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Saturday, January 18, 2014

Curran Vs. Catholic University: A Study of Authority and Freedom in Conflict by Larry Witham | LibraryThing

Curran Vs. Catholic University: A Study of Authority and Freedom in Conflict by Larry Witham | LibraryThing:

This is a fascinating study in the conflict between academic freedom and the authority of the church to determine what is to be orthodox and how to maintain that orthodoxy. I find it particularly relevant as we now see individual Catholic bishops trying to deny communion to Catholic candidates who are pro-choice. 

The author takes the reader through a fascinating tour of trends in moral theology. including consequentialism *the consequences of an action form the basis for judgment as to its morality,) proportionalism (moral principles should never be violated unless the good resulting outweighs the bad of breaking the rule,) the relative merit of a principle may be determined by the number of adherents, i.e. the probability that a moral position is "safe",) among others, leading to a discussion of relativism. (Geez, I hope I got that right.)

During the 1960's, casuistry, the case-by-case examination of an ethical issue, was making a comeback and Curran was an adherent of this method. Even though casuistry had been adopted by 17th century Jesuits, it had fallen out of favor in the church which had moved toward the development of absolutes (see Humanae Vitae). It was a "concrete methods for concrete problems." Curran's contribution to moral theology was a "theology of compromise, i.e. choosing the lesser of evils. *

Curran's philosophy leaned to Protestant moral theology, so much so, that he became the first Catholic president of the predominantly protestant Society of Christian Ethics. I doubt if that endeared him to his masters at Catholic University.

The Vatican, especially under Ratzinger's reign at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was interested in making sure that ecclesiastical courses were taught by ecclesiastically approved teachers. It's ironic that universities, a product of Christian humanism and its attempt to reconcile Greek and Roman philosophy with the teachings of the Church, have much to thank the church for with regard to academic freedom. In the 12th century, teachers would look to the Church for protection against the interference from merchants and bankers and the rest of the rising capitalist class who wanted to interfere with the academic program. On the other hand, the 12th century provided the roots for subjectivism and personalism in morality thanks to Peter Abelard (whether his little dalliance with Heloise influenced his thinking or not remains speculative.) In any case moral absolutes developed by the Church (which themselves had their roots in Cicero and Greek thought) came under pressure. Abelard insisted that intention was the key to determining the sinfulness of an action, not the action alone. (Of course, this guy gave us the idiotic concept of Limbo, too.) In any case, Ratzinger, later to be known as Benedict XVI, was a firm believer in moral absolutes and the antithesis of the new moral theology and personalism represented by Curran. Raztinger believed that moral decline stemmed from economic liberalism and could only be countered by a return to authority. This appealed to Catholics outside the West who still conflated authority with the supernatural. 

Admittedly, this might seem like a strange reading selection. Given the recent flap at Notre-Dame over whether they should give Obama an honorary degree, or even invite him to speak, I think the relevancy of the desire for authoritarian control and orthodoxy, particularly with a pope who some might consider an extension of Pius's anti-modernist philosophy, I think it's more than relevant. One could argue that the authority would extend only to the ecclesiastical, perhaps, but in the case of Curran, the Vatican, which had to approve all tenure applications, also wanted to prohibit Curran from teaching Catholic theology in non-ecclesiastical classes. 

I find the demand for orthodoxy and authoritarian control inimical to a healthy democratic society. This book provides appropriate historical background and context for those discussions.

*As an aside, I once heard Rushworth Kidder discuss his book [b:How Good People Make Tough Choices Resolving the Dilemmas of Ethical Living|46683|How Good People Make Tough Choices Resolving the Dilemmas of Ethical Living|Rushworth M. Kidder||45789] in which he suggests that the tough choices are never between good and evil, but rather between two shades of good.

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