While I was searching through the NCR database for a review of “The Sexual Person” (which I did not find), I came across instead a review of Charles Curran’s “Catholic Moral Theology in the United States“. What particularly grabbed my attention was the headline for the review, which is so close to my own strapline. Compare my “towards a reality-based theology” with NCR’s headline “Catholic moral theology based on real life”. The words may differ, but the sense behind this is precisely what I was getting at in choosing my words. Is it too much to expect, that those responsible for formulating ethical principles should pay some attention to real-life experience?
Yet Curran and his methods are controversial. He has been barred from teaching in Catholic theology schools, largely for his outspoken criticism of Humanae Vitae. (Who in their right mind, after paying attention to the views and experience of married couples and the professional experts that Pope Paul simply ignored, would disagree with him?). Instead, he now works at a Methodist institution – is probably a better theologian for his exposure to alternative modes of thinking.
The NCR says there are three characteristic strands to Curran’s theology:
At least three areas deserve special consideration in the context of current debates within the church. First, Curran’s method, which so disturbs his critics, requires attention to experience. This includes personal experience: Before pontificating about sex, it would be a good idea to listen to people’s experiences, as the Vatican birth-control commission did, before recommending change in church teaching. But it also includes historical experience, which involves the Vatican II idea of thinking historically and reading the “signs of the times.” Rejecting that approach has serious pastoral and political consequences, as can be seen in the sad story of Catholic treatment of birth control, sex education, homosexuality and even abortion. If experience doesn’t count, it is hard to win those debates, even harder to help people find their way in daily life.
Second, in his early career Curran was a very popular speaker at clergy continuing-education sessions. Some bishops worried that he was influencing their priests, but in fact it was a two-way street, and Curran learned from their pastoral experience and tried to find ways to help them bring the Gospel and the wisdom of the Catholic tradition to life in their ministries. It would be hard to count the cost to American Catholic intelligence brought about by severing theology, or at least ecclesiastically acceptable theology, from pastoral practice.
Third, over the course of his career Curran has extended his interest from issues of personal morality to embrace questions of social morality. He captures the intimate relationship between the two. He would admit that his integration of the two usually segregated fields is far from complete, but his achievement is important. In college and university programs as well as in education generally, personal ethics, centered on sexuality, is separate from and generally treated as more important than social ethics. This undoubtedly has something to do with the failure of Catholic social teaching to inspire renewal. Even when one takes a course or attends a workshop on medical ethics, or business ethics or other vocationally oriented areas, the focus is almost always on personal integrity (what must I not do?) rather than on social responsibility (how can I best use my gifts for the building up of God’s world and God’s people?). Curran is one of the few moral theologians to open up the question of how personal and social morality are connected, and for this it is possible his work will be most influential for years to come.
A theology prepared to test its assumptions against real-life experience; that pays attention to history; and which sees morality as social as well as personal. These are all well-accepted principles, to which the Church pays frequent lip-service. So why is that when a theologian like Charles Curran applies the principles instead of merely talking about them, he is excoriated?
- Curran, Charles: Catholic Moral Theology in the United States: A History (Moral Traditions)
- Curran, Charles: Loyal Dissent: Memoir of a Catholic Theologian (Moral Traditions)
- Curran, Charles:Moral Theology of John Paul II
- Farley, Margaret: Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics
- Salzmann, Todd & Lawler, Michael A: The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology (Moral Traditions)
- Charles Curran on U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Current Abortion Teaching: Unfounded Certitude (bilgrimage.blogspot.com)
- “Gradualism” in Benedict’s Theology. (queering-the-church.com)
- Catholic Sexual Ethics, Social Ethics, and Reality-Based Theology (queering-the-church.com)
- Ongoing Catholic Conversation about Sexual Morality: Two Recent National Catholic Reporter Pieces (bilgrimage.blogspot.com)
- On Dialogue, Disagreements and Dissent in Church (opentabernacle.wordpress.com)
- Is Catholicism By The Rule Book The Only Spiritual Path For Catholic Colleges And Universities? (enlightenedcatholicism-colkoch.blogspot.com)