A Place for Dissent

My argument with Joseph Ratzinger

Habemus papam. I heard these words in St. Peter’s Square as a young seminarian on October 28, 1958. My first impression of Pope John XXIII was disappointing. Pope Pius XII was an austere and ascetic figure, but John XXIII was a roly-poly Italian who was waving to the crowd even before he finished his first blessing.

Fast-forward to the present: The intervening years saw John XXIII’s and Vatican II’s call for renewal and reform; the unexpected condemnation of artificial contraception in Paul VI’s Humanae vitae (1968); the ups and downs in his Hamlet-like papacy; and then the long restorationist papacy of John Paul II.

I sat in a television studio on April 19, 2005, and once again heard the words habemus papam—Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI. My disappointment was much greater than it was fifty years earlier. As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), Ratzinger concluded a seven-year investigation of my theological writings in 1986 with the judgment, approved by John Paul II, that “one who dissents from the magisterium as you do is not suitable nor eligible to teach Catholic theology.”

I maintained that my dissent was not from core tenets of Catholic faith, but from noninfallible church teachings. In fact, the U.S. bishops in their 1968 pastoral letter...

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About the Author

The Reverend Charles E. Curran is the Elizabeth Scurlock University Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University.