Curran: Papacy should admit some of its teachings are wrong

This story appears in the Synod on the Family feature series. View the full series.
Fr. Charles Curran

Fr. Charles Curran

by Thomas C. Fox

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Shortly after October's extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family concluded in Rome, NCR asked Fr. Charles Curran, the Elizabeth Scurlock University Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and a noted moral theologian, for his impressions. Following is the text of the interview.

NCR: What pleased you most about the synod?
Curran: The fact that bishops and cardinals publicly disagreed with one another in their attempt to discern what is good for the church. We have really not had this experience since the open debates of the Second Vatican Council. The one negative aspect about all this was that the press was not allowed into the synod itself to hear the actual discussion, but only found out about the discussions after the fact.

What disappointed you most?
The fact that not only did the synod not change any teaching in the church, but even those who were in favor of pastoral change insisted they were not changing the teaching of the church. This came through especially in the debate about full participation in the Eucharist for divorced and remarried Catholics. In my judgment, we have to change some of our specific moral teachings with regard to sexual morality.

We kept hearing the synod is not about changing doctrine. What are the fundamentals of church doctrine regarding the family, and what are the teachings subject to change? Which of the issues dealing with marriage and gender have been infallibly proclaimed? What is "church doctrine" on marriage, contraception, and gay and lesbian lifestyles, and what is not?
Church "doctrine" is simply a teaching of the church, or, more specifically, a teaching of the pope or the bishops. The Latin word doctrina basically means teaching. A doctrine or teaching that is taught definitively, that is, infallibly, is called a dogma. As you might imagine, there has been much discussion about what has been taught infallibly and what is noninfallible teaching.

In the early 1970s, William Levada, a priest of the archdiocese of Los Angeles, wrote a doctoral dissertation at the Gregorian University maintaining that the hierarchical church cannot teach the natural law infallibly. The natural law by its very nature does not depend primarily on revelation and God's word, but on human reason. Forty-five years later, Levada became the prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith!

In my judgment, there never has been an infallible church teaching on a specific moral issue. The reason is that these issues are removed from the core of faith and deal with many different specificities and complexities. On the other hand, we have witnessed in the hierarchical church in the last decades an attempt to push what I call creeping infallibility. To its great credit, even the older Code of Canon Law admitted that nothing can be presumed to be infallible. In other words, if there is any doubt about it, it cannot be infallible teaching.

History reminds us that noninfallible church teaching has definitely changed in the past. Think, for example, that for almost 1,900 years the Roman Catholic church (and most other Christian churches) did not condemn slavery. A few years ago, I edited a book on change in official Catholic moral teachings in order to show the many different areas in which change has taken place. One reviewer correctly pointed out the importance of the word "change." This was not just a "development," but was a real change.

Interestingly enough, even in the area of marriage and sexuality our teaching has changed somewhat. St. Augustine in the fourth century claimed that spouses had to intend procreation when they had marital relations. With the acceptance of the rhythm system by Popes Pius XI and XII, not only did one not have to intend procreation, but one could intend not to procreate and even take means to avoid procreation. Of course, the only means allowed was rhythm. Likewise, in the last century, the papal teaching has changed on the ends of marriage. Papal teaching used to hold that the primary end of marriage is procreation and education of offspring. This is no longer the case.

The fact that the church has changed its moral teaching in a number of very significant specific issues is proof that such teaching is not unchangeable and what is taught today as noninfallible teaching can also be changed in the future. Perhaps the best explanation of why such teaching can be changed is simply looking at the language. Noninfallible really means that something is fallible!

We began to hear we might need less emphasis on moral absolutes and more emphasis on "gradualism," a kind of step-by-step attempt to bring people closer to the faith. Is this new? Where is this coming from? What do you think of the approach?
I think there is an important moral reality involved in the whole question of gradualism, especially in the area of morality. In a sense, it is not new, because it has its roots in very traditional Catholic moral teaching. However, in practice it has not been developed that much. ...

The ultimate reason for the acceptance of gradualism is the difference between the objective order and the subjective order. The objective order concerns by definition the objective moral reality, whereas the subjective order refers to the person who is striving to do what is true and good.

Perhaps the best illustration of this might be the use of methadone treatment for those who are addicted to heroin. Methadone is still a drug and probably has some negative consequences for the person, but it is a step on the way of overcoming the addiction to heroin.

In fact, gradualism was talked about in the 1980 synod on the family. In his apostolic exhortation based on the synodal proceedings, John Paul II accepted the idea of this law of gradualness, or a step-by-step advance, but insisted it could not be identified with "gradualness of the law." But in the best of the Catholic tradition, if one is only able to take a small step at this time, that is all that should be required of that person.

The synod had a distinct "Francis" pastoral emphasis. You are a longtime advocate of church reform. As a theologian, do you think this pastoral emphasis can get us to where you think we need to be?
The word "pastoral" obviously has a number of different meanings. The primary role of any minister in the church, including the bishop of Rome, is to be a pastor. The pastor has to be close to the people and to know and experience their joys and their sorrows, their laughter and their tears. I think this is what Francis meant when he told pastors to be shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.

The pastoral approach in a very true sense should embrace all that the various ministers of the Gospel do, but it certainly also has relevance to very practical moral problems that people are experiencing. I have already mentioned that with regard to gradualness. This brings to mind one of the statements that was found in the first summary of what went on in the synod: "The truth is incarnate in human fragility not to condemn it, but to cure it."

