The Rev. Charles Curran's fight to avoid censure by the Vatican drew support from fellow Catholic University faculty members and graduate students at a teach-in yesterday, but Curran's position was attacked by other students and the president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Curran, a moral theologian who has been told by the Vatican to retract his differences with traditional church teaching on certain items of sexual ethics or lose his standing as a Catholic theologian, did not attend the rally at CU.
Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, dean of Catholic historians, and the Rev. Alexander A. Di Lella, professor of biblical studies, each recalled similar incidents in which dissenting priest-scholars were disciplined by the church of their day, only to be vindicated by history.
The Rev. John Ford, who serves with Curran on the school's theological faculty, spoke of Catholic scholars' obligation to follow conscience, even when it leads to a questioning of authority.
"Dissent will always be with us as long as there are those who take the church seriously," he said. "The history of Christian theology might well be written as a history of doctrinal controversy."
The nearly 300 people present gave their most enthusiastic applause to a defense of Curran from his ecclesiastical superior, Bishop Matthew Clark of Rochester.
Clark's long statement, read by one of the theology graduate students who helped organize yesterday's teach-in, praised Curran as "a priest whose personal life could well be called exemplary . . . a man deeply committed to the spiritual life" as well as "a moral theologian of notable competence."
Late yesterday afternoon, Bishop James Malone of Youngstown, Ohio, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a statement defending the Vatican's move against Curran.
Malone said that one who does not accept the teaching authority of the church "on crucial points cannot reasonably expect to occupy a position which requires that he teach what the church teaches."
While Curran enjoys strong support from some quarters of the university today, the turnout was a far cry from the mood of 1967, when the entire student body staged a five-day strike to protest a move by the trustees to fire Curran.
The lead editorial in yesterday's student newspaper, The Tower, strongly supported the Vatican's demand that Curran recant.
". . . The right of the church to protect faithfully her teachings and guide those who would teach as Catholic theologians is paramount," the editorial said.
In addition to his supporters, Curran has his detractors among conservative Catholics who see him and his teachings at the root of what they perceive wrong with the church today.
At yesterday's teach-in, two older off-campus visitors sitting in the second row demonstrated their dislike for Curran by grumbling and booing vociferously through the tributes to him.
"These people are giving scandal to the church" by supporting Curran, exclaimed Edward Leonard angrily.
Leonard, who was accompanied by his sister-in-law, Jacqueline Gleason, said he had attended the teach-in because "I do have a student here" and because "somebody's got to speak out for the church."