(A greatly edited version of what follows has been submitted to Amazon.com.)
The America of 1968 witnessed deepening involvement in Viet Nam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, campus unrest, and civil rights disturbances. On July 25 of that year, Pope Paul VI promulgated his encyclical on human life, “Humanae Vitae”. Father Charles Curran – then of the Catholic University of America – led a thunderous dissent. After Curran’s “blessing” on contraceptive use, the dire social consequences which Paul VI prophesied were to quickly arrive. The subsequent increased rates of abortion, divorce, single parent households, and sexual “adventurism” were off the scales. A growing loss of respect for the sanctity of human life became apparent. Affluent nations sought to impose contraceptive practices on less affluent nations. It became quite clear that there were many with disregard for the teaching office of the Church.
Like long hair on young men, Fleetwood Mac, Peter Frampton, Rod Stewart, and the actor who played Greg Brady, Father Charles Curran resurfaced in 2005 with “The Moral Theology of Pope John Paul II”. As per Professor William E. May, “The book is a sustained attack on the late pope’s moral theology….I believe that it is now time for Curran and other dissenting theologians to repudiate their acceptance of contraception and the moral reasoning employed to justify it. It has been shown conclusively in my opinion that the denial of moral absolutes that led to John Paul II’s Veritatis splendor has its roots in the reasoning advanced in the middle 1960s to justify contraception. Moreover, competent scholars have shown that Paul VI was truly prophetic in his encyclical. When it appeared its critics, like Curran, excoriated the pope for saying that the practice of contraception would lead to infidelity in marriage, sex outside of marriage etc. But social scientists such as W. Bradford Wilcox, George Akerlof, and Robert Michaels today provide abundant evidence that Paul VI was correct and not his Catholic critics”
Now in his 70s, Father Curran continues to try to justify himself in “Loyal Dissent” (2006). Taking a look back, just what did Veritatis Splendor (1993) have to say in regard to moral theology and Curran’s work?
“My Dreams They Aren't as Empty as My Conscience Seems to Be” (Pete Townshend, 1971)
In his magnificent encyclical on moral theology, “Veritatis Splendor”, Pope John Paul II reminded us that we are “Called to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ…and are made holy by ‘obedience to the truth’ (1 Pet 1:22).” JP II certainly acknowledged that “This obedience is not always easy. As a result of that mysterious original sin,…man is constantly tempted to turn his gaze away from the living and true God in order to direct it towards idols (cf. 1 Thes 1:9)….Man's capacity to know the truth is also darkened, and his will to submit to it is weakened. Thus, giving himself over to relativism and scepticism (cf. Jn 18:38), he goes off in search of an illusory freedom apart from truth itself. But no darkness of error or of sin can totally take away from man the light of God the Creator. In the depths of his heart there always remains a yearning for absolute truth and a thirst to attain full knowledge of it.” However much we may have tried to quench it with the “junk food” of moral relativism, a deep hunger remains in us for truth.
“You Say Goodbye & I Say Hello” (Lennon & McCartney, 1967): “An Overall and Systematic Calling into Question of Traditional Moral Doctrine” (JP II, 1993) or “Loyal Dissent” (Curran, 2006)
Without naming names, Veritatis Splendor reviewed errors put forth by Father Curran and others. As per its Introduction, “It is no longer a matter of limited and occasional dissent, but of an overall and systematic calling into question of traditional moral doctrine….
the traditional doctrine regarding the natural law, and the universality and the permanent validity of its precepts, is rejected;
certain of the Church's moral teachings are found simply unacceptable; &
the Magisterium itself is considered capable of intervening in matters of morality only in order to ‘exhort consciences’ and to ‘propose values’, in the light of which each individual will independently make his or her decisions and life choices….
an opinion is frequently heard which questions the intrinsic and unbreakable bond between faith and morality….
The specific purpose of the present Encyclical is this: to set forth, with regard to the problems being discussed, the principles of a moral teaching based upon Sacred Scripture and the living Apostolic Tradition, and at the same time to shed light on the presuppositions and consequences of the dissent which that teaching has met.” The Holy Father restated the Church’s moral doctrine, while critiquing the errors of his day.
“Old Man Take a Look at My life I'm a Lot Like You” (Neil Young, 1972)
Chapter 1 of Veritatis Splendor reflected on Jesus’ dialogue with the rich young man of Matthew 19. The question about the requirements for eternal life “is not so much about rules to be followed, but about the full meaning of life.” Each of us is called to holiness; “the Second Vatican Council called for a renewal of moral theology, so that its teaching would display the lofty vocation which the faithful have received in Christ.”
