Charles E. Curran
Brad Bergan

Father Charles E. Curran, moral theologian and sexual ethicist, is the Elizabeth Scurlock University Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. Curran has been described by many as “probably the most contemporary American moral theologian in the United States” (Renner, NCR 8/11/00). In 1968 while teaching at Catholic University of America, Curran came at odds with the Vatican and Pope Paul VI as he dissented against the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae that condemned the use of birth control. However, it was not until 1979, after the election of Pope John Paul II that Catholic University attempted to fire Charles Curran, but he was not actually ousted from the University until 1986 due to a court battle that ensued between Curran and the university (Renner, NCR 8/11/00). In the same year that Curran was ousted from Catholic University, the Vatican stripped him of his credentials as a Catholic theologian and declared him not eligible to teach Catholic theology. To this day, Father Curran feels that he is “a believing Catholic and intends to do Catholic theology” (Curran-- Tensions in Moral Theology 9). Overall, the beliefs and teachings of Charles Curran are fueled by the feelings and emotions of many of the Catholic congregations around the United States. This moral theologian has stuck to his faith, even when the Catholic Church has not stuck by him.

Ordained in 1958 in Rochester, New York, Curran's education includes a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, and an S.T.D. (Doctorate in Sacred Theology) with a specialization in moral theology from both the Pontifical Gregorian University and the Academia Alfonsiana in Rome. Curran's teaching specialties include fundamental moral theology, social ethics and Catholic moral theology. Because of his standing with the Vatican, Curran is teaching in his field at a Methodist University.

Curran's notoriety began with the papal encyclical on birth control, but his reputation as a scholar of moral theology began long before. Curran says of moral theology: “Moral theology like all theology basis its reflections on the Word of God in the Scriptures, on the tradition, on the teaching of the Church, on the signs of the times, eschatological pull of the future” (Hamel 90). Curran's ousting from Catholic University did not stop his research and teaching on moral matters. In a commentary written in 1998 for the National Catholic Reporter called “Humanae Vitae: still controversial at 30,” Curran writes, “Authority issues, especially in the role of the papal teaching office, remain the greatest source of tension in the Catholic Church today” (Curran, NCR, 7/31/98). Curran's dissent towards “Humanae Vitae”, though his biggest protest towards the church, it was not Curran's only criticism of the proclamations that came out of Rome.

Besides the issue of birth control stated in “Humanae Vitae,” Charles Curran also criticized the church's views towards, “abortion and euthanasia; masturbation, premarital intercourse and homosexual acts; the indissolubility of marriage” (Hammel 385). Some of these issues that are condemned by the church are met with dissent in the eyes of Charles Curran. Curran says that, “In this day and age it seems many more Catholic lay people would be scandalized if theologians were forbidden to discuss publicly important topics of the day such as contraception, divorce, abortion, and homosexuality” (Curran, Tensions in Moral Theology 25). Curran also says that, all of the listed issues are being debated today and that “theologians must be able to enter into the discussion even to the point of dissenting from some official Catholic teaching” (25). Curran is not necessarily stating his opposition to the church's teachings on all of these issues, but opening up these areas for discussion and investigation.

Father Charles Curran is a man of great fortitude. Though the Catholic Church does not now acknowledge him as a Catholic theologian and will not allow him to teach at Catholic institutions, he still remains loyal to the church by remaining Catholic. Curran does not agree with Rome on many issues, but this does not discourage him. Father Curran has proposed more ideas on moral theology than any other moral theologian, and one day his ideas may be accepted by Rome. This may be soon or long down the road, but inevitably, some of the concerns raised by Charles Curran will have new positions in the church as the times slowly mold the church to fit an aging era. Curran states that, “one does not have to be a theologian or an ethicist in order to make good moral decisions” (Curran, Critical Concerns in Moral Theology 251). He is saying here that anyone can dissent if they truly believe and feel something to be wrong with the church. Father Charles Curran's views on dissent on issues in the church ignite a fire under the lay people of the church to take action, which attracts people of the Catholic Church to his work. He believes in questioning issues of morals, and that moral questioning is what makes Charles Curran a truly great American theologian.

Works Cited
Gerald Renner. “Rome targets another Jesuit,” National Catholic Reporter. August 11, 2000
Charles E. Curran. “Humanae Vitae: still controversial at 30,” National Catholic Reporter. July 31, 1998
Charles E. Curran. Tensions in moral theology. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988
Charles E. Curran. Critical Concerns in Moral Theology. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984
Ronald P. Hamel. Intoduction To Christian Ethics. New York: Paulist Press



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.


A Charles Curran Bibliography
Contemporary Problems in Moral Theology. Notre Dame, IN: Fides/Claretian Publishers, 1970.
The Crisis in Priestly Ministry. Notre Dame, IN: Fides/Claretian Publishers, 1972.
Politics, Medicine, and Christian Ethics: A Dialogue With Paul Ramsey. Fortress Press, 1973.
Ongoing Revision in Moral Theology. Notre Dame, IN: Fides/Claretian Publishers, 1975.
New Perspectives in Moral Theology. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1976.
Absolutes in Moral Theology? Greenwood Publishing Group, 1976.
Catholic Moral Theology in Dialogue. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1976.
Themes in Fundamental Moral Theology. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977.
Issues in Sexual and Medical Ethics. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979.
American Catholic Social Ethics: Twentieth-Century Approaches. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982.
The Magisterium and Morality. New York: Paulist Press, 1982.
Moral Theology, a Continuing Journey. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982.
Critical Concerns in Moral Theology. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984.
Directions in Fundamental Moral Theology. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985.
Directions in Catholic Social Ethics. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985.
Faithful Dissent. Kansas City, MO: Sheed & Ward, 1986.
Toward an American Catholic Moral Theology. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1987.
Tensions in Moral Theology. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988.
Catholic Higher Education, Theology, and Academic Freedom. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990.
Natural Law and Theology. New York: Paulist Press, 1991.
The Living Tradition of Catholic Moral Theology. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992.
The Church and Morality: An Ecumenical and Catholic Approach. Minneapolis, MN, 1993.
The Origins of Moral Theology in the United States: Three Different Approaches. Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1997.
The Catholic Moral Tradition Today. Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1999.
Moral Theology at the End of the Century. Milwaukee, WI: Marquette Univ. Press, 1999.
Catholic Social Teaching: 1891-present. Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2002.
A Call to Fidelity: On the Moral Theology of Charles E. Curran. Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2002.