Censured Priest ‘Saddened’ by Court Rule : Curran Won’t Appeal Decision Upholding Suspension From Teaching

Times Religion Writer

Father Charles E. Curran, barred from teaching theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, said he was “disappointed” and “saddened” by a court decision that upholds the school’s ties to the Vatican over academic freedom.

District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Frederick Weisberg ruled this week that Catholic University did not violate any tenure contracts when it obeyed a Vatican directive to suspend Curran from teaching at the papally chartered school--the only university in the United States with such ties. Curran said he will not appeal the decision.

“I have lost, but the university, its faculty and students may have lost more than I,” Curran said in a statement after the ruling. “The court’s opinion confirms what the university itself has asserted in this case: Full academic freedom, as understood in American higher education, does not now exist at Catholic University. That conclusion strikes at the heart of the university’s character as an American university.”

Differed With Teachings


Curran, 54, a visiting professor of religion at USC this academic year, has long differed with official Roman Catholic teaching on some matters of sexual ethics regarding birth control, abortion, homosexuality, divorce and masturbation. After seven years of exchanges with the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Curran was notified in September, 1986, that he was under Vatican censure for his views.

The case was closely watched by Catholic theologians and university officials throughout the nation.

Monika K. Hellwig, a theology professor at Georgetown University and a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, said of the court decision: “I think it spells the end of academic respectability for Catholic University. . . . I simply hope it doesn’t affect other (Catholic) universities not chartered by the Holy See.”

But William May, a theology professor at Catholic University, agreed with Weisberg: “I think it’s simply a recognition that teachers of Catholic theology have a responsibility to present it properly.”


Beginning his teaching role at Catholic University in 1965, Curran quickly became the focus of controversy with his outspoken dissent from Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical reaffirming the church’s ban on artificial birth control. University officials twice tried to remove the popular priest from his teaching post, but he was granted tenure in 1971.

The court decision, released Tuesday after a trial held in December, climaxes the lengthy dispute. In his suit against the university, Curran claimed that the school had breached his contract and that he could rightfully be removed only if he were judged incompetent by a panel of academic peers.

In the decision, Weisberg emphasized that Catholic University has a “unique relationship to the Holy See” as a pontifical university chartered by Pope Leo XIII in 1889.

“Indeed, Prof. Curran testified that in fact he did understand at all relevant times that this special relationship existed. As much as he may have wished it otherwise, he could not reasonably have expected that the university would defy a definitive judgment of the Holy See that he was ‘unsuitable’ and ‘ineligible’ to teach Catholic theology,” Weisberg said.

Noting that Catholic University also has referred to itself as a fully modern American university, the judge continued: “Perhaps it can fairly be said that the university wanted it both ways; but on most issues it can also be said that the university could have it both ways.

“On some issues--and this case certainly presents one of them--the conflict between the university’s commitment to academic freedom and its unwavering fealty to the Holy See is direct and unavoidable. On such issues, the university may choose for itself on which side of that conflict it wants to come down, and nothing in its contract with Prof. Curran or any other faculty member promises that it will always come down on the side of academic freedom.”

Lawyers who are experts in church-state relations said the case--in which attorneys argued over church law in a civil court--constitutes a landmark in church-state law. During the nine-day trial, Cardinal James A. Hickey of Washington, who as chancellor of the university initiated the proceedings to remove Curran from his post, and Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago, chairman of the university’s Board of Trustees, both testified that the school acted in accordance with canon, or church, law and upon its religious convictions.

Thus, a principal question of debate was whether the university, simultaneously an autonomous American institution and a Catholic institution with special legal ties to Rome, is governed basically by canon law or civil law at the critical junction of academic freedom and church doctrine.


Called for Dismissal

When the trial opened, the uni-versity’s lawyers called for dismissal on grounds that the court lacked jurisdiction because the university acted on the basis of canon law when it suspended Curran from teaching.

But Weisberg denied the motion, saying there was a civil contract at issue, and that the court could act as a fact-finder in determining where canon law ended and civil law began in the case.

In his final ruling, the judge declared that the issue was whether Curran’s contract gave him the right to teach Catholic theology at Catholic University “in the face of a definitive judgment by the Holy See that he is ineligible to do so. The court holds today that it does not.

“Whether that is ultimately good for the university or for the church is something they have a right to decide for themselves,” the judge concluded.