Banned by the Pope

Article excerpt

Byline: Charles E. Curran

I knew that the letter--approved by Pope John Paul II and issued by then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger--was unlikely to be good news. It was 1986, and for the previous seven years, Ratzinger's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith--the office charged with safeguarding official theology--had been investigating my work. As a professor at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., I lectured and wrote about traditional church teachings. But I also pointed out areas where I believed Catholicism and modern life were misaligned, including Rome's opposition to birth control for married couples; its stance on homosexuality, divorce, and remarriage; and the status of women in the church. The Vatican had finally had enough. "One who dissents from the Magisterium as you do," the letter said, "is not suitable nor eligible to teach Catholic theology."

Despite that rebuke, I remain a committed Catholic, a priest in good standing, and a professor of Catholic theology (albeit at a Methodist institution). I also continue to care deeply about the church, which I believe is facing a crisis that predates the sex-abuse scandal of recent years. Today, about a third of people who were raised Catholic have left the church; no other major religion in the United States has experienced a larger net loss in followers in the last 30 years.

Many of the issues that troubled me decades ago have contributed to this decline. Some, like those related to contraception, homosexuality, and family life, are considered matters of divine or natural law--the will of God--and, therefore, are immutable. I disagree, and I'm not alone, but we have been unable to persuade the church to make changes. Other matters are considered a product of human law, which is alterable if the church thinks that doing so is in its best interest. The vow of priestly celibacy is one such statute: none, I believe, would be easier to change or, quite possibly, is more important to the short-term health of the church. …