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The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

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Catholic priest makes SMU proud

Although an ordained priest since 1958, Professor Charlie E. Curran dresses in lay person’s clothes as he addresses his Medical Ethics with a Christian Perspective class. It may seem a little unusual that a Roman Catholic Priest considered by many to be one of the greatest moral theologians of his time would be teaching at a historically Protestant university such as Southern Methodist University. But he has impacted not only the lives of his students, but the university as a whole since he became the Elizabeth Scurlock University Professor of Human Values in 1990.

SMU’s Research Magazine in 2001 quotes Robin Lovin, dean of SMU’s Perkins School of Theology, as saying, “Curran is certainly one of the leading teachers and scholars in Christian ethics in North America. Through his many books and his work as a teacher, he has made a whole generation of Protestants more aware of Catholic moral traditions, and he has introduced Catholic scholars to a more ecumenical approach.”

Curran, who recently received the Phi Beta Kappa Perrine Prize for Teaching and Scholarship, teaches both graduate and undergraduate students. Still, many people are unaware of this highly celebrated theologian on the third floor of Dallas Hall.

He earned his Bachelor’s at St. Bernard’s College in Rochester, N.Y. in 1955, was ordained in 1958, received his Licentiate in Sacred theology from Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Italy in 1959 and his Doctorate in Sacred Theology specializing in moral theology from the Academia Alfonsiana in Rome studying under Bernard Häring.

“Moral theology was just this narrow thing of preparing confessors for the sacrament of penitence,” Curran says. “Häring wanted to make it much broader, to focus not so much on the sins as the fullness and holiness of Christian life. He showed us that there was a lot of tradition within the church for expanding the role of moral theologians.”

Curran credits Häring for influencing many of Curran’s later works.

Curran went on to teach at the Catholic University of America but his position was revoked in 1986 when he was told he was not longer eligible to teach at a Catholic university due to his controversial dissent on and refusal to the church’s teaching on the moral issues of abortion, contraception, premarital sex, masturbation, divorce, euthanasia, in vitro fertilization and homosexual acts.

The Orlando Sentential quoted Rev. Richard McBrien, head of the theology department of Notre Dame, who says “the Curran case is puzzling because he is singled out and punished for taking positions taken by many other moral theologians. If similar restraints were applied to other Catholic institutions, they would stand to lose many, if not all, of their moral theologians and many other faculty members besides.'”

Curran’s stance on such issues indicates his attitudes are more liberal than the typical priest, but also more similar to most lay people’s attitudes. Curran does not believe in life until after the 14th day inside the mother’s womb, so for him abortion and stem-cell research can be justified.

Curran says the main problems the church and society have with these arguments is that they are of a “slippery slope nature… if you give an inch they will take a mile.”

Curran believes in the individual person as an “agent” of faith, someone who can make a difference. Yet, he feels that the church has not kept up with the changing times and for this reason has a difficult time connecting with those people.

The professor has not let the pressure from the church change his focus or his ambitions. He says that no institution is perfect and should be ever-changing to adhere to the society giving it guidance, but still letting each “agent” follow his own path. He tends to focus on the role of the church in politics and social issues, indicating that in order to take a stance the church needs to understand and gather enough knowledge to take either side while keeping in mind that even the church is fallible.

It is also important to Curran that the church understand that believers can disagree while still being committed to the faith.

By specializing in social ethics, Curran has found his medium to deal with the morality of society although he believes that there is “a distinction between morality and ethics.”

“Morality is what people do, how they live their lives,” Curran said. “Ethics is what I call a second order discipline. You stand back to study morality systematically, reflexively, and analytically.”

The field of ethics has had tremendous growth over the last 40 years with such hot topics as stem-cell research, cloning and end of life issues, but Roman Catholics had been discussing medical ethics for quite some time before the rest of the world.

Curran argues that this trend is not over, and that the field will become an even more intricate and large as new developments within society and science become more controversial.

He has recently published a memoir entitled, “Loyal Dissent: Memoir of a Catholic Theologian,” in which he explains the evolving Roman Catholic Church as he sees it and is very blunt in his explanation of his dissents and the actions that followed.

He clearly describes the students of the Catholic University of America protesting in anger when he was fired.

“During the strike, we tried to keep the focus on the procedural issue that the trustees has overridden the votes of my colleagues and fired me without a hearing,” Curran said. “But everyone knew I had been fired because of my position on artificial contraception, and this issue was not going away.”

Despite the scandal, Curran has remained deeply loyal to his faith.

Unaffected by his celebrity, he remarks that his books will probably, “put you to sleep.”

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