SMU became refuge for Charles Curran, professor-priest
Robert Frost famously wrote: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
Southern Methodist University didn’t have to take in the Rev. Charles Curran, and he could have found somewhere else to go.
But, in 1991, after years of headline-making controversy and academic wandering as a Catholic priest and Christian ethics professor willing to challenge the Vatican on contraception and other social issues, Curran accepted SMU’s offer of a tenured faculty position.
He’s been there ever since, teaching classes, supervising dissertations and writing books, including a memoir, Loyal Dissent.
At 80, Curran — still a priest, though he doesn’t wear a collar — will retire from full-time teaching after SMU’s May 16-17 graduation, but he’s not going anywhere.
Over time, a United Methodist school in Dallas did become his happy, if unlikely, home.
“It’s just turned out very well,” he said. “I’ve made a lot of friends here. Everybody has been so hospitable, from the very beginning.”
The making of a dissenter
Curran remains a hale, hearty-looking man, given to big laughs and capping off otherwise precise sentences with the phrase “that kind of thing.” For a recent lecture at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology, he arrived in a sleeveless sweater, carrying a well-used briefcase. He needed help getting his microphone attached, and stuck with a white board and markers, not being the PowerPoint kind.
“He’s taught his graduates students a great deal, and they’ve taught him how to use computers and a cell phone,” said the Rev. Robin Lovin, a friend, fellow Christian ethicist and former SMU colleague.
Certainly, nothing in Curran’s demeanor or background would suggest a church rebel.
He grew up in a faithful Catholic family in Rochester, N.Y., and felt a call to the priesthood at age 13. He attended St. Andrew’s Seminary and St. Bernard’s Seminary for high school and college, then was chosen by the Diocese of Rochester to attend the North American College in Rome. He would earn a doctorate in moral theology, the Catholic term for what Protestants tend to call Christian ethics.
It’s no small irony that he was ordered to studied moral theology. He’d meant to be a parish priest, but accepted his superiors’ decision that he, a top student, should teach future priests.
In Rome, Curran came under the influence of the Rev. Bernard Häring, a Catholic moral theologian who criticized the church hierarchy for legalism and called for a more holistic approach to ethical issues.
“By the time I finally left Rome, in 1961, I was conscious that the church was not only human but sinful,” Curran writes in Loyal Dissent. “I was still a very committed Catholic, but I recognized the pilgrim nature of the church — that it is always in need of reform.”
Back in New York, Curran was appointed to the faculty at St. Bernard’s Seminary and tentatively began to write as a moral theologian. By 1964, he had publicly opposed the church’s teaching against artificial contraception.
He lost his teaching position at St. Bernard’s the next year, but got hired by the Catholic University of America in Washington.
There, he became a popular faculty member, and continued to challenge church teachings, including on masturbation. In 1967, the school’s trustees voted not to renew his contract.
Curran’s firing prompted a faculty strike and student rallies. “Even my mother supports Father Curran” was a popular protest sign. Within a week, amid intense media coverage, the trustees reversed their decision.
A question of fitness
The next year brought Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical affirming the church’s teaching against artificial contraception and abortion. Curran led dozens of Catholic scholars, including Häring, in issuing a statement of dissent.
In the 1970s, Curran became the first Catholic theologian in the United States to argue for the moral legitimacy of same-sex unions. He challenged the church to allow for the legitimacy of divorce and remarriage in some cases. While supporting the church’s opposition to abortion, he would write that faithful Catholics could, taking all things into consideration, oppose a constitutional amendment repealing Roe vs. Wade.
“To more liberal Catholics, I was a saint, to more conservative Catholics, the devil,” Curran says in Loyal Dissent. “The reality seems to me to fall somewhere between the two extremes, but my symbolic role created quite a bit of controversy in those days.”
By 1979, Curran was under investigation by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The process climaxed in 1986 when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — Prefect of the CDF and the future Pope Benedict — informed him that he was unfit to teach Catholic theology.
Though strongly supported by the Catholic Theological Society of America, Curran would soon lose his job teaching theology at Catholic University, a pontifically chartered school. His suit to recover his position failed in the Washington courts.
Curran had one-year teaching stints at Cornell University and the University of Southern California before accepting what promised to be a long-term position at Auburn University. But according to newspaper accounts at the time, Auburn’s president, James Martin, came under considerable pressure from Catholic and non-Catholic sources, and denied Curran tenure.
The faculty senate voted to censure Martin, but Curran was out of work again after just one year.
Enter SMU. William May, a professor at the school and an admiring scholarly acquaintance of Curran’s, contacted Curran about applying to teach there.
“It was enormous good fortune for SMU that he was available and willing to come to Dallas for an interview,” said May.
Curran, laughing, offered a slightly different perspective: “Frankly, I needed a job.” He didn’t know Dallas but had friends at Perkins, and he had heard its Bridwell Library was strong.
