A Catholic Call for Dissent

Charles E. Curran is a professor of human values at Southern Methodist University and the author, most recently, of "The Moral Theology of Pope John Paul II" (Georgetown University Press, 2005).

I grew up as a typical pre-Vatican II Catholic. I entered the seminary at 13 and became a priest 11 years later, never questioning church teachings. But as a moral theologian in the 1960s, I began to see things differently, ultimately concluding that Catholics, although they must hold on to the core doctrines of faith, can and at times should dissent from the more peripheral teachings of the church.

Unfortunately, the leaders of the Catholic Church feel differently. In the summer of 1986, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the powerful enforcer of doctrinal orthodoxy around the world, concluded a seven-year investigation of my writings. Pope John Paul II approved the finding that “one who dissents from the magisterium as you do is not suitable nor eligible to teach Catholic theology.” Cardinal Ratzinger -- now Pope Benedict XVI -- told the Catholic University of America to revoke my license to teach theology because of my “repeated refusal to accept what the church teaches.”

I was fired. It was the first time an American Catholic theologian had been censured in this way. At issue was my dissent from church teachings on “the indissolubility of consummated sacramental marriage, abortion, euthanasia, masturbation, artificial contraception, premarital intercourse and homosexual acts,” according to their final document to me. It’s true that I questioned the idea that such acts are always immoral and never acceptable (although I thought my dissent on these issues was quite nuanced).

Unfortunately, the Vatican -- which was already moving toward greater discipline and orthodoxy -- was having none of it. Seven years earlier, it had punished the Swiss theologian Hans Kung because of his teachings on infallibility in the church. Later, Cardinal Ratzinger “silenced” Brazilian Franciscan Leonardo Boff, an advocate of liberation theology, for a year. Just recently, Ratzinger said U.S. Jesuit Roger Haight could not teach Catholic theology until he changed his understanding of the role of Jesus Christ.


Since 1986, no Catholic institution has offered to hire me. Although I remain a baptized Catholic and a Catholic priest -- the pope and the cardinal did not move to have me defrocked -- my case sent an unmistakable and unequivocal message to Catholics around the world that deviation would no longer be tolerated.

Official Catholic teaching has always given the impression that the pope and bishops will not and cannot change moral teachings because these teachings are based on God’s law. Certainly Pope Benedict XVI will insist upon the same approach.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. History shows that the Catholic Church has changed its moral teachings over the years on a number of issues (without admitting its previous position had been wrong). A very sorry page in Catholic history, for example, is the fact that for over 1,800 years the popes and the church did not condemn slavery. And until the 17th century, popes, in the strongest terms, condemned loans with interest as violating God’s law.

History is not the only argument for change in Catholic moral teachings. Catholics generally recognize that many (if not all) of Catholic moral teachings on specific issues belong to the category of “non-infallible” teachings. Despite the “creeping infallibilism” that seeks to put more and more teachings beyond question, the fact is that many moral issues are open for reinterpretation and rethinking.

Dramatic changes have occurred in some aspects of papal social teachings in the last two centuries. Pope Gregory XVI in an 1832 encyclical condemned freedom of conscience in society as an “absurd and erroneous teaching or rather madness.” Pope Leo XIII in the 19th century condemned “the modern liberties” and opposed the equality and participation of citizens in civic and political life. The people, he wrote, are “the untutored multitude” that must “be controlled by the authority of law.” Vatican II, however, accepted religious liberty for all human beings.

In dealing with civic, political and economic life, contemporary papal social teachings gives great importance to history and to the notion that social ideas can change with the times. In these areas, church teachings now emphasize the freedom, equality and participation of the person, as well as a “relationality” model that sees people in multiple relationships with God, neighbors near and far, the Earth, and self.

But in papal sexual ethics, an older methodology still prevails. Unchanging human nature and the eternal law of God, not historical development or the person understood in light of relationships, constitute the primary considerations. The many people both inside and outside the Catholic Church who experience some dissonance between papal sexual and social teachings are right. There is a different methodology at work in these two areas.

Some changes would logically occur in sexual teachings if these teachings employed the same methodology as used in papal social teachings. Likewise, papal sexual teachings, like social teachings, would not be able to claim absolute certitude on complex and specific issues.


History reminds us that change in Catholic moral teachings always comes from the grass roots. Interviews with ordinary Catholics mourning the death of Pope John Paul II indicated that even those who admired and loved him strongly disagreed with some of his specific moral teachings. Even the staunch defenders of the papal condemnation of artificial contraception for spouses recognize that the vast majority of Catholics do not follow the pope.