Charles E. Curran, Catholic Moral Tradition Today (Georgetown Press, 1999).
Bishop Curran was ordained as a Catholic priest back in 1958 in the Rochester, NY, diocese. Shortly after this, he began to be a questionable sort of Catholic, leading a charge with a few hundred other priests to oppose Pope Paul VI’s now infamous Humanae Vitae (a very helpful document concerning the sanctity of human life and the necessary restraints on human sexuality). For Curran, the authority of the Church ought to be questioned (and opposed?) on issues such as prohibiting birth control, prohibiting premarital sex, masturbation, abortion, divorce, euthanasia, and homosexual acts.
Curran continued to question the authority of the magisterium and, for his efforts, was removed from teaching at the Catholic University of America in 1986. What the Roman Catholics could not tolerate, the Methodists embraced. So, Curran was granted a professorship with full tenure at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX, where he remains a professor.
Curran is my choice today because he has had direct conflict with Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope B16). Curran didn’t like and couldn’t tolerate the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the doctrinal gatekeepers for Roman Catholics. Curran has written more than 3 dozen books, often critical of Roman Catholicism. This particular book seeks to be a contemporary ethics guide from a Catholic perspective with a view to postmodern morality.
The sub-title of Curran’s work is “Synthesis.” The ethical outlook he has in view is a synthesis of many sources, the first of which is ecclesiastical. Curran begins by exploring the role and function of the church to shape the ethical outlook for its adherents. The second consideration in ethical outlook is “stance,” which, more or less, is equal to our concept of perspective. The perspective from which a dilemma is viewed will shape the approach one takes toward solving the dilemma.
Curran goes through a discussion of the concept of “person,” particularly considering the person as the moral subject and acting agent. Naturally, he then moves to a discussion of the virtues, a discussion which is meant to answer the question, “What kind of persons ought we to be?” Curran, on this topic, thinks we ought to be much more “free” to think and embrace morality on our own without coercion from the magisterium (a typically liberal approach to morality).
As a result, Curran takes special aim at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope B16, returned fire against Curran in the mid 1980’s. Indeed, Ratzinger’s ire was against more than just Curran; he was concerned about all North American theologians, stating that they had a penchant for pitting Catholics against the magisterium by forcing them to choose between dissent from society or dissent from the magisterium. “Many choose this latter dissent, adapting themselves to compromises with a secular ethic which ends up denying men and women the most profound aspect of their nature, leading them to a new slavery while claiming to free them,” (212). I think Ratzinger’s critique here is right on the mark.
Curran, however, disagreed with Ratzinger and the Congregation. “After a seven year investigation,” Curran says, “the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith concluded that I was neither suitable nor eligible to teach Catholic theology and eventually I was dismissed from my tenured professorship at the Catholic University of America. The reason for this Vatican action was my dissent from hierarchical teachings on contraception, sterilization, masturbation, divorce, and homosexuality.”
Not surprisingly, Curran critiques the Roman Catholic Church for failing to recognize its need for allowing public dissent in the church. Indeed, Curran argues that the Roman Catholic Church needs to listen more closely and allow more authority for the American bishops (who view sexuality in a more liberal fashion, as he does).
In summary, I would say that, though I am not Roman Catholic, I would have to abide by the ruling of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on this one. Curran’s moral views tend less toward recognizing moral authority outside of the personal agent and more toward subjectivism. Although he wants to maintain a role for the authority of the church, he also wants to give the moral subject more latitude in the exercise of “reason.” I put the quotes around the word “reason,” because it is reason which led Curran to the conclusion that we should “recognize the goodness of genital homosexual relations between committed partners,” (222).
The book is helpful in thinking through the weaknesses of the Catholic natural law theology and how it is applied to ethics. Curran points out that there has never been (nor can there ever be) an infallible moral teaching from the viewpoint of natural law. He also offers other helpful critiques of Roman Catholic doctrine and practice, even if one might taste a hint of sour grapes in those criticisms.