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The Tale of Two Clerics

October 30, 1986

This is in response to Archbishop Mahony's article (Editorial Pages, Oct. 19), "Catholic Teaching Isn't Just Opinion."

At a time of great dissonance and conflicting opinion in the Catholic Church, Archbishop Mahony gives us clear guidelines by which to sort out what is being said. He allows theological dissent, but he sets limits to it. The line of limitation is where theologians usurp the official role of pastor that belongs in a more restricted way only to bishops. The official and authentic teaching of the church has a claim upon the Catholic conscience, and is not just one opinion among others in the Catholic mind.

Exactly how this applies to the case Charles Curran is not spelled out by the archbishop. Apparently, the opinions of Curran, which are the opinions of a theologian with great expertise, and (up until now) a canonical mission to teach in the name of the church, have come to replace in the minds of many the authentic Magisterium. By way of further complication, almost the entire Catholic theological community in this country stands publicly behind Curran.

Even so, the relationship between bishops and theologians remains cordial, congenial, and cooperative. This dispute is being carried on with a dignity on both sides that Catholics can be proud of.

The question arises as to the way in which Curran may have usurped the pastoral role of pope and bishops. There has been a condition of private dissent among Catholics on all levels, laity, theologians, clergy, and bishops for 30 years. Curran, as the most articulate of dissenters, has been called upon gradually to increase his public dissent in the matters of sexual morality. His stance has been bolstered by a changing view of the way in which the Holy Spirit works in the church. It seems that there is now acknowledged a movement of the Spirit "from below," as well as "from above."

Curran has not sought to create a faction within the church, nor has he elevated his own opinions above the official Magisterium. The problem has to do with an educated Catholic laity who have some appreciation of theology, who are both literate and who claim the right to use their own consciences in moral matters.

It also has to do with the media that spread this climate of dissent among the less informed, confusing many, but also inviting them to become more theologically informed. This tends to relativize the positions of the Magisterium and to demote them to the status of one set of opinions among others.

The church has the right to disbar its theologians, but it also has a duty to provide sound moral guidance. By sound moral guidance, I do not mean guidance that is merely ideal, but practical, livable, and applicable to people with real moral problems.

A vast number of Catholics feel that they are not receiving sound moral guidance from official channels. These people may either drift away from the church, or engage in the "selective acceptance" of what suits them best among the many teachings of the Catholic Church.

Either of these alternatives is wrong. The blame for this has to be shared by the hierarchy, who have allowed a rift to widen between a vast section of the laity and themselves. An appeal to infallibility in this state of affairs only serves to weaken the claim of infallibility, and not to heal the rift.

The church's strategy in handling the Curran affair ought to be one of using it to improve its public relations in general, and to educate all who are interested in its teachings and operations. The time is past when we can keep within our own ranks and wish away all dissent from within and all questions from without.

Archbishop Mahony is exercising the kind of leadership that the Catholic Church needs in the modern world. His kind of leadership shifts the weight of credibility back toward the official pastors.



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