“It Don't Come Easy, You Know It Don't Come Easy” (Ringo Starr, 1970)
Rather than do away with the Law, Christ gave us the means to fulfill it. In addition, the teaching office of His Church helps us understand the Law: “To imitate and live out the love of Christ is not possible for man by his own strength alone….the New Law is the grace of the Holy Spirit given through faith in Christ….the New Law is not content to say what must be done, but also gives the power to ‘do what is true’ (cf. Jn 3:21)….The moral prescriptions which God imparted in the Old Covenant, and which attained their perfection in the New and Eternal Covenant in the very person of the Son of God made man, must be faithfully kept and continually put into practice in the various different cultures throughout the course of history. The task of interpreting these prescriptions was entrusted by Jesus to the Apostles and to their successors, with the special assistance of the Spirit of truth….since Apostolic times the Church's Pastors have unambiguously condemned the behaviour of those who fostered division by their teaching or by their actions….Precisely on the questions frequently debated in moral theology today and with regard to which new tendencies and theories have developed, the Magisterium, in fidelity to Jesus Christ and in continuity with the Church's tradition, senses more urgently the duty to offer its own discernment and teaching, in order to help man in his journey towards truth and freedom.”
“Tell me, What is My Life Without Your Love. Tell Me, Who am I Without You, by My Side” (George Harrison, 1970)
Veritatis Splendor applauded those theologians who faithfully responded to Vatican II’s call for a renewal of moral theology, while aware that there had also “developed certain interpretations of Christian morality which are not consistent with ‘sound teaching’ (2 Tim 4:3)”. JP II reasserted the Magisterium’s “duty to state that some trends of theological thinking and certain philosophical affirmations are incompatible with revealed truth….accepting and living out the admonition addressed by the Apostle Paul to Timothy: ‘I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching. For the time will come when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths. As for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil your ministry’ (2 Tim 4:1-5; cf. Tit 1:10, 13-14)”.
“To Say the Things He Truly Feels; & Not the Words of One Who Kneels.
The Record Shows I Took the Blows & Did It My Way!” (Paul Anka, 1969)
In words penned by Paul Anka, I doubt that Frank Sinatra realized that he provided an anthem for theological error! Veritatis Splendor warned that “Certain currents of modern thought have gone so far as to exalt freedom to such an extent that it becomes an absolute, which would then be the source of values”. JP II warned that the Church’s constant teaching on marriage, family, and sexuality was under siege, noting the erroneous, dualistic nature of the attack: “This moral theory does not correspond to the truth about man and his freedom….the body, which has been promised the resurrection, will also share in glory…. A doctrine which dissociates the moral act from the bodily dimensions of its exercise is contrary to the teaching of Scripture and Tradition. Such a doctrine revives, in new forms, certain ancient errors which have always been opposed by the Church, inasmuch as they reduce the human person to a ‘spiritual’ and purely formal freedom…. body and soul are inseparable: in the person, in the willing agent and in the deliberate act, they stand or fall together….The natural moral law expresses and lays down the purposes, rights and duties which are based upon the bodily and spiritual nature of the human person. Therefore this law cannot be thought of as simply a set of norms on the biological level; rather it must be defined as the rational order whereby man is called by the Creator to direct and regulate his life and actions and in particular to make use of his own body". JP II reassured us of “the immutability of the natural law” and “the existence of ‘objective norms of morality’ valid for all people of the present and the future, as for those of the past.”
“Lovin' You's the Right Thing to Do” (Carly Simon, c. 1975)
JP II recalled Vatican II, to clarify the natural law and the role of conscience: "‘In the depths of his conscience man detects a law which he does not impose on himself, but which holds him to obedience….For man has in his heart a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged (cf. Rom 2:14-16)’…. The judgment of conscience is a practical judgment, a judgment which makes known what man must do or not do, or which assesses an act already performed by him. It is a judgment which applies to a concrete situation the rational conviction that one must love and do good and avoid evil. This first principle of practical reason is part of the natural law; indeed it constitutes the very foundation of the natural law, inasmuch as it expresses that primordial insight about good and evil, that reflection of God's creative wisdom which, like an imperishable spark (scintilla animae), shines in the heart of every man”.
Here’s the catch; conscience can be in error: “Conscience is not an infallible judge; it can make mistakes. However, error of conscience can be the result of an invincible ignorance, an ignorance of which the subject is not aware and which he is unable to overcome by himself…. It is possible that the evil done as the result of invincible ignorance or a non-culpable error of judgment may not be imputable to the agent; but even in this case it does not cease to be an evil, a disorder in relation to the truth about the good….There are faults which we fail to see but which nevertheless remain faults, because we have refused to walk towards the light (cf. Jn 9:39-41)”.
