Father Charles Curran, whose license to teach as an official Roman Catholic theologian was revoked by the Vatican last August, was formally suspended Monday from all teaching duties at the Catholic University of America in Washington, where he has been a tenured full professor for 20 years.
But the moral theologian, who for a decade has clashed with the Vatican over his relatively liberal views on sexual ethics, said he will show up Thursday for the first day of classes in the winter term anyway--defying the order from the chancellor of Catholic University. The university is the only Vatican-chartered school in the nation.
"I just don't know what will happen when I go into class," Curran said in a telephone interview Monday. "But I believe I have the right to . . . teach students in non-ecclesiastical degree programs."
The formal order suspending Curran was issued in a letter written to Curran on Jan. 9 by Archbishop James A. Hickey of Washington, who is also the university chancellor.
Academic freedom and the right of the church to control teaching in its U.S. institutions of higher education appear to be on a collision course in this latest development in the lengthy case.
Curran's censure by the Vatican last summer touched off a furor. Some leading Catholic scholars expressed fear that the action would severely compromise scholarly inquiry at all U.S. Catholic colleges and universities.
Now, the suspension will likely generate another round of protest by liberal Catholics who believe that Pope John Paul II is singling out dissent in the U.S. church and taking repressive measures against it.
The suspension of the popular professor might also trigger opposition among students and colleagues at the 7,250-student school. In 1967, Curran was briefly fired from Catholic University for his liberal views. But, five days later--after a student protest and campus-wide faculty strike--he was reinstated. He was later promoted.
Catholic University's theology department, where Curran has taught, issues both canonical, or church, degrees, as well as civil, or secular, ones. Curran, in the interview, maintained that while Hickey "has the statutory right to suspend me from ecclesiastical programs, he doesn't have the right in non-ecclesiastical ones.
Curran is only one of several U.S. priests at odds with the Vatican over belief and practice, including Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, who was stripped of much of his pastoral authority last year. Hickey, a staunch backer of the Pope, headed the investigation of Hunthausen.
Curran has retained the law firm headed by Edward Bennett Williams, president of the Washington Redskins and owner of the Baltimore Orioles, to represent him. Curran has said he will take civil court action if a university process doesn't uphold his right to remain at Catholic University.
Curran is first appealing the Vatican mandate through a seven-member faculty inquiry committee.
"Archbishop Hickey's action at this time is totally unnecessary and prejudges the case under consideration," Curran said Monday. "In taking this action, Archbishop Hickey has gone against the advice of the (Catholic University) chair of theology and the dean of the School of Religious Studies and has shown a lack of appreciation for the needs and rights of students."
After Hickey indicated his intention last month to suspend Curran, both Father David N. Power, chairman of the school's theology department, and Father William Cenkner, dean of the department of religious studies, protested to Hickey.
"I see no acceptable warrant for this suspension," Power said, while Cenkner stated: "The gravity of the situation will only be increased with the proposed suspension."
But Hickey was adamant, saying that the Vatican action revoking Curran's status as an official Catholic theologian "makes the case a most serious and pressing one for suspension."
Hickey said Curran will continue to be paid during the faculty investigation; Curran said he does not plan to teach elsewhere in the interim. Catholic University officials declined Monday to make further comment.
Curran, who has been supported by hundreds of fellow Catholic theologians, said the board of directors of the 1,300-member Catholic Theological Society of America recently issued a statement to the faculty inquiry committee urging the committee not to fire him.
"Removal of 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," the group said.
Found Not Suitable
At the time that Curran's license was lifted last summer, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who heads the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote Curran that in light of the congregation's "mandate to promote and safeguard the church's teaching on faith and morals throughout the Catholic world," it found him "no longer suitable nor eligible to exercise the function of a professor of Catholic theology."
Curran dissents from official church views on a range of issues including abortion, divorce, homosexual acts, masturbation, premarital sex, contraception, sterilization and euthanasia. Under certain limited circumstances, he says, these practices--all officially banned or condemned by the Catholic Church--may be justified.
He added, however, that he has not taught university classes in sexual ethics "for at least 15 years."