In subtle but profound ways, Pope Francis is making great changes in church government, moral theology, and Catholic life. That’s the opinion of Rev. Charles E. Curran, who shared his views on these topics in an April lecture entitled “Pope Francis, Reform, and Moral Theology,” hosted by New Ways Ministry.
The occasion for Curran’s talk was the first Fr. Robert Nugent Memorial Lecture, honoring New Ways Ministry’s co-founder who passed away in 2014. Curran described his friend, Fr. Nugent, as a “marvelous combination of pastoral, spiritual, and intellectual qualities.” More than 150 attendees gathered at the Bon Secours Retreat and Conference Center in Marriottsville, Maryland, to hear the thoughts of this important thinker who is the Elizabeth Scurlock Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University, Dallas.
“From the very beginning, it was obvious Pope Francis would be a reformer, ” Curran told the The lecture analyzed Pope Francis in four movements: the significance of his style, the impact of his priorities, the desire he has for the church, and the impact he may have on moral theology
From his first moments as pope, Francis’ style has been shockingly different from his predecessors. He lives in two simple rooms and dines at the communal cafeteria, having shunned the papal palace. Curran was clear, though, that Francis’ reforms are genuinely “more than just style.” Pope Francis’ shifted tone helps make clear his priorities.
These priorities refocus Catholic attention to structural injustices, Curran said. For example, Francis has highlighted the ways in which oppression of the poor is linked to environmental degradation. Included in these new priorities is a critique of the U.S. bishops’ obsession with moral issues, such as marriage equality and contraception.
Pope Francis’ priorities include ecclesial reform, too, Curran suggested. The lecturer pointed towards papal efforts towards church decentralization, including the two synodal assemblies on family held in 2014 and 2015. Prompted by Pope Francis’ appeal for honest discussions and undaunted by fear of chaos or confusion, bishops openly disagreed with one another at these meetings, Curran noted. These occasions were the first time since Vatican II that bishops openly disagreed with one another. Curran said that the church must be realistic about differences of opinion and learn to live with diversity. The lecturer also cited Francis’ frequent quoting of episcopal conference documents in his environmental encyclical Laudato Si as a sign that the pope is promoting decentralization.
But reforming structures is not the only or even main way Pope Francis seeks to reform the church. Curran said the pope is reaffirming the essential role the baptized faithful play in church life, especially for evangelization and for the sensus fidelium–the reception of doctrine. Church teaching should emerge from the bottom, he suggestd. Church practiced should be informed by the poor and hurting people of the world among whom the church must be present. For Francis, Curran noted, everyone has a teaching role because he affirms that the Holy Spirit is present in all.
Regarding moral theology, Curran said Pope Francis has explicitly said on multiple occasions that the church’s moral teachings are not what is most important about the faith. Having described himself as a loyal son of the church, Francis will not change moral teachings, Curran noted. In view of this reality, Catholics who seek developments in Catholic teaching should be realistic because, according to Curran, the Catholic Church has an almost impossible unwillingness to admit that its teachings have ever been wrong. Even when the church reversed its teaching on religious liberty at Vatican II, there was no admission that a change had taken place.
Pope Francis instead seeks a pastorally-oriented approach to moral questions that, Curran said. While admittedly insufficient, this method can create space for further progress. Curran acknowledged that because Francis proceeds in this way, there will be disappointment, but “[n]onetheless, Francis has left the door ajar.” Though the pope’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia had not yet been released at the time of this lecture, Curran identified rightly the re-emphasis Pope Francis has placed on conscience. The ultimate decision a Catholic makes should be made in the person’s conscience, Curran said, not by one’s parish priest. In a related note, Curran called for the church to reform the Sacrament of Reconciliation so that it will be more viable by resonating with people’s needs.
Appeals to conscience may resolve a number of challenging moral questions, but they cannot resolve every ecclesial problem, Curran noted. He identified the issue of women in the church as a major weakness for Pope Francis and said that, as a structural issue, it cannot be solved by conscience and will therefore be very hard to change.
A vigorous question period followed the lecture. One attendee asked Curran about the future of church reform efforts. He responded that, unlike previous centuries, in an era of instant communication and globalization the church, if it wants to be relevant to the world, cannot wait centuries to change . Curran said, too, that, in the long run, the church has an important and appealing message for young people who are concerned with social issues.
The National Catholic Reporter, in its coverage of the lecture asked a similar question of Bob Shine, social media and young adult coordinator at New Ways Ministry. He agreed with Fr. Curran that the church was in a “new period of openness,” adding:
” ‘We can’t get obsessed with the rules; we have to ask how we’re bringing people to Jesus in the reform movement. It’s going to mean a big revamp of how things exist if we’re taking the needs of the communities who are coming to dominate our church seriously.’
” ‘I think the greatest opportunity we have right now to create permanent and sustainable change is that [Francis] is creating space for lay Catholics to take ownership for our church.’ “
Fr. Curran’s participation in the church as a theologian and as a priest has greatly contributed to church reform already. His academic career laid foundations on which moral theologians have built new theologies informed by contemporary knowledge. His challenge to unjust church structures as early as the 1960s remains a powerful witness for our church. And as this lecture revealed, Fr. Curran continues to turn his powerful and humane intellect to issues important to the church and to the world. Pope Francis would do well to read Curran’s new book, Tradition and Reform: Perspectives on Catholic Moral Teaching.
If you’re interested in ordering a copy of Fr. Curran’s new book, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (301) 277-5674. The cost is $32 plus $5 for postage and handling. To view more photos from the Nugent Lecture, click