WASHINGTON — Vatican punishment of Catholic University theologian Father Charles Curran is incomprehensible, unjust and indefensible, leaders of the Catholic Theological Society of America are declaring in the strongest Curran defense yet by a large group of fellow theologians.
Publicly joining Curran's dispute with top Vatican officials, leaders of the 1,300-member group also refer to the reasoning behind the disciplining of Curran as "a dangerous novelty."
Their comments are in written testimony submitted to Catholic University's Academic Senate, which is looking into efforts to remove Curran from the school's theology faculty.
Vatican officials, citing relatively liberal Curran views on the morality of certain sexual practices, declared last summer that he was unfit to teach as a Catholic theologian, an action church officials say makes it impossible for him to continue as a professor of moral theology at the university.
However, Curran contends that he is protected by his contract as a tenured professor, and he has also set in motion the faculty investigation process.
Curran, who is a former president of the theological society, has been on sabbatical, so the dispute has not come to the point of allowing or denying him access to the classes he has traditionally taught at the school.
Leaders of the theologians' society said in their statement, a copy of which was released on Thursday, that Curran's views are "moderate, nuanced (and) shared by a majority of well-known scholarly moral theologians in this country."
"Removing him from his teaching post is incomprehensible on professional grounds, unjust in the singling out of this one scholar from many of his peers with similar opinions and indefensible in the light of traditional understanding of what a theologian rightfully does," they said.
The theologians said "one of the most disturbing elements" in the controversy is that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "blurs the distinction between infallible and non-infallible teaching'--that is, teaching that a Pope has declared infallibly true and teaching with no such declaration.
"All teaching seems to be gathered into one category which the faithful must accept seemingly without question," they said. "Such an idea is a dangerous novelty, difficult to support from any theological, doctrinal, legal or historical basis."
Curran has said he differs from church leaders' views only in a limited way and only on non-infallible issues, including birth control, abortion, divorce and homosexuality.
The theologians' statement lists issues on which the church has changed its official views over the centuries, says history therefore shows a necessity for responsible dissent from non-infallible teaching, and concludes that "to think otherwise is to be naive about the actual mediating ways in which the Holy Spirit moves the church forward."
The statement was signed by the society's president, Monika K. Hellwig of the Georgetown University Theology Department, and other officers and board members of the group.