WASHINGTON — Catholic theologian Charles Curran, refusing to back down in his battle with the Vatican, said Wednesday that he is being "singled out" by Rome for public punishment because he represents a widespread American dissent from the church's teaching on issues such as abortion, contraception and divorce.
"I am a theological moderate. A strong majority of Catholic theologians support the legitimacy of my position," said Curran, who is fighting to keep his teaching position at Catholic University of America in Washington. Two days ago, Vatican officials ordered that he be dismissed.
The 52-year-old professor, a voluminous writer in Catholic journals, repeatedly has differed with church teaching by arguing that, in some cases, contraception, abortion, homosexuality and divorce can be morally acceptable. Curran has been under investigation since 1979 by the Vatican's Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for his public dissents.
Vatican officials say they seek only to have Catholic teachers accept the church's basic teachings. University officials in Washington said they accepted the Vatican decision. "There is no right to public dissent," said Washington Archbishop James A. Hickey, who heads the university.
Curran said the "strong authoritarian stance" taken by church officials ignores the American tradition of academic freedom and will not be well received here.
"The role of the theologian is to probe and push. The hierarchical teaching office in the Roman Catholic Church must allow dissent . . . and ultimately should change its teaching," Curran said. He was applauded by more than 100 supporters on the university campus.
Curran's fight to keep his job, besides renewing the centuries-old conflict between Rome and its dissenters, also has raised questions about the Vatican's influence over American Catholic universities.
Several Catholic academics said Wednesday that the church hierarchy is engaged in a futile attempt to enforce "thought control," in the words of Marquette University Prof. Daniel Maguire.
"The real issue is power. Since 1960, Catholic theological power has shifted to the universities, which is a threat to the hierarchy. Now they are trying to regain control for the Vatican," said Maguire, a professor of moral theology on the Milwaukee campus.
But others noted that the impact of the Vatican's move is in doubt because of the special nature of Catholic University, whose charter makes it a "pontifical" institution with uniquely close ties to the church.
"Father Curran was vulnerable because he was teaching at the Catholic University," said Father Richard McBrien, dean of theology at Notre Dame. "If he had been at Notre Dame or Boston College, Fordham or Georgetown, they could criticize him, but they couldn't have him removed from the faculty."
The incident, however, is a "devastating blow for Catholic. It will be hard now to recognize it as a bona fide university," McBrien said.
In a letter to Curran delivered Monday, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote: "The authorities of the church cannot allow the present situation to continue in which . . . one who is to teach in the name of the church in fact denies her teaching."
In a decision reviewed and approved by Pope John Paul II, Ratzinger, head of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, concluded: "In light of your repeated refusal to accept what the church teaches," the Vatican "sees no alternative now but . . . that you will no longer be considered suitable nor eligible to exercise the function of a professor of Catholic theology."
On Wednesday, Curran said he will probably appeal the Vatican decision through regular university channels. "In my judgment and in the judgment of the majority of my peers, I have been and am suitable and eligible to exercise the function of a professor of Catholic theology," Curran said.
'Look at Intentions'
"He has not said homosexuality or birth control is always right," said Father Anthony Tambasco, professor of theology at Georgetown University. "He has said you have to look at intentions too. That's what we do with killing. We judge it in part by the intention with which it was done."
"You also have to look at the human side of this," said Maguire of Marquette. Curran has "taught at Catholic for 25 years, has lived in a tiny two-room apartment and given most of his money to the poor."
"He's been totally committed to what is best in the Catholic Church. To throw out a man like that is a gross injustice," Maguire said.