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Letter to Father Charles Curran*


July 25, 1986

Reverend Prof. Curran,

This Congregation wishes to acknowledge receipt of your letter of April 1, 1986, with which you enclosed your definitive reply to its critical observations on various positions you have taken in your published work. You note that you "remain convinced of the truthfulness of these positions at the present time." You reiterate as well a proposal which you have called a "compromise" according to which you would continue to teach moral theology but not in the field of sexual ethics.

The purpose of this letter is to inform you that the Congregation has confirmed its position that one who dissents from the Magisterium as you do is not suitable nor eligible to teach Catholic theology. Consequently, it declines your compromise solution because of the organic unity of authentic Catholic theology, a unity which in its content and method is intimately bound to fidelity to the Church’s Magisterium.

The several dissenting positions which this Congregation contested, namely, on a right to public dissent from the ordinary Magisterium, the indissolubility of consummated sacramental marriage, abortion, euthanasia, masturbation, artificial contraception, premarital intercourse and homosexual acts, were listed carefully enough in the above-mentioned observations in July of 1983 and have since been published. There is no point in entering into any detail concerning the fact that you do indeed dissent on these issues.

There is, however, one concern which must be brought out. Your basic assertion has been that since your positions are convincing to you and diverge only from the "non-infallible" teaching of the church, they constitute "responsible" dissent and should therefore be allowed by the church. In this regard, the following considerations seem to be in order.

First of all, one must remember the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, which clearly does not confine the infallible Magisterium purely to matters of faith nor to solemn definitions. Lumen Gentium, No. 25 states: "When, however, they (the bishops) even though spread throughout the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion between themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching on matters of faith or morals, are in agreement that a particular position ought to be held as definitive, then they are teaching the doctrine of Christ in an infallible manner." Besides this, the church does not build its life upon its infallible Magisterium alone but on the teaching of its authentic, ordinary Magisterium as well.

In light of these considerations, it is clear that you have not taken into adequate account, for example, that the church’s position on the indissolubility of sacramental and consummated marriage, which you claim ought to be changed, was in fact defined at the Council of Trent and so belongs to the patrimony of the faith. You likewise do not give sufficient weight to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council when in full continuity with the tradition of the church it condemned abortion, calling it an "unspeakable crime." In any case, the faithful must accept not only the infallible Magisterium. They are to give the religious submission of intellect and will to the teaching which the supreme pontiff or the college of bishops enunciate on faith or morals when they exercise the authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it with a definitive act. This you have continued to refuse to do.

There are, moreover, two related matters which have become widely misunderstood in the course of the Congregation’s inquiry into your work, especially in the past few months, and which should be noted. First, you publicly claimed that you were never told who your "accusers" were. The Congregation based its inquiry exclusively on your published works and on your personal responses to its observations. In effect, then, your own works have been your "accusers" and they alone.

You further claimed that you were never given the opportunity of counsel. Since the inquiry was conducted on a documentary basis, you had every opportunity to take any type of counsel you wished. Moreover, it is clear that you did so. When you replied to the Congregation’s observations with your letter of Aug. 24, 1984, you stated that you had taken the positions you have "with a great deal...of consultation"; and in the Congregation’s letter of Sept. 17, 1985, you were actually urged to continue the use of that very means so that an acceptable resolution of the differences between you and the teaching of the church could be attained. Finally, at your own request, when you came for our meeting on March 8, 1986, you were accompanied by a theologian of your own choosing and confidence.

In conclusion, this Congregation calls attention to the fact that you have taken your dissenting positions as a professor of theology in an ecclesiastical faculty at a pontifical university. In its letter of Sept. 17, 1985, to you, it was noted that "the authorities of the church cannot allow the present situation to continue in which the inherent contradiction is prolonged that one who is to teach in the name of the church in fact denies her teaching." In light of your repeated refusal to accept what the church teaches and in light of its mandate to promote and safeguard the church’s teaching on faith and morals throughout the Catholic world, this Congregation, in agreement with the Congregation for Catholic Education, sees no alternative now but to advise the most reverend chancellor that you will no longer be considered suitable nor eligible to exercise the function of a professor of Catholic theology.

This decision was presented to His Holiness in an Audience granted to the undersigned Prefect on the 10th of July of this year, and he approved both its content and the procedure followed.

This Dicastery also wishes to inform you that this decision will be published as soon as it is communicated to you.

May I finally express the sincere hope that this regrettable, but necessary, outcome to the Congregation’s study might move you to reconsider your dissenting positions and to accept in its fullness the teaching of the Catholic Church.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger


* AAS 79 (1987), 116-118.