Recalling Vatican II, JP II reminded us that we must properly form our conscience: “As the Council affirms: ‘In forming their consciences the Christian faithful must give careful attention to the sacred and certain teaching of the Church. For the Catholic Church is by the will of Christ the teacher of truth. Her charge is to announce and teach authentically that truth which is Christ, and at the same time with her authority to declare and confirm the principles of the moral order which derive from human nature itself’. It follows that the authority of the Church, when she pronounces on moral questions, in no way undermines the freedom of conscience of Christians….The Church puts herself always and only at the service of conscience, helping it to avoid being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine proposed by human deceit (cf. Eph 4:14), and helping it not to swerve from the truth about the good of man, but rather, especially in more difficult questions, to attain the truth with certainty and to abide in it.”
“The Long and Winding Road that Leads to Your Door Will Never Disappear” (John Lennon & Paul McCartney, 1969)
There is not a “fundamental option”, which somehow set us on a course and dismisses the import of subsequent actions. As per JP II, “the morality of human acts is not deduced only from one's intention, orientation or fundamental option, understood as an intention devoid of a clearly determined binding content or as an intention with no corresponding positive effort to fulfil the different obligations of the moral life….According to the [inaccurate] logic…, an individual could, by virtue of a fundamental option, remain faithful to God independently of whether or not certain of his choices and his acts are in conformity with specific moral norms or rules….man does not suffer perdition only by being unfaithful to that fundamental option whereby he has made ‘a free self-commitment to God’. With every freely committed mortal sin, he offends God as the giver of the law and as a result becomes guilty with regard to the entire law (cf. Jas 2:8-11); even if he perseveres in faith, he loses ‘sanctifying grace’, ‘charity’ and ‘eternal happiness’…. The separation of fundamental option from deliberate choices of particular kinds of behaviour, disordered in themselves or in their circumstances, which would not engage that option, thus involves a denial of Catholic doctrine on mortal sin”….The first question in the young man's conversation with Jesus: ‘What good must I do to have eternal life?’ (Mt 19:6) immediately brings out the essential connection between the moral value of an act and man's final end…The rational ordering of the human act to the good in its truth and the voluntary pursuit of that good, known by reason, constitute morality….the moral life has an essential ‘teleological’ character, since it consists in the deliberate ordering of human acts to God, the supreme good and ultimate end (telos) of man….this ordering to one's ultimate end is not something subjective, dependent solely upon one's intention. It presupposes that such acts are in themselves capable of being ordered to this end, insofar as they are in conformity with the authentic moral good of man, safeguarded by the commandments….such an ordering must be rational and free, conscious and deliberate, by virtue of which man is ‘responsible’ for his actions and subject to the judgment of God”.
“The Problem is All Inside Your Head She Said to Me
The Answer is Easy if You Take It Logically
I’d Like to Help You in Your Struggle to Be Free
There Must be Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” (Paul Simon, 1975)
JP II rhetorically asked whether it was our intention, circumstances, or the object of our actions which primarily determined the morality of our actions. “The morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the ‘object’ rationally chosen by the deliberate will….as the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, ‘there are certain specific kinds of behaviour that are always wrong to choose, because choosing them involves a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil’….circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act ‘subjectively’ good or defensible as a choice….Dear Brothers in the Episcopate, we must not be content merely to warn the faithful about the errors and dangers of certain ethical theories. We must first of all show the inviting splendour of that truth which is Jesus Christ himself”. In spite of rationalizations, certain actions are always and everywhere wrong.
“I Die His Majesty's Good Servant, but God's First” (Thomas More, 1535)
It amazes me that the story of Saint Thomas More (i.e., "A Man for All Seasons") won the Academy Award for best picture, so shortly before the 1960s' most tumultuous events. As per JP II, “Christ reveals, first and foremost, that the frank and open acceptance of truth is the condition for authentic freedom….This is truth which sets one free in the face of worldly power and which gives the strength to endure martyrdom….Contemplation of Jesus Crucified is thus the highroad which the Church must tread every day if she wishes to understand the full meaning of freedom: the gift of self in service to God and one's brethren ….The attempt to set freedom in opposition to truth, and indeed to separate them radically, is the consequence, manifestation and consummation of another more serious and destructive dichotomy, that which separates faith from morality….It is urgent then that Christians should rediscover the newness of the faith and its power to judge a prevalent and all-intrusive culture….
