Newsweek's Advocacy Journalism

E. Christian Brugger
© 2010 Culture of Life Foundation.
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation

In an attempt to keep pace with the advocacy journalism of Time magazine, its rival liberal weekly Newsweek recently published an unflattering piece on the Catholic Church entitled "Banned by the Pope." It was written by, of all people, Rev. Charles E. Curran, now 80 years old, the controversial leader of the 1968 dissent against Humanae Vitae.

Curran recounts the story of his removal in the 1980s from Catholic University of America by the Vatican for publically rejecting many authoritative Catholic moral teachings. Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger), then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), was charged with executing the decision. In a letter written to Fr. Curran in 1986, Cardinal Ratzinger concludes: "One who dissents from the Magisterium as you do is not suitable nor eligible to teach Catholic theology." The decision was not made in haste, as Curran's piece implies. The investigation was formally initiated in 1979 and Curran was not removed from CUA until 1989, ample time to correct misunderstandings and remedy unwitting errors. During that period, Ratzinger and his predecessor at the CDF, Cardinal Franjo Šeper, placed before Curran a host of "errors and ambiguities" (as Šeper's original correspondence notes) drawn from Curran's theological writings. The charges were not of minor importance. Not only had he rejected the Church's judgments on the wrongness of abortion, homosexual acts, premarital sex, masturbation, contraceptive acts, and sterilization, he also denied the Church's basic competency to teach definitively on moral issues, the existence of intrinsically evil acts, the indissolubility of marriage, all-male priesthood, and the possibility that any single moral choice can be mortally sinful; he rejected conclusions and foundations of moral reasoning stemming back to apostolic times. From the perspective of Catholic faith and tradition, Curran no longer was teaching in communion with the Church. He was, of course, entitled to hold and publicize any position he desired. But he was not entitled to be retained on a Catholic theology faculty at a pontifical university. To say that he was "not suitable nor eligible to teach Catholic theology" did not mean he was not a skilled theologian; it meant his beliefs and scholarship were inconsistent with Catholic faith and morals.

In the Newsweek piece, Curran describes benignly the actions that got him into trouble: "I … pointed out areas where I believed Catholicism and modern life were misaligned." He did more than point out. He also adopted the conclusions of modern culture against the teachings of the Magisterium. But neither of these got him into trouble. The lynchpin was that he publicized his views; and then, in the face of formal correction, he remained intransigent. He mobilized public opposition against the hierarchy of the Church after the fashion of a political protest in an effort to pressure the Church to change its teaching (he says resignedly in his piece: "We have been unable to persuade the church to make changes"). The fact that he had the support of the liberal media, many members of the Catholic theological community, and even some progressive bishops, made the Vatican's investigation appear like the futile inquisition of a dying monarchy. And his supporters took every opportunity to make it appear as such. But Cardinal Ratzinger (with John Paul II's authority) was doing no more than fulfilling his job description: defending the doctrine of the faith.

Fr. Curran goes on to report that "a third of people who were raised Catholic have left the church," and that "no other major religion in the United States has experienced a larger net loss in followers in the last 30 years." The principal reason for the decline? Because the Church has failed to update its teaching on contraception, homosexuality, divorce and remarriage, and the status of women. But it's not too late. At very least the Church could abolish the requirement of clerical celibacy; no issue "is more important to the short-term health of the church;" it might even "help address the pedophilia crisis," which, he tells us, "was caused in part by the frustrations of celibacy." He warns us, however, not to put too much emphasis on the celibacy issue to bring about salutary change in the Church. It would be merely an "initial edit - a change on the way to redressing the multitude of other needed reforms," the most important of which, he believes, is "to speed women's path to the priesthood."

There are more than 200 Catholic colleges and universities in the United States, the largest network in the world and the greatest concentrated number in human history. These views and the others for which Fr. Curran was removed from CUA are now the common opinions of a solid majority of theologians (as well as administrators) employed at those institutions. Young men and women attend freshman seminars in religion and hear how Catholicism and modern life are misaligned; how Fr. Curran and his generation of likeminded theologians are the heroes of yesteryear; and how the church now eneeds' them to coax it - if necessary, drag it - into line with modern morality.

And yet, despite the loss of ecclesial identity of many mainline institutions, Catholic higher education is not growing more secular. It's moving slowly in the direction of renewal. In the last forty years a dozen or so new Catholic colleges and universities have been founded with an explicitly Catholic academic mission (e.g., Ave Maria University, Christendom College, John Paul the Great Catholic University, Magdalen College, Southern Catholic College, Thomas Aquinas College, Thomas More College [N.H], College of Thomas More [Fort Worth], Wyoming Catholic College); and other older schools have been renewed along Catholic lines (e.g., Belmont Abbey, Benedictine, Franciscan University, Providence College, St. Gregory's [Oklahoma], University of Dallas, University of St. Thomas [Houston]). Even mainline institutions are waking up to the Catholic voice, as illustrated in the outcry against the 2009 Notre Dame commencement scandal.

Ironically, despite deepening secularization in society, Catholic higher ed. is in better shape today than it was 30 or 20 or even 10 years ago. Why is that? Because the Catholic Church, slow as she is to act, has rendered an unfavorable judgment on the academic/moral value system shared by the Fr. Currans of the world. Those interested in genuine renewal of Catholic higher education are following John Paul II's 1990 Apostolic Constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae [1] and Benedict XVI's 2008 Address to Catholic Educators [2]. These have set the direction for the next century. Catholic Church watchers will take note. As usual, Newsweek is behind the curve.