WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? Theologian Fr. Charles Curran Calls for Change in Church Teaching

Fr. Charles Curran

“WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?” is  Bondings 2.0′s series on how Catholics–the hierarchy and laity–can prepare for the Synod on Marriage and Family that will take place at the Vatican in October 2015. If you would like to consider contributing a post to this series, please click here

In a new interview with the National Catholic Reporter, Fr. Charles Curran openly calls for the Catholic church to rethink and, ultimately, change some of its moral teachings on sexuality, including gay and lesbian relationships.

Most reflections during and after last October’s synod were concerned with pastoral practices and a slow doctrinal developments, if any, but Curran’s proposal is more straightforward.

Acknowledging what he calls “creeping infallibility” by the hierarchy in recent decades, Curran highlights the possibility of change in church teaching:

“In my judgment, there never has been an infallible church teaching on a specific moral issue. The reason is that these issues are removed from the core of faith and deal with many different specificities and complexities…if there is any doubt about it, it cannot be infallible teaching…

“The fact that the church has changed its moral teaching in a number of very significant specific issues is proof that such teaching is not unchangeable and what is taught today as noninfallible teaching can also be changed in the future. Perhaps the best explanation of why such teaching can be changed is simply looking at the language. Noninfallible really means that something is fallible!”

Among those teachings which have changed, Curran notes, are understandings of sexuality and marriage. He proposes a rethinking of sexual ethics that incorporates the good of the dignity of the human person and their relationships. Rejecting the current papal teaching which demands that “Every single act, therefore, must be open to procreation and expressive of the love union of husband and wife,” Curran continues:

“The problem with the Catholic approach is using the nature of the faculty [of sex as procreative and unitive] as the criterion for discovering whether an act is right or wrong. One can never see the power or faculty of sexuality apart from the human person and the human person apart from one’s relationship to other persons. Thus, for example, for the good of the person or the good of the marriage, one could and should at times interfere with the procreative purpose of the sexual faculty. In the same manner then, one could justify homosexual relations and unions on the basis of what is good for the human person and the human person’s relationships.”

On the theological concept of gradualism, raised anew at the synod and Pope Francis’ new pastoral approach, Curran comments:

“The primary role of any minister in the church, including the bishop of Rome, is to be a pastor. The pastor has to be close to the people and to know and experience their joys and their sorrows, their laughter and their tears…

“The pastoral approach in a very true sense should embrace all that the various ministers of the Gospel do, but it certainly also has relevance to very practical moral problems that people are experiencing. I have already mentioned that with regard to gradualness. This brings to mind one of the statements that was found in the first summary of what went on in the synod: ‘The truth is incarnate in human fragility not to condemn it, but to cure it.’ “

Commenting on the synod itself, Curran praised open discussions between members of the hierarchy but expressed disappointment that no teachings were changed, a position defended by “even those who were in favor of pastoral change.” Looking ahead,  Curran concludes with more practical considerations on how the church should proceed:

“I think it is necessary for the papacy to admit that some of its present teachings on sexuality are wrong. But that is going to be a very difficult task to do…Without doubt, it will be very difficult for papal teaching to admit that its teaching in the past has been wrong…On the other hand, history has shown that such teachings have been wrong. Perhaps the problem has been that the papacy has claimed too much certitude for its own teaching…

“I recognize all the problems and difficulties in the way of recognizing that past and present papal teaching has been wrong, but this is the real problem that we have to face. However, in facing it, in light of what we talked about earlier, I am certainly willing to accept some kind of gradualism …

“But with this acceptance of gradualism, there comes a warning. In the past, the Catholic church had a long time to deal with the possibility of change, or what it preferred to call development in its teachings. But because of instant communication today, the church no longer has the luxury to take that long. There is an urgency to change the present teaching for the good of the church.”

