The Rev. Charles E. Curran, professor of moral theology at Catholic University, has been told by the Vatican that he will be stripped of his right to teach as a Catholic theologian if he does not "reconsider and retract" views that differ from official church teaching on questions of sexual morality.
Curran, the first American theologian in recent years to face disciplining by the Vatican, disclosed at a press conference that he had received the warning last October.
He said yesterday, "I cannot and do not retract" the view that "dissent from authoritative, noninfallible church teaching is possible and in certain cases is justified."
The Vatican's Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has charged Curran with straying from traditional church teaching on contraception, sterilization, abortion, euthanasia, masturbation, premarital intercourse, homosexual acts and divorce.
He has taught, for example, that contraception and sterilization are not "intrinsically evil" but must be considered in the context of a specific situation.
Washington Archbishop James A. Hickey said yesterday that as chancellor of Catholic University and thus a party to the conflict, it would be "inappropriate" for him to comment. But as archbishop of Washington, he said, "I want to stress that it is the right and the duty of the Holy Father" and the church hierarchy "to hand on the full and authentic teaching of the church and to ensure it is presented with fidelity."
Beyond the personal consequences for Curran, the conflict raises serious questions for Catholic University. The academic community regards the dismissal of a teacher because of off-campus pressures and for reasons other than academic competence as a grave breach of accepted principles of academic freedom.
In a last-ditch effort to resolve the conflict, Curran flew to Rome last weekend for an "informal" session with leaders of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The meeting produced "no change," Curran said, but he added that "the Christian must always be hopeful."
In his news conference on the CU campus yesterday, Curran said he first learned of the Vatican's displeasure in July 1979, when he received a 16-page manuscript "detailing the principal errors and ambiguities" the Vatican office had found in his writings.
Until last Saturday's meeting in Rome, which was scheduled at Curran's request, the entire affair had been conducted through correspondence, he said.
"I have never been told who my accusers are," Curran said. "I have been given no opportunity of counsel. The congregation itself has performed the roles of both accuser and judge."
He said that in April 1984 "I was informed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger that I had until Sept. 1, 1984, to make by final comments." Curran responded to Ratzinger, who heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with a 23-page rebuttal.
On Oct. 10, 1985, Hickey, as CU chancellor, and Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago, chairman of the school's board of trustees, handed Curran a letter from Ratzinger that the theologian characterized as "a final judgment."
In his letter to Curran, Ratzinger wrote that the Vatican Congregation, supported by Pope John Paul II, "now invites you to reconsider and retract these positions which violate the conditions necessary for a professor to be called a Catholic theologian." Ratzinger gave him two months to "come to that due adherence to the church's doctrine which should characterize all the faithful."
After several consultations with Hickey, Bernardin and Catholic University's president, the Rev. William Byron, Curran said he proposed a compromise to the Vatican: "[My] willingness not to teach sexual ethics here at Catholic University in the future" and "to have the Congregation issue a document pointing out what they judge to be the errors and ambiguities in my theological teaching while still recognizing that I am a Catholic theologian in good standing."
Rome, he said, "was unwilling to accept this compromise."
Catholic University stands in special relationship to the Vatican, because it originally was chartered by the pope as a pontifical university. Theological and canon law faculty require special license to teach.
But the case also is of special interest to other Catholic schools, since Pope John Paul II has proposed closer Vatican scrutiny of other Catholic learning institutions.
Francis Fiorenza, president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and a member of the CU theology faculty, said Curran "would be considered America's leading moral theologian without a doubt." Fiorenza said the action against him -- "He was tried and judged without even being permitted the oral defense of his position" -- is a threat to all Catholic theologians, particularly in light of the proposal to extend Vatican oversight of theological faculties.
Asked yesterday why, in light of his disagreement with the church, he did not leave the priesthood, Curran responded, "I don't operate as a lone ranger.
"I understand my identity not as a rugged individualist but as a member of the community of faith" that believes "God is a gracious mother and father of us all," he said.