles Curran, one of the most influential theologians of the past half century, grew up in Rochester, New York. He decided at the age of 13 to be a priest, earned two doctorates in theology in Rome, where he was also ordained, and accepted an appointment to the theology faculty at the Catholic University of America in 1965, a campus that would serve as the stage for an epic battle between Curran and the Vatican. (1)

The battle was joined when Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae vitae in 1968 which reaffirmed the church's rejection of what it called "artificial" birth control, despite a recommendation to the contrary by a majority of a panel which the Pope himself had established to study the issue. (p. 49)(2) This prompted the young theologian to organize a protest in which over six hundred Catholic theologians signed a statement disagreeing with the Pope's position on moral and theological grounds. (pp. 50-51)(3) The Vatican was not pleased.

Curran's differences with church teaching were anchored in his strongly held belief that "...the Catholic tradition is a living tradition and the work of Catholic theology involves ongoing revision." (p. 197)(4) Curran repeatedly pointed out that the church had revised its teaching sensibly on social issues including slavery, democracy, human rights, usury, capital punishment, and others, but on sexual matters it was paralyzed in a medieval neo-scholastic worldview which was fixated solely on the biological aspects of sex. (p. 5, p. 86, p. 199) Curran was relentless in calling for reform. Within a decade, in his books, articles, and speeches, he publicly challenged the church's traditional teaching on priestly celibacy, the ordination of women, birth control, homosexuality, sterilization, divorce, abortion, premarital sex, masturbation, and euthanasia. (5)

Criticism of Curran's work by the Vatican and other Catholic conservatives prompted his university to attempt to fire him in 1967 but school officials backed off after faculty and students rallied to his cause and staged a strike. But many years later, after he was officially condemned by the Vatican as a heretic in 1986, Catholic University managed to cuts its ties to him successfully. (p. 5)(6) Despite the church's actions, Curran's book sales shot up and his influence grew. (p. 244) After short-term stays at Cornell, the University of Southern California, and Auburn, Curran accepted an endowed chair in 1991 in human values at Southern Methodist University where he remains today.

If you ask Charles Curran why he stays in a church that condemned him, he will reply that only the hierarchy, not the church, condemned him. (p. 244) The church, he insists, is all the people of God and it " as much mine as the pope's." (p. 246) If you ask him what sustained him during the pitched battles with the Vatican and officials at Catholic University, he will cite a confident hope that the church will eventually change and a resilient sense of humor. (p. 251, p. 259) Fortunately, in America, dissent by a scholar is seldom punished as severely as Curran was. Let's hope that it stays that way.


  1. References herein are by page number in Charles Curran, Loyal Dissent: Memoir of a Catholic Theologian, Georgetown University Press, 2006. One observation which Curran made in Rome was that the Vatican was filled with ambitious priests "trying to plot their careers" which showed that the church "was not only human but sinful." (p. 13) Curran also says that any doubts that the church is imperfect should have disappeared with the pedophilia scandal in which bishops "put institutional survival and 'the good name of the church' above the needs of innocent victims." (p. 239)
  2. Curran notes that after the publication of Humanae vitae church attendance in America dropped by 11% and fully one-quarter of the graduates of Catholic colleges left the church. (p. 53)
  3. The statement concluded that Catholics "could responsibly decide to use birth control" if it is necessary "to preserve and foster the values and sacredness of their marriage." (p. 52) Later the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith charged that Curran's protest had robbed the encyclical "of its intended effect..." (p. 113)
  4. Curran was deeply influenced in this view in Rome by one of his theology professors, Bernard Lonergan, a Canadian Jesuit. For more on Lonergan, see Joseph Flanagan, Quest for Self-Knowledge: An Essay in Lonergan's Philosophy, University of Toronto Press, 1997.
  5. On the subject of the ordination of women as priests, Curran argues that the church's logic is flawed. It holds that women should not be ordained because all the apostles were men. This reflects the times, not divine law, according to Curran. By the church's logic, Curran notes, only Jews should be ordained priests since all the apostles were Jews. (p. 240)
  6. Coincidentally, the head of the Vatican office which declared Curran unfit to teach Catholic theology – the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – was Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.

© 2009 Tom Shipka