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Chapter 36: A Critical Examination of Radical Theological Dissent


Catholics who wish to be faithful and consistent will attempt to conform their consciences exactly to the Church’s moral teaching (23‑G). There is a substantial body of received moral teaching which deserves recognition as infallibly accepted and handed on by the Church (35‑E). Moreover, even teachings which are not proposed infallibly must be accepted with religious assent; this obligation admits of exception only if there is some superior theological source for a contrary judgment.

There were of course theologians who disagreed with these views. (There might still be such theologians when this book is read. Throughout this chapter, however, the statements and acts of dissenting theologians will be referred to as absolutely past. Unlike the truth the Church teaches, which always is current, dissenting opinions are mere historical facts the moment they are uttered.)

In general, such theologians took the position that faithful Catholics need not conform their consciences to the teaching of the Church if they have reasons for not doing so which are satisfactory to them; that apart from defined doctrines, few if any of which involve moral norms, Catholics need only take the Church’s moral teaching into account as one factor among others; that theologians ought to judge moral issues by their own scholarly standards; and that theologians may, and even should, propose their conclusions as norms to be followed by Catholics even though they contradict the Church’s constant and very firm moral teaching. This theological position is here called “radical theological dissent.”

An example of such dissent was a statement published in 1968 after Humanae vitae by a group of theologians and other persons led by Charles E. Curran: “Spouses may responsibly decide according to their conscience that artificial contraception in some circumstances is permissible and indeed necessary to preserve and foster the values and sacredness of marriage.”1 It should not be supposed, however, that radical theological dissent was confined to the question of contraception or any other single issue or group of issues (for example, those pertaining to sexual morality). Within a dozen years of the publication of Humanae vitae, various theologians had asserted that anyone may responsibly decide according to his or her conscience that acts of any of the kinds the Church has rejected as intrinsically evil are in some circumstances permissible and even obligatory to preserve and foster greater goods or avoid greater evils.2 This general position embodied the adoption of the method of proportionalism, examined in chapter six.

The principal reasons for rejecting radical theological dissent have already been stated in chapters six, twenty-three, and thirty-five. The present chapter examines the dynamics and methodology of radical theological dissent more closely (using for this purpose representative documents and authors), considers some of its varieties, criticizes some of the more important attempts to defend it, and offers further reasons why it cannot be considered a source of moral guidance.

On May 15, l961, Pope John XXIII issued the encyclical, Mater et Magistra, to reaffirm and develop the Church’s moral teaching with respect to social justice. Pope John is aware that it is hard to apply this teaching, for each person has a deep-rooted and immoderate love of his or her own interests; many Catholics are heavily influenced by the current materialistic philosophy of life. He notes also that many people are preoccupied with an inordinate desire for enjoyment, a desire whose satisfaction is altogether incompatible with the ascetical style of life required of Christians.3

With these obstacles in mind, Pope John insists that when the magisterium speaks authoritatively in social matters, its judgment is to be obeyed promptly by Catholics: “The Church has the right and obligation not merely to guard ethical and religious principles, but also to declare its authoritative judgment in the matter of putting these principles into practice.”4

In the fall of 1961, William F. Buckley, a Catholic layman who defended so-called conservative positions on socioeconomic questions, gave a lecture at Georgetown University. Buckley rejected as socialist a number of points taught by John XXIII in his recent encyclical. Moreover, while declaring himself a loyal Catholic, Buckley impugned the right of the magisterium to make judgments which would impinge upon the socioeconomic values sacred to his own class. Reducing his own view of the magisterium to an oversimplified slogan, Buckley drew enthusiastic applause when he declared the Church his mother but not his teacher: “Mater, si! Magistra, no!”

When Curran and his associates published their apologia for dissent after Humanae vitae, they used Buckley’s dissent as one instance to show that even prior to the controversy over contraception there were “developing reinterpretations of the ‘right to dissent’ as proposed in the manuals.”5 Richard A. McCormick, S.J., used two social encyclicals, Rerum novarum and Populorum progressio, to exemplify his claim that the magisterium’s teaching is only pastoral in character—that it is concerned only with prudential determinations which are open to change.6

In carrying out the work of this chapter, I necessarily call into question not only the truth of what many persons have said but also the rightness of their having said it. In doing this, I am not questioning anyone’s ultimate personal sincerity. However, the obligation to presume sincerity on everyone’s part by no means makes it uncharitable to challenge the claim of anyone whose opinions radically dissent from the Church’s moral teaching to be engaged in theological activity which is legitimate according to the canons of both faith and scholarship.

Some theologians dissented from much received Catholic moral teaching, including many norms infallibly proposed by the ordinary magisterium. This dissent was justifiable neither by any principle grounded in faith nor by any rational argument. The claim by some dissenting theologians to a teaching authority superior to that of the pope and other bishops was gratuitous. The attempt by some to represent dissent as mere reformulation of doctrine or as legitimate development of it was specious.

1. Charles E. Curran et al., Dissent In and For the Church: Theologians and “Humanae Vitae” (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1969), 26 (cited hereinafter as “Dissent”).

2. Richard A. McCormick, S.J., summarizes the position, counting himself among those who hold it: Notes on Moral Theology: 1965–1980 (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1981), 709–11 (cited hereinafter as “Notes”). In an article, “The Moral Implications of a Nuclear Deterrent,” Center Journal, 2 (Winter 1982), 20–21, I state: “The theologians Charles E. Curran led in dissent from Humanae Vitae’s reaffirmation of the received teaching on contraception subscribed to a statement saying that ‘spouses may responsibly decide according to their conscience that artificial contraception in some circumstances is permissible and indeed necessary to preserve and foster the values and sacredness of marriage.’ Generalized, the position is: Christians may responsibly decide according to their conscience that any sort of act, although formerly excluded by Christian teaching as intrinsically evil, in some circumstances is permissible and indeed necessary to preserve and foster important human values on which it bears.” Commenting on this, McCormick, “Current Theology: Notes on Moral Theology: 1982,” Theological Studies, 44 (1983), 101–2, said: “During the course of his study Grisez mentions the ‘theologians Charles E. Curran led in dissent from Humanae vitae.’ They held that spouses may sometimes decide in conscience that contraception is morally acceptable. Of this Grisez states: ‘Generalized, the position is: Christains may responsibly decide according to their conscience that any sort of act . . . in some circumstances is permissible.’ Generalized, it means nothing of the kind. They did not say, nor can their statement be forced to say, that ‘any sort of act’ could be permissible in some circumstances. They said that contraception was not always a morally evil act. That leads to no generalization whatsoever about ‘any sort of act.’ It is painful to have to remind others that disputes are not clarified by misrepresentation.” McCormick’s summary of and truncated excerpt from my exposition hides the fact that the statement of dissent from Humanae vitae assumed and applied a general principle, which could be and was subsequently more generally applied. That was all I asserted by my statement beginning “Generalized.” McCormick misrepresented my position by introducing the phrases, “means nothing of the kind,” “be forced to say,” and “leads to no generalization,” for these phrases suggest that I asserted a logical implication which I did not assert. I entirely agree with McCormick that disputes are not clarified by misrepresentation.

3. John XXIII, Mater et Magistra, 53 AAS (1961) 454–56; The Papal Encyclicals, 267.229, 235.

4. Ibid., 457; 239. See Dario Composta, “Il magistero di fronte al diritto naturale,” Apollinaris, 49 (1976), 79–105.

5. Dissent, 117; also 119.

6. McCormick, Notes, 744.