In his interview, Curran made clear his need for job security. He said he would be happy to teach Christian ethics in a comprehensive way, addressing Protestant and Catholic thinkers, but wanted to research and write within the Catholic tradition.
SMU officials agreed to that request and not only offered him a job but also asked him to be the Elizabeth Scurlock University Professor of Human Values — a prestigious, and tenured, position.
During the hiring process, “one small cloud” emerged, Curran notes in his memoir.
Bishop Charles Grahmann of the Catholic Diocese of Dallas contacted Bishop Bruce Blake, United Methodist North Texas Annual (regional) Conference, expressing concern about SMU’s plans.
Curran credits Ruth Morgan, then provost at SMU, with squashing the effort to interfere. Blake, now retired, remembers that he relayed Grahmann’s protest to SMU’s president at the time, Ken Pye, a Catholic. Blake said he himself supported SMU’s hiring Curran, and told Grahmman, while also sharing that the hiring would go through.
“This was one of many key personnel decisions made by Ken Pye which made it clear that SMU was committed to be a bastion for academic freedom,” Blake said.
Teaching, writing, advising
Curran bought a townhouse near campus, settled into a regular golf foursome with other faculty members, and became active in Town and Gown, which brings SMU community members and Dallas residents together for intellectual discussions.
Mostly at SMU, Curran worked.
Since coming there, he has written or edited 14 books under such titles as Catholic Social Teaching: 1891-Present, The Social Mission of the U.S. Catholic Church and The Catholic Moral Tradition Today.
He quickly became a fan of Bridwell Library. Its staff could turn up just about anything he wanted, including, once, a French journal published by the Benedictines.
“Bridwell is gold,” Curran said. “Its Catholic holdings are amazing.”
Curran’s continuing scholarship has, in the view of SMU admirers, furthered his reputation as an important moral theologian who paid a price for taking on his own church.
“Charlie Curran is not a footnote in the history of American religion; he’s in the body of the main text of any writing anybody might do on important figures in American religious life,” said the Rev. William Lawrence, dean of Perkins and a historian of American religion.
Along with his writing, Curran has taught a full load of graduate and undergraduate courses, mainly in religious studies and at Perkins.
A recent moral theology class at Perkins found him lecturing on Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century Catholic theologian. But he also teaches contemporary Protestant ethicists such as Stanley Hauerwas and James Gustafson.
“If those thinkers have been active from the latter half of the 20th century until the present, Charlie usually knows them,” said the Rev. Andy Dunning, a United Methodist minister who is finishing a Ph.D. in ethics at SMU.
Indeed, a major part of Curran’s life has been in professional associations. He was the first Catholic president of the Society of Christian Ethics, and he’s been president of the American Theological Society and Catholic Theological Society of America.
“For every young scholar, one of the rites of passage into the Society of Christian Ethics is coming to the party that Charlie always has in his hotel room,” said Lovin. “It says something about him that that has never been a closed meeting of his friends. It was always where you brought graduate students when you wanted them to meet other people in the field.”
One thing Curran has not done at SMU is trumpet his status as a priest. He said he has remained one because he still feels called to his vocation, and because he has enjoyed support from many Catholics, including Bishop Matthew Clark, recently retired as leader of Curran’s home Diocese of Rochester.
But at SMU — while quietly contributing financially to the Catholic campus ministry and attending Mass there — he’s a professor.
“I don’t want to be identified as the Catholic priest on campus, and I’m not,” he said. “I thought that was important for what I was trying to do in the university.”
Curran does continue to write and speak challengingly about the church, focusing on women’s rights and distributive justice in recent years. He’s encouraged by Pope Francis’ early tenure.
“He has changed the style 100 percent, and I think that’s very important,” he said. “The final answers are out as to what more he will do.”
A meaningful relationship
Curran’s weekly golf foursome has dwindled to two. He and Leroy Howe, professor emeritus at Perkins, get the first tee time at a public course.
“We might not be good, but we’re fast,” Curran said. “We’re out of there in two hours and 45 minutes — 18 holes.”
Curran reports no health problems, but acknowledges having less energy and concentration. That led to his decision to pull back from fulltime faculty work.
He plans to keep teaching at SMU every other semester. And he’s still writing.
Curran agreed to do a “digital short,” a scholarly, online work of about 20,000 words, for Georgetown University Press.
“I made them promise to buy me a Kindle so I can read what I wrote,” he said, again laughing big.
As for grand summations of his relationship with SMU, Curran doesn’t offer any. He just repeats that he’s been happy there, and grateful for how things worked out.
For Lovin, though, the Curran-SMU story carries an encouraging theme.
“SMU turned out to be a place where a scholar in another tradition, who’s an independent thinker, could find a home and a place that would support him in his work.”
*Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org