More than 600 Roman Catholic theologians in the United States and Canada have lined up in support of Catholic University theologian Charles E. Curran in his dispute with the Vatican over dissent from traditional church teachings on sexual ethics, Curran supporters said yesterday.
Curran, 51, an internationally known moral theologian, said yesterday he would respond next week to the Vatican's request for a "final written reply" to a Vatican directive to "retract" his views or lose his credentials to teach as a theologian.
"On the basis of my own personal and academic integrity, I see no reason to change my position at the present time," he said at a campus news conference.
When the threat of Curran's censure was disclosed two weeks ago, members of the Catholic Theological Society of America and the College Theology Society were invited to sign a two-page statement of support. Of the more than 600 responses, "about 12" were negative, said Mary Hellwig, one of the coordinators of the effort.
Notre Dame University theologian Richard McBrien, a past president of the theological society who helped draft the support statement, called the response "extraordinary . . . . It will put some beef behind" the case by demonstrating "the broadly based concern . . . not just Charlie's friends."
The statement raised four issues:
* The right of theologians to dissent from non-infallible teachings.
* The fairness of singling out Curran, generally considered in the mainstream of Catholic theology, when, as the statment said, "There are very many Catholic theologians who do dissent from non-infallible teachings."
* Problems of credibility of Catholic scholarship raised by the disciplining of a teacher for reasons other than academic competence.
* The wide respect accorded Curran by fellow theologians. For that reason alone, said McBrien in a telephone interview, the move to censure Curran is "the biggest blunder the Vatican has committed in the last couple of decades . . . . They hit the American Catholic theological community in its strongest point" in going after Curran.
Curran said he would once again offer the Vatican a compromise of refraining from teaching courses in sexual ethics in return for his continued recognition as a Catholic theologian. The powerful Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago has urged Vatican acceptance of this offer.
Fellow CU theologian Francis Fiorenza, president of the theological society, noted yesterday that "more than 85 percent of the Catholic population" in this country disagrees, as does Curran, with the church's teaching on birth control. "If you say that Charles Curran is not a Catholic theologian, then you'd have to say that the majority of Roman Catholics are not Catholic," Fiorenza said.