“Charity, in conformity with the radical demands of the Gospel, can lead the believer to the supreme witness of martyrdom. Once again this means imitating Jesus who died on the Cross….The unacceptability of ‘teleological’, ‘consequentialist’ and ‘proportionalist’ ethical theories, which deny the existence of negative moral norms regarding specific kinds of behaviour, norms which are valid without exception, is confirmed in a particularly eloquent way by Christian martyrdom, which has always accompanied and continues to accompany the life of the Church even today….By witnessing fully to the good, they [i.e., martyrs] are a living reproof to those who transgress the law (cf. Wis 2:12), and they make the words of the Prophet echo ever afresh: ‘Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!’ (Is 5:20). Although martyrdom represents the high point of the witness to moral truth, and one to which relatively few people are called, there is nonetheless a consistent witness which all Christians must daily be ready to make, even at the cost of suffering and grave sacrifice….
“the Christian is called, with the grace of God invoked in prayer, to a sometimes heroic commitment….genuine understanding and compassion must mean love for the person, for his true good, for his authentic freedom. And this does not result, certainly, from concealing or weakening moral truth, but rather from proposing it in its most profound meaning as an outpouring of God's eternal Wisdom, which we have received in Christ, and as a service to man, to the growth of his freedom and to the attainment of his happiness….in every sphere of personal, family, social and political life, morality — founded upon truth and open in truth to authentic freedom — renders a primordial, indispensable and immensely valuable service not only for the individual person and his growth in the good, but also for society and its genuine development….temptations can be overcome, sins can be avoided, because together with the commandments the Lord gives us the possibility of keeping them….if redeemed man still sins, this is not due to an imperfection of Christ's redemptive act, but to man's will not to avail himself of the grace which flows from that act….“Evangelization — and therefore the ‘new evangelization’ — also involves the proclamation and presentation of morality….the new evangelization will show its authenticity and unleash all its missionary force when it is carried out through the gift not only of the word proclaimed but also of the word lived. In particular, the life of holiness which is resplendent in so many members of the People of God, humble and often unseen, constitutes the simplest and most attractive way to perceive at once the beauty of truth, the liberating force of God's love, and the value of unconditional fidelity to all the demands of the Lord's law, even in the most difficult situations”.
“Loyal Dissent” (Curran, 2006) Must Give Way to “Loyal Assent” (JP II, 1993)
JP II discussed the genuine renewal of moral theology: “By its very nature and procedures, authentic theology can flourish and develop only through a committed and responsible participation in and ‘belonging’ to the Church as a ‘community of faith’….Moral theologians are to set forth the Church's teaching and to give, in the exercise of their ministry, the example of a loyal assent, both internal and external, to the Magisterium's teaching in the areas of both dogma and morality….the fact that some believers act without following the teachings of the Magisterium, or erroneously consider as morally correct a kind of behaviour declared by their Pastors as contrary to the law of God, cannot be a valid argument for rejecting the truth of the moral norms taught by the Church….while the behavioural sciences, like all experimental sciences, develop an empirical and statistical concept of ‘normality’, faith teaches that this normality itself bears the traces of a fall from man's original situation — in other words, it is affected by sin. Only Christian faith points out to man the way to return to ‘the beginning’ (cf. Mt 19:8), a way which is often quite different from that of empirical normality….It is the Gospel which reveals the full truth about man and his moral journey, and thus enlightens and admonishes sinners; it proclaims to them God's mercy, which is constantly at work to preserve them both from despair at their inability fully to know and keep God's law and from the presumption that they can be saved without merit. God also reminds sinners of the joy of forgiveness….Teaching moral doctrine involves the conscious acceptance of these intellectual, spiritual and pastoral responsibilities. Moral theologians, who have accepted the charge of teaching the Church's doctrine, thus have a grave duty to train the faithful to make this moral discernment, to be committed to the true good and to have confident recourse to God's grace. While exchanges and conflicts of opinion may constitute normal expressions of public life in a representative democracy, moral teaching certainly cannot depend simply upon respect for a process….Dissent, in the form of carefully orchestrated protests and polemics carried on in the media, is opposed to ecclesial communion and to a correct understanding of the hierarchical constitution of the People of God. Opposition to the teaching of the Church's Pastors cannot be seen as a legitimate expression either of Christian freedom or of the diversity of the Spirit's gifts. When this happens, the Church's Pastors have the duty to act in conformity with their apostolic mission, insisting that the right of the faithful to receive Catholic doctrine in its purity and integrity must always be respected”.
