By Timothy Walch
“Diverse Voices in Modern U.S. Moral Theology” by Charles E. Curran. Georgetown University Press (Washington, 2019). 264 pp., $104.95 hardcover; $34.95 paperback.
Once an “ABC person of the week” and a New York Times “man in the news,” Father Charles Curran is not much of a household name these days. To be sure, he is still remembered for his dissent during the long-running debate over Catholic moral issues. And some will recall that Fr. Curran was dismissed from the theology faculty at The Catholic University of America in 1986.
It is important to note that his departure from Catholic University did not compromise Fr. Curran’s importance as a leading voice in Catholic moral theology. He has been a vital figure in the extended debate over Catholic moral theology for the past four decades. And his prodigious list of more than 50 books has informed and shaped this field of study.
It also is important to underscore the fact that Fr. Curran is generous and open to considering points of view other than his own. In fact, in this new book, “Diverse Voices in Modern U.S. Moral Theology,” he summarizes and highlights the work of a dozen theologians who have contributed to the development of moral theology since the 1950s.
The theologians included in the book include a range of professed religious and lay academics. As the title suggests, the group is diverse and the book includes individual chapters on Jesuit Father John Ford, Redemptorist Father Bernard Haring, Jesuit Father Josef Fuchs, Jesuit Father Richard McCormick, Germain Grisez, Dominican Father Romanus Cessario, Mercy Sister Margaret Farley, Lisa Sowle Cahill, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, Father Bryan Massingale and Jesuit Father John Keenan.
Fr. Curran also includes a chapter on the “New Wine, New Wineskins” movement.
He writes in a concise prose that is well-focused and approachable for both scholars and the merely curious. In his preface, he articulates three aims for his book. First is to introduce the general reader to the approaches and methods of these theologians. Second is to encourage more discussion among Catholic moral theologians. Third is to show how these theologians have been shaped by their individual perceptions of three constituencies: the church, the academic community and the larger lay community.
In focusing on the work of his fellow theologians, Fr. Curran articulates the changes he experienced in the field. Not so much memoir as meditation, he reflects on each of these individuals in the context of their times. He knew some of these theologians as teachers and mentors, others as colleagues, and a few as critics. His respect for all is deep and abiding and he embraces them as a diverse and valuable chorus of diversity.
And that is the most important theme of this book — to remind all of us that diversity of thought and opinion is a wonderful experience. In a time when acrimony seems to dominate our public discourse, it is important to have a thinker such as Fr. Curran to remind us that we can differ in our views on theology and still respect one another.
(Walch is a historian of American Catholicism. His most recent book is “Parish School” (2016). He is a member of St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville.)