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Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Waiting for Popot.

[Update: Sorry--bad language alert. Should have been in originally, but it was a late, late evening post.]

I have a hypothesis about a certain strand of progressive Catholicism: all the screeching about the Pope and clericalism has turned them into the most expansive papal/clericalists around. They are the mirror image of what they hate. Though I am loathe to quote possibly-syphilitic German philosophers, Nietzsche was on to something when he warned against fighting monsters lest one become a monster in the process.

They don't want the clerical brotherhood abolished, they simply want a much larger pool of applicants from which to select.

Likewise, they don't hate the Papacy so much as want it to be a steamroller acting in their interests.

With that in mind, Fr. Charles Curran weighs in:

I grew up as a typical pre-Vatican II Catholic. I entered the seminary at 13 and became a priest 11 years later, never questioning church teachings. But

"Dear America: I never thought I'd be writing a letter like this to your forum. Though I was educated by nuns who savagely beat us with copies of the Baltimore Catechism whenever we asked questions, gave the wrong answer or exhaled without permission, my friends tell me I am very pastoral and theologically flexible. Even though I read the letters here with interest, I didn't think something like that could ever happen to me. Then, one day after the Council, I met the Spirit of Vatican II in the Rectory...."

as a moral theologian in the 1960s, I began to see things differently, ultimately concluding that Catholics, although they must hold on to the core doctrines of faith,

"As defined by me."

can and at times should dissent from the more peripheral teachings of the church.

"As defined by me."

Unfortunately, the leaders of the Catholic Church feel differently.

The temerity! Gosh, you might think they have some kind of teaching responsibility or something.

In the summer of 1986, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the powerful enforcer of doctrinal orthodoxy around the world,

Equipped with x-ray vision, heresy-crushing kung-fu grip, a death ray and an evil, taunting laugh.

concluded a seven-year investigation of my writings.

Seven years? Whatever else it is, a rush to judgment it ain't.

Pope John Paul II approved the finding that "one who dissents from the magisterium as you do is not suitable nor eligible to teach Catholic theology." Cardinal Ratzinger -- Now Pope Benedict XVI -- told the Catholic University of America to revoke my license to teach theology because of my "repeated refusal to accept what the church teaches. I was fired.

Imagine that--a Catholic employed in an official capacity actually has to believe all that s**t. Even though your average working Catholic doesn't have the luxury of repeatedly telling his employers to blow it out their ass, much less have seven years grace after doing so. The Long, Long Night of Charlie Curran is failing to moisten my eyes.

It was the first time an American Catholic theologian had been censured in this way.

"Your Yankee Academic Freedom Forcefield is no match for my Inquisition death ray, Herr Curran. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!"

American Exceptionalism: It's Not Just For Politics Anymore.™

At issue was my dissent from church teachings on "the indissolubility of consummated sacramental marriage, abortion, euthanasia, masturbation, artificial contraception, premarital intercourse and homosexual acts," according to their final document to me.

The Gospel According to Free Willy. Quelle suprise.

It's true that I questioned the idea that such acts are always immoral and never acceptable (although I thought my dissent on these issues was quite nuanced).

Sen. Kerry's down with that.

Unfortunately, the Vatican — which was already moving toward greater discipline and orthodoxy — was having none of it.

"While I don't think much of papal infallibility, I myself am never wrong. Never. Ever."

Seven years earlier, it had punished the Swiss theologian Hans Küng because of his teachings on infallibility in the church. Later, Cardinal Ratzinger "silenced" Brazilian Franciscan Leonardo Boff, an advocate of liberation theology, for a year. Just recently, Ratzinger said U.S. Jesuit Roger Haight could not teach Catholic theology until he changed his understanding of the role of Jesus Christ.

Ah, yes: Haight, Boff and Kung. Respectively: "Jesus as dead body," "Jesus as Che Guevara," and "Jesus as Hans Kung."

Nope. No problems there.

Since 1986, no Catholic institution has offered to hire me.

"All I am left with is tenure and this lousy endowed chair at Southern Methodist University!

I mean, come on--METHODISTS?

It's the reputational equivalent of living in a refrigerator box, dammit!


Although I remain a baptized Catholic and a Catholic priest — the pope and the cardinal did not move to have me defrocked — my case sent an unmistakable and unequivocal message to Catholics around the world

Don't flatter yourself, Padre. My cradle-Catholic wife had never even heard of you prior to this post and thought you were a member of the Rat Pack (her terminology, not mine).

I doubt that one in 15,000 of your American co-religionists have the faintest clue who you are, either.

"Uh--'Charles Curran'? 1980s?

Oh, wait: wasn't he that short bald power forward for the Sixers? The 'Round Mound of Rebound'? No?"

It's the fundamental lack of notoriety that's funny. After all, Fr. Curran wouldn't have had to go through five paragraphs of introducing himself if his "predicament" were all that well-known.

On a related note: here's a serious contender for the funniest religious book title ever: Holy Siege: The Year That Shook Catholic America. Deals in part with the Curran case.

Yeeaaaaaaaah--rocked the world, all right.

But, I suppose, "The Year That Led To Much Kvetching Amongst The Subscriber Base For The National Catholic Reporter" was less...felicitous. If much more true.

Oddly enough, it's long since been out of print.

that deviation would no longer be tolerated. Official Catholic teaching has always given the impression that the pope and bishops will not and cannot change moral teachings because these teachings are based on God's law.

Maybe...because they are?

Given his approach to morality, the wonder of it is that he didn't put God's law in scare quotes. I've seen no indication that he believes there is such a thing. This essay sure doesn't.