Words to Bishops
“It is our common duty, and even before that our common grace, as Pastors and Bishops of the Church, to teach the faithful the things which lead them to God, just as the Lord Jesus did with the young man in the Gospel….This is the first time, in fact, that the Magisterium of the Church has set forth in detail the fundamental elements of this teaching, and presented the principles for the pastoral discernment necessary in practical and cultural situations which are complex and even crucial. In the light of Revelation and of the Church's constant teaching, especially that of the Second Vatican Council, I have briefly recalled the essential characteristics of freedom, as well as the fundamental values connected with the dignity of the person and the truth of his acts, so as to be able to discern in obedience to the moral law a grace and a sign of our adoption in the one Son (cf. Eph 1:4-6). Specifically, this Encyclical has evaluated certain trends in moral theology today. I now pass this evaluation on to you, in obedience to the word of the Lord who entrusted to Peter the task of strengthening his brethren (cf. Lk 22:32), in order to clarify and aid our common discernment….We have the duty, as Bishops, to be vigilant that the word of God is faithfully taught….A particular responsibility is incumbent upon Bishops with regard to Catholic institutions….It falls to them, in communion with the Holy See, both to grant the title ‘Catholic’ to Church-related schools, universities, health-care facilities and counselling services, and, in cases of a serious failure to live up to that title, to take it away.”
“I'll Get on My Knees and Pray We Don't Get Fooled Again” (Pete Townshend, 1971)
After all that Veritatis Splendor proclaimed, why do we continue to settle for counterfeits? Father Charles Curran remains best known for the dissent which he orchestrated to Humanae Vitae. The aftermath of this dissent was a watershed for American Catholics, popularizing profound misunderstandings of the Church’s Magisterium. In "Catholics and Contraception: An American History" (Cornell University Press, 2004), Professor Leslie Woodcock shares an insightful quote: "'A peculiar, implicit gentleman's agreement has developed between clergy and hierarchy in which the hierarchy commits itself not to try to seriously enforce compliance with Humanae Vitae so long as the clergy is not too open and public in its opposition to the encyclical,' Andrew Greeley asserted in 1972" (p. 263). While no fan of Humanae Vitae, Tentler herself acknowledged the devastation that arose from its (non)reception: "The result was a church where sexual ethics were seldom discussed, despite rapid change in the cultural values.... Divorce rates rose, even among regular churchgoers, as did the practice of premarital cohabitation. Birth and marriage rates declined....Many Catholics...were newly tolerant of abortion" (pp. 276, 277). Since 1968, a "cafeteria" mindset has often been noted to exist among many who identify themselves as Catholic. Opening the pages of Humanae Vitae 38 years later, it is difficult to understand how anyone – particularly one so blessed with intelligence as Father Curran - could possibly miss Humanae Vitae’s profoundly prophetic nature. Yet, the seamless connections it draws between the Church’s teachings on the sanctity of human life, marriage and family, and social issues seem to fly right over so many heads. To a significant extent, this is indeed the sad and tragic legacy of Father Charles Curran. Thanks to God's mercy, it need not be his fate.
As per Veritatis Splendor’s conclusion, “let us entrust ourselves, the sufferings and the joys of our life, the moral life of believers and people of good will, and the research of moralists, to Mary, Mother of God and Mother of Mercy….No matter how many and great the obstacles put in his way by human frailty and sin, the Spirit, who renews the face of the earth (cf.Ps 104:30), makes possible the miracle of the perfect accomplishment of the good. This renewal, which gives the ability to do what is good, noble, beautiful, pleasing to God and in conformity with his will, is in some way the flowering of the gift of mercy, which offers liberation from the slavery of evil and gives the strength to sin no more. Through the gift of new life, Jesus makes us sharers in his love and leads us to the Father in the Spirit….By the light of the Holy Spirit, the living essence of Christian morality can be understood by everyone, even the least learned…. It is the task of the Church's Magisterium to see that the dynamic process of following Christ develops in an organic manner, without the falsification or obscuring of its moral demands, with all their consequences. The one who loves Christ keeps his commandments (cf. Jn 14:15)….At the foot of the Cross, when she [i.e., the Blessed Mother] accepts John as her son, when she asks, together with Christ, forgiveness from the Father for those who do not know what they do (cf. Lk 23:34), Mary experiences, in perfect docility to the Spirit, the richness and the universality of God's love, which opens her heart and enables it to embrace the entire human race. Thus Mary becomes Mother of each and every one of us, the Mother who obtains for us divine mercy. Mary is the radiant sign and inviting model of the moral life….Nor does she permit sinful man to be deceived by those who claim to love him by justifying his sin, for she knows that the sacrifice of Christ her Son would thus be emptied of its power. No absolution offered by beguiling doctrines, even in the areas of philosophy and theology, can make man truly happy: only the Cross and the glory of the Risen Christ can grant peace to his conscience and salvation to his life.”