Fr. Curran was the first recipient of New Ways Ministry’s Bridge Building Award, which recognizes individuals who, through scholarship or pastoral actions, help to promote justice and equality for LGBT people.  He also wrote the introduction to the book Building Bridges:  Gay and Lesbian Reality and the Catholic Church, by Father Robert Nugent and Sister Jeannine Gramick, New Ways Ministry’s co-founders. He has also spoken at New Ways Ministry’s national symposiums.

To read the full interview, which delves far more deeply into the theological underpinnings of Curran’s desire to change church teachings, click here.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

4 replies
  1. David Kiester
    David Kiester says:

    First I want to express my disappointment and collegiality with DiBernardo’s recent exclusion in Michigan. I cheer your work from “inside the organization.” Myself, I could no longer countenance the attacks from the hierarchy on me because of my inherent personhood (same sex attraction), a gift I received from my Creator. I had to move on to a Christian worship community that does not devalue me.

    Regarding Father Curran’s thoughts. As a policy advocate, I believe it might be more productive to frame the explanation of a Vatican change of position on its understanding of sexuality and human beings. Instead of asking it to admit it was “wrong,” let them say “in light of new information and understanding.”

  2. Most Rev. George R. Lucey, FCM
    Most Rev. George R. Lucey, FCM says:

    Perhaps we are here already! St Francis Parish commented on an article.
    I was reflecting on some of the tag lines I see in the press about the “Francis” effect in the Catholic Church, and remembered some of the excitement I and my fellow minor seminarians felt during the reforms following Vatican Council-II. The Church, then and now, seemed to awaken from a lethargy. The promptings of the Holy Spirit seemed to energize every facet of our lives. Our hearts, as the Apostles at Pentecost, were on fire.The reforms of Vatican Council-ii spread to other non-Catholic liturgical Traditions, making all of us feel that the prayer for unity of Christ, that we all might be one, might soon be a reality.

    So now, with Pope Francis leading the Church some 50 years after Vatican Council-II is reminiscent of the jubilee year proclaimed in Leviticus 25:8-13. A year of favor for the People of God.

    My own journey of faith has led me from the embrace of Roman Catholicism to the celebrating my Catholic Traditions in the National Catholic Church, as represented in the United States by the American National Catholic Church (www.TheANCC.org). This expression of Catholicism, while not in union with Rome, feels as if we as American National Catholic’s were guided by the same Spirit present at the creation of the world, at Pentecost, and at Vatican Council-II to continue to live the reforms instituted at the Council.

    We, as National Catholics have been criticized by or Roman brothers and sisters for leaving the embrace of Rome. Perhaps we have set ourselves up as targets for such criticism. Yet, I can’t help but to believe that Pope Francis has, like many of us, accepted the gift of courage offered by the Holy Spirit to live out the universal message of God’s all inclusive love, proclaimed by Christ who ate with tax collectors and prostitutes, and challenged the leaders of his time to reach beyond the letter of the Law.

    Pope Francis echoes Christ when he reminds us that God is not afraid of new things. We in the ANCC have found the truth of that statement , and we in the American National Catholic Church have accepted the invitation to express our ancient faith, ever renewed by the grace of the Holy Spirit.

    Some of the dimensions of the discussion begun by Pope Francis for the Roman Catholic Church at the recent synod on the family, such as same sex marriage, reception of the Eucharist by divorced Catholics, and a greater role of women in the Church, and which are now being labeled as “hot button issues” are exactly where the ANCC finds the grace of God in living out the reality of a Catholic jurisdiction,which does not find these human conditions as barriers to full participation in the life of the Church. Rather we believe these elements of our lives are the places in the human condition where the Catholic Church should lead the way with courage and faith.


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  1. […] Gramick, Fr. Roy Bourgeois, a U.S. activist for peace and women’s rights in the Church, Rev. Charles Curran, a U.S. moral theologian, Rev. Tony Flannery, CSsR., a co-founder of the Association of Catholic […]

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