Certainly Pope Benedict XVI will insist upon the same approach.But it doesn't have to be that way. History shows that the Catholic Church has changed its moral teachings over the years on a number of issues (without admitting its previous position had been wrong). A very sorry page in Catholic history, for example, is the fact that for over 1,800 years the popes and the church did not condemn slavery.



And until the 17th century, popes, in the strongest terms, condemned loans with interest as violating God's law.

The secular world still condemns it--your state has usury laws. I guarantee it. It's still immoral to charge exorbitant interest on loans. The economic realities have shifted since the 1600s, altering the teaching accordingly. But the underlying premise is still valid.

Unless he'd care to pen an essay in defense of the morality of loansharking.

History is not the only argument for change in Catholic moral teachings. Catholics generally recognize that many (if not all) of Catholic moral teachings on specific issues belong to the category of "non-infallible" teachings.

So, "non-infallible" = "ignore"? Got it.

Despite the "creeping infallibilism" that seeks to put more and more teachings beyond question, the fact is that many moral issues are open for reinterpretation and rethinking.

"According to me."

Dramatic changes have occurred in some aspects of papal social teachings in the last two centuries. Pope Gregory XVI in an 1832 encyclical condemned freedom of conscience in society as an "absurd and erroneous teaching or rather madness." Pope Leo XIII in the 19th century condemned "the modern liberties" and opposed the equality and participation of citizens in civic and political life. The people, he wrote, are "the untutored multitude" that must "be controlled by the authority of law."

It is difficult to know where to begin, though it's important to note that social teachings are in play here, and he's doing a crapload of paraphrasing. "Freedom of conscience" as practiced in revolutionary France was something rightly to be feared, and the excesses associated with the condemned propositions were what disturbed the 19th Century Popes. Say what you will about Bl. Pius IX, seeing your friend murdered right in front of you by revolutionaries claiming to be the vanguard of progress and liberty might justifiably cause you to be jaundiced about the concepts.

And, at the risk of sounding like an elitist, Leo XIII had something of a point. Those Jay Leno bits asking college students who the Vice President is (and getting a correct answer rate of 10% on a good night) bother the hell out of me.

Vatican II, however, accepted religious liberty for all human beings. In dealing with civic, political and economic life, contemporary papal social teachings gives great importance to history and to the notion that social ideas can change with the times.

Social teachings. Again, watch the phraseology carefully. The phrase "three card Monte" applies here.

In these areas, church teachings now emphasize the freedom, equality and participation of the person, as well as a "relationality" model that sees people in multiple relationships with God, neighbors near and far, the Earth, and self. But in papal sexual ethics, an older methodology still prevails. Unchanging human nature and the eternal law of God, not historical development or the person understood in light of relationships, constitute the primary considerations.

The distinction is obvious, and I suspect Fr. Curran knows it: human organizations can and do change. Fallen human nature has not, and cannot. Hence Jesus Christ.

If the "historical developments" (read: corpse count and wholesale devaluation of human life at all levels) of the 20th Century did not and cannot convince you of this, nothing will.

The many people both inside and outside the Catholic Church who experience some dissonance between papal sexual and social teachings are right.

"People who think like me are the smartest people I know."

There is a different methodology at work in these two areas.

That's because different considerations and data (namely the written Word) are involved. This is not as difficult as the tenured exile would like it to be.

Some changes would logically occur in sexual teachings if these teachings employed the same methodology as used in papal social teachings. Likewise, papal sexual teachings, like social teachings, would not be able to claim absolute certitude on complex and specific issues.

I don't claim to be a Bible scholar, though I have studied much and am a voracious reader on things Biblical. Still, I don't claim to have encyclopedic knowledge. But even in my admittedly limited reading, I have yet to stumble across a theory that ascribes the writing of Leviticus to Gregory XIV, or Romans to John Paul II. Then again, I give the Mueslix sampler over at the Jesus Seminar a wide berth, so who knows what those guys are saying?

In other words, the teachings aren't subject to the whims of the current holder of the Chair of Peter. They aren't, to be blunt, his teachings to change. No Pope, deo gratias, has the power to overturn revelation. For a Catholic to argue otherwise is reasoning worthy of a Chick tract.

There are two possibilities here:

(1) He knows this, but he has a pulpit and is going to press an old grievance, bamboozling a laity that, on any given day, would see many of its members get creamed by a toaster in a religious knowledge contest.

(2) He actually believes the Pope can issue an edict reversing course on fundamental morality.

"Attention, laity. Now hear this: those Jews were way too repressed and primitive. Ditto Paul, who was probably a self-hating closet case. Anyhoo, go ahead and boff a sibling, or whatever, if that feels right to you. Use the Pill or something. That's what it's for. Or surf one-handed online in those special chatrooms. Be safe. That is all. Deus lo volt, and all that. This is Rocket Pope, signing off."

As amazing as it seems, it's (2). Fr. Curran, enlightened modern progressive that he is, has a concept of papal supremacy that would have turned the most eloquent ultramontanist into Keanu Reeves. "Whoa."

History reminds us that change in Catholic moral teachings always comes from the grass roots.

I don't know about that. If anything, it demonstrates that the changes so demanded involve an end to moral laxity, especially among clerics. History certainly demonstrates that grass roots action is the swiftest way to change the clerics themselves. Think "orthodox laity, Arian bishop."

Interviews with ordinary Catholics mourning the death of Pope John Paul II indicated that even those who admired and loved him strongly disagreed with some of his specific moral teachings. Even the staunch defenders of the papal condemnation of artificial contraception for spouses recognize that the vast majority of Catholics do not follow the pope.

Educated by the likes of Fr. Curran, we shouldn't be surprised.

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