It was springtime, 1967, when trustees of Catholic University of America pushed Fr. Charles E. Curran’s name and picture into newspapers and television news programs. American Catholics, enthusiastic about their church when the Second Vatican Council concluded in 1965, were unsettled when those trustees announced that Fr. Curran’s contract to teach in the theology department would not be renewed.
A student and faculty strike began on April 19. Fr. Curran was cautious about talking to the press, and did not agree to my request—or anybody’s request -- for an interview. Lawrence Cardinal Shehan, the archbishop of Baltimore, intervened to assure Fr. Curran that I knew my trade and would probably not misquote him. Shehan had the political skills to become a cardinal; he had the commitment to conscience to become a saint.
So the interview went on. It was published in the April 28, 1967 issue of The Catholic Review and in the June 1967 issue of Catholic Mind. It is published below. In 1986 Fr. Curran was dismissed from Catholic U. as a dissident. A 1986 decision by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Josef Cardinal Ratzinger—now Pope Benedict XVI—declared that Fr. Curran was neither suitable nor eligible to be a professor of Catholic theology.
The American Association of University Professors issued a report that said, “Had it not been for the intervention of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Professor Curran would undoubtedly still be active in the [Catholic University] Department of Theology, a popular teacher, honored theologian and respected colleague.” Fr. Curran accepted a full tenured professorship at Southern Methodist University, where Catholic students are said to outnumber Methodists by a wide margin. Here’s the 1967 interview:
By A. E. P. Wall
A happily harrassed Fr. Charles E. Curran poked his head into the doorway of a fellow priest’s room [on the Washington, D.C., campus of Catholic University of America]. It was the same head that had been poking its way into millions of living rooms during the previous few days.
Fr. Curran Smiled and extended a sinewy arm. The T-shirt he wore emphasized his slender build and added to the visitor’s quick impression that he was shaking hands with a senior counselor at a boys’ camp. But it was an associate professor of moral theology who spoke.
For Fr. Curran it was the end of the first day of classes following the spontaneous shutdown of the Catholic University of America by its faculty and student body. Did it mean the end of his own active concern about changes on the campus?
“I don’t think it can be,” the 33-year-old theologian said after stepping into more familiar priestly attire. “The issues involve more than just one person.
“We’re going to have to improve the situation in many ways to allow for better communication in the area of theology itself and in the academic processes here at Catholic University.”
The words came out quietly. For Fr. Curran it was a simple statement of fact.
He had another fact in mind and he leaned forward in a massive leather chair to emphasize what he had to say. The dispute that began when Fr. Curran was told his contract would not be renewed had nothing to do, he explained, with birth control or any other doctrinal matter. None of the student or faculty strikers drew the issues in terms of obedience or disobedience to episcopal authority. The question, it might be said, was purely academic.
“The unanimous reaction of the students and the faculty,” Fr. Curran said, “is proof of the fact that the issue was not doctrinal or moral. Disputed issues do not produce a unanimous reaction.
“In this question the academic community was united. You couldn’t unite this community on birth control. You couldn’t even unite the academic community on God, because the faculty is not made up entirely of Catholics.”
The issue was academic freedom, to be exercised in harmony with university statutes. As an immediate issue it was resolved when the announcement came that Fr. Curran’s contract would be renewed and that an academic promotion had been granted.
Now, Fr. Curran said, it is time to consider some long-range relationships. “These relationships will affect theology itself and the work of all theologians in the Church,” said the popular young priest whose height—more than six feet—could not be swallowed up even by the hefty chair.
“The lines of communication—you might call them conduits—with the bishops have to be opened up,” Fr. Curran said.
He paused and then added: “This is not a revolt against authority. Ever since Vatican II we have known that authority in the Church must be exercised in new and different ways.”
Does this suggest a delegation of authority?
“No,” Fr. Curran said quickly, “let’s compare it with the way society functions today and in the past. At one time there was a monarchical form of government in most of the world. Today there is a movement toward democratic government. If you look at the structure of business today, at the corporation, you find that everybody throws in ideas and that there is little one-man rule.
“The Council told us that each one has his own role to play. This involves a dialogue and a listening process. As a practical matter it involves the opening of channels.
“I think there is a realization that authority will be exercised in a different way in the future. This is indicated by the organization of modern society, which does not operate from the top down. Each one contributes. We stimulate each other to contribute to the good of all.
“This sort of thing has to happen in the Church.”
Fr. Curran spoke of a greater participation by everyone in the Church, and he was asked whether he envisions the election of bishops by priests and the laity.
“That has been proposed,” he said, “and it is not a new idea. But frankly, let’s realize that there can be problems in elections, too.
“One of the problems of today is a unilateralism, an overly simplistic approach that leads men to say, ‘All you have to do is . . .’”
Although he doesn’t see voting as a guarantee of right action or democracy as a blanket to smother all discontent, Fr. Curran does see an opportunity for increased participation in Church affairs by both the laity and the clergy.
What about newspapers, radio and television as external communications media?
“We can’t ultimately solve all of our problems on the front page,” Fr. Curran said. “We must create a structure other than headlines.
“In the long, hard pull such structures can be difficult. The danger is that some people say we don’t need structures. We do need them, and they must be flexible, adaptable to the needs of the times.”