Is the pastoral approach a means to opening up more fundamental theological discussions -- or a way of avoiding them?
We will only know the answer to this question sometime in the future, and I hope the not too distant future! The pastoral approach can be a foot in the door, which then might lead to a much greater opening of the door.

It is obvious that some of the more conservative people in the synod are definitely fearful that opening things up on the pastoral level will move toward a change on the doctrinal level. In ethics, we often speak about the camel's nose in the tent argument or the foot in the door argument. This implies that once the camel's nose gets under the tent, ultimately the whole tent will come down.

However, this does not necessarily have to happen. The old saying is that if you give them an inch, they will take a mile, but that does not necessarily always occur. So only time will tell whether or not this is a way to bring about a change in the teaching.

You have written that Catholic theology is "act-based" and not "intention-based," as you would like it to be. How did we get to this act-based theology? What's wrong with this approach?
I certainly want to give great importance to the intention, but I do not want to forget about the importance of the act itself. Years ago, when I was teaching in the seminary, I invented what I call an old Scholastic axiom: A big heart doesn't excuse a stupid ass! You can have the best intentions in the world, but still do things that are wrong and harm people.

But this question obviously brings up the more important issue about how does one determine whether acts are right or wrong. My problem in the area of sexuality is that the Catholic teaching has been based on the nature of what has been called the sexual faculty or the sexual power. You look at the sexual power or faculty and find out what is its God-given purpose.

There is an analogy here with the whole question of lying. Why is a lie wrong? The older position in the Catholic church maintained that lying is wrong because you go against the God-given purpose of the faculty or power of speech. The power or faculty of speech is to put on my lips what is in my mind. ...

The same approach applies to sexuality. You look at the God-given nature and purpose of sexuality, and you determine it is procreation and the love union of the spouses. Every single act, therefore, must be open to procreation and expressive of the love union of husband and wife. Note, by the way, that official papal teaching not only condemns artificial contraception because it is against the procreative purpose of the act, but it also forbids artificial insemination even with the husband's seed precisely because it is against the fact that every sexual act must be expressive of the love union of husband and wife. The fact that every act must be open to procreation serves as the basis for the condemnation of masturbation, artificial contraception, and homosexual relations.

The problem with the Catholic approach is using the nature of the faculty as the criterion for discovering whether an act is right or wrong. One can never see the power or faculty of sexuality apart from the human person and the human person apart from one's relationship to other persons. Thus, for example, for the good of the person or the good of the marriage, one could and should at times interfere with the procreative purpose of the sexual faculty. In the same manner then, one could justify homosexual relations and unions on the basis of what is good for the human person and the human person's relationships.

It is interesting that in other areas, the papal teaching has accepted the criterion of the human person and given more importance to it. Thus, for example, Pope Leo XIII condemned all the modern freedoms, but the Second Vatican Council accepted religious freedom. The decree on religious liberty of Vatican II in the very first sentences says that contemporary human beings are becoming increasingly conscious of the dignity of the human person and demanding that human beings should exercise fully their own judgment and responsible freedom, not subject to the pressure of coercion, but inspired by a sense of duty.

The document goes on to say that the council pays careful attention to these aspirations and declares them to be greatly in accord with truth and justice. Thus, this document accepts the criterion of the dignity of the human person. If one were to accept the moral criterion of the good of the person and the person's relationships, one would come to a very different approach to sexuality than that found in papal documents at the present time.

What theological premise should support more effective Catholic moral theology going forward? Any practical ideas about how we can introduce this into discussions between now and the next family synod one year out?
As indicated earlier, I think it is necessary for the papacy to admit that some of its present teachings on sexuality are wrong. But that is going to be a very difficult task to do. When Paul VI came out with his encyclical Humanae Vitae, condemning artificial contraception, he recognized there were some significant arguments in favor of accepting contraception, but he could not accept them because they went against the traditional authoritative teaching of the church.

Without doubt, it will be very difficult for papal teaching to admit that its teaching in the past has been wrong. Catholics believe that the papal office is guided by the Holy Spirit. Could the Spirit ever allow the papal teaching to be wrong?

On the other hand, history has shown that such teachings have been wrong. Perhaps the problem has been that the papacy has claimed too much certitude for its own teaching. My friend [Mercy Sr.] Margaret Farley some years ago wrote a marvelous essay entitled "Ethics, Ecclesiology, and the Grace of Self-Doubt."

There is also the fact that a good number of Catholics with great personal sacrifice themselves have followed the existing church teachings. How would they react to any change in the teaching?

Also, there is the psychological aspect. I was discussing these issues with some friends this past week. One of them was in total agreement with me but pointed out the danger that if you force people into a corner with their backs up to the wall, they are not going to react very well. Might it be better to take a less confrontational approach?

I recognize all the problems and difficulties in the way of recognizing that past and present papal teaching has been wrong, but this is the real problem that we have to face. However, in facing it, in light of what we talked about earlier, I am certainly willing to accept some kind of gradualism ...

But with this acceptance of gradualism, there comes a warning. In the past, the Catholic church had a long time to deal with the possibility of change, or what it preferred to call development in its teachings. But because of instant communication today, the church no longer has the luxury to take that long. There is an urgency to change the present teaching for the good of the church.

[Thomas C. Fox is NCR publisher. His email is]

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