Roman Catholics and loyal opposition. Dissenters say they can differ on family issues but still be good Catholics

Can a Roman Catholic -- whether scholar, layman, or politician -- challenge the church's official position on abortion, divorce, use of contraceptives, or other family-related questions and still be considered loyal to the church? The question is being asked with growing frequency in the United States as more individual Roman Catholics find themselves at variance with church teachings on deeply personal issues.

Abortion, in particular, continues to fester as a point of anguished controversy among Roman Catholics. Many individual Catholics are speaking out for a pro-choice position on abortion, while insisting on their continued devotion to their faith. But the same dilemma faces Catholics on other issues, as well.

Several recent developments demonstrate how some American Roman Catholics' personal convictions on family-related questions are putting them at loggerheads with their church:

The Rev. Charles Curran, a professor of Catholic theology at The Catholic University of America, has been told by the Vatican he could no longer teach at the university because of his dissent on issues of sexual ethics. The church was referring to Fr. Curran's philosophical writings and teachings on abortion, contraception, premarital intercourse, and homosexuality. (Unlike other Jesuit schools, including Boston College, Fordham, and Notre Dame, Catholic University is run directly by the Vatican.)

Curran, a leading theologian and past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, is challenging the edict.

Twenty-four nuns face being ousted from their orders for calling for a dialogue on abortion. Two others have been notified by the Vatican that they too will be put out of their order unless they recant their claims about the diversity of Catholic thought on abortion.

An 11-year-old parochial-school student in Ohio was told by her priest that she will not be allowed to return to school this fall because she refuses to renounce her public statements favoring the right to an abortion. Her mother, who is an abortion activist, has long been embattled with the Catholic Church over her views.

The question of whether Roman Catholics can engage in loyal dissent on church doctrine has even been pushed into the public-policy arena. Two years ago, in a speech at Notre Dame University on church and state, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo argued for the right of public officials to carry out their duties without undue pressure from their church.

Governor Cuomo, a Roman Catholic, was referring to his stance -- and that of some other Catholic officials and office-seekers, including then-Democratic vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro -- in opposition to legislation that would limit a woman's right to an abortion. Both Cuomo and Ms. Ferraro had been criticized by New York Cardinal (then Archbishop) John J. O'Connor, who said that the church expected Catholic public officials and candidates for election to publicly oppose ``abortion on demand'' and to ``work for modification'' of legalized abortion.

In his speech, the New York governor contended that a public official could hold public-policy views at odds with those of the Vatican and still be a good Catholic. ``We know that the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that they might someday force theirs on us,'' he said.

The widely publicized Curran case involves not only papal authority but academic freedom.

Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, says that Curran's views were on the ``cutting edge of sexual morality.'' She says the Vatican's action is ``part of an all-out effort to silence [Roman Catholic] theologians. The church tries to make an example of one person for the purpose of silencing others.'' Ms. Kissling's organization lobbies for change in the church's viewpoint on such issues as abortion, birth control, and the status of women. A life-long Catholic, she believes that individuals should be allowed to hold diverse views without having to abandon their faith.

Richard McMunn, an official of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, defends the Vatican's stance in the Curran matter. ``The church has a right to expect its universities to foster its teachings in the classroom. It doesn't have a right to discourage theological speculation. But you can't teach in a [Catholic] university [the permissibility of] sex without marriage.''

Martin Marty, a University of Chicago scholar and one of the nation's leading Protestant theologians, sees the Vatican's action as a ``symbolic act -- a warning to other [Catholic] theologians not to push things too far.''

Professor Marty says, however, that Curran ``was not attacking the Catholic faith but the application of faith to a new `moral zone.' '' He adds, ``There's a big gap between Curran and [activists like those in] Catholics for a Free Choice. He's an intellectual prober looking for new ground.''

Although critical of the Vatican's censure of Curran, Kissling stressed that the church exercised restraint in its action. ``He has lost a job. Nobody says he can't be a priest anymore,'' she says.

The church's punishment of Curran seems to be consistent with actions taken recently against other Roman Catholic priests who, though otherwise loyal, differed with the church on such doctrinal issues as the ordination of women. Though disciplining the dissenters, the church has not excommunicated or defrocked them.

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