Curran’s Attack on John Paul II Rebutted

Dr. May shows how utterly false are four major criticisms Charles Curran levels against the moral thought of John Paul II.

Shortly prior to Pope John Paul II’s death on April 2, 2005 Georgetown University Press published Charles E. Curran’s book entitled The Moral Theology of Pope John Paul II. 1 In it Curran considers only the moral teaching and moral theology of John Paul II as pope, explicitly passing over his pre-papal ethical writings.

The book is a sustained attack on the late pope’s moral theology. Curran makes more than a dozen extremely serious charges that, if true, would be sufficient thoroughly to discredit John Paul II as a moral guide. He faults the pope for his theological presuppositions and methodology, his “classicist/deductive” approach and failure to recognize an “inductive/historical consciousness approach,” his absorption of anthropology into Christology and his flawed Christology, etc. If John Paul II had been a student in the Rev. Professor Curran’s graduate classes in moral theology he may have passed, but barely.

Here I will show how utterly false are several principal criticisms that Curran levels against John Paul’s thought. Similar criticisms could be made of his other charges.

The ones that I will consider are: (1) the way the encyclical Veritatis splendor misuses Scripture; (2) a “physicalistic” understanding of natural law; (3) a “theology of the body” that is inapplicable to most people, denies the fundamental goodness of sexuality, and ignores the role of passion; and (4) an emphasis on the sexual complementarity of men and women that leads to the conclusion that men and women who are not married are not complete and lack something about their humanity.

1. The Encyclical Veritatis splendor Misuses Scripture

Curran faults John Paul II’s use of Scripture in Veritatis splendor on three counts:

First, it distorts the meaning of the story of the rich young man as found in Matthew 19…the thrust of the story…is the question of riches and not the question of all Christians being called to obey the commandments found in the Old Covenant (52). Second, the encyclical distorts the meaning of Christian morality as found in Scripture. The encyclical makes primary the insistence on obedience to the commandments. But morality, as portrayed throughout scripture, involves much more than obedience to commandments. Morality involves a change of heart, conversion, response to a loving God, and the virtues, attitudes and dispositions that characterize the Christian person (52)…. A third distortion concerns the attempt to use scripture to support what the pope is proposing today based on philosophical and ethical concepts that were not known in biblical times ….Veritatis splendor explicitly uses scripture to support the notion of intrinsic evil proposed by the contemporary hierarchical magisterium in its arguments against proportionalism and consequentialism. But scripture does not know any of these concepts (53).

These accusations fly in the face of the encyclical itself.

First of all, John Paul II makes it clear, in his reflections on Jesus’ dialogue with the rich young man, that the moral life is not a matter of obeying rules, as Curran interprets him. Throughout the encyclical the pope vigorously rejects a legalistic understanding of the moral life. The pope insists that “for the young man the question is not so much about rules to be followed, but about the meaning of life…the question is ultimately an appeal to the absolute Good which attracts and beckons us; it is the echo of a call from God who is the origin and goal of man’s life” (no. 7). It is “an essential and unavoidable question for the life of every man, for it is about the moral good which must be done, and about eternal life. The young man senses that there is a connection between moral good and the fulfillment of his own destiny” (no. 8). The question is indeed “a religious question…The goodness that attracts and at the same time obliges man has its source in God and indeed is God himself” (no. 9).

It is an existential question, for it is about the meaning of our lives as persons gifted with freedom of choice, the freedom to give to ourselves our identity as moral beings. This is a truth emphasized later in the encyclical. Thus John Paul II declared that human freedom is rightly regarded as being “not only the choice for one or another particular action” but “is also, within that choice, a decision about oneself” (n. 65). In other words, in and through the free choices we make we determine ourselves [this is indeed the reason why the young man’s question has existential and religious significance and is about the meaning of life]. In connection with this the Holy Father quoted a marvelous passage from St. Gregory of Nyssa: “All things subject to change and becoming never remain constant, but continually pass from one state to another, for better or for worse….Now human life is always subject to change; it needs to be born ever anew. But here birth does not come about by a foreign intervention, as is the case with bodily beings; it is the result of free choice. Thus we are, in a certain sense, our own parents, creating ourselves as we will, by our decisions” (no. 71). 2

John Paul II sees an essential link between obedience to the commandments and eternal life. But the link is not a matter of obeying rules but a matter of love of persons. After noting that God’s commandments show us the path to life and lead to it and that Jesus, “the new Moses,” definitively confirms and proposes them to us “as the way and condition of salvation” (no. 12), the Holy Father emphasizes that the negative precepts of the Decalogue, of which Jesus reminds the rich young man, are rooted in the commandment that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, a commandment expressing “the singular dignity of the human person, the ‘only creature that God has wanted for its own sake’” (no. 13). 3

Here the pope develops a matter of crucial importance, namely, that we can love our neighbor and respect his dignity as a person only by cherishing the goods perfective of him and by steadfastly refusing to damage, destroy, or impede these goods. Appealing to the words of Jesus, John Paul II stresses that “the different commandments of the Decalogue are really only so many reflections on the one commandment about the good of the person, at the level of the many different goods which characterize his identity as a spiritual and bodily being in relationship with God, with his neighbor, and with the material world….The commandments of which Jesus reminds the young man are meant to safeguard the good of the person, the image of God, by protecting his goods” (no. 13). Continuing, John Paul II stresses that the negative precepts of the Decalogue “express with particular force the ever urgent need to protect human life, the communion of marriage” and so on (no. 13).

Moreover, John Paul II goes on to emphasize that Jesus not only reconfirms the law given to Moses—the “ten words”—he also is the one who gives us the Sermon on the Mount, the “magna carta of Christian morality” (no. 15). In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus stressed that he had not “come to abolish the Law and the Prophets,” but rather “to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17). John Paul says, “Jesus brings the commandments to fulfillment… by interiorizing their demands and by bringing out their fullest meaning…” (no. 15). The Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount “speak of basic attitudes and dispositions in life and therefore do not coincide exactly with the commandments. On the other hand, there is no separation or opposition between the Beatitudes and the commandments: both refer to the good, to eternal life” (no. 16). They are “above all promises, from which also indirectly flow normativeindications for the moral life….they are a sort of self-portrait of Christ . . . and . . . invitations to discipleship and to communion of life with Christ” (no. 16). The moral life, John Paul II emphasizes, means ultimately the following of Christ. But we follow him not by any outward imitation but “by becoming conformed to him who became a servant, even to giving himself on the Cross” (cf. Phil 2:5-8) (no. 21). Following Christ means “holding fast to the very person of Jesus” (no. 19).

And it is possible to be conformed to Jesus, to hold fast to him, to love as he does, “only because of God’s grace” (no. 22; cf. no. 11). “To imitate and live out the love of Christ is not possible for man by his own strength alone. He becomes capable of this love only by the virtue of a gift received” (no. 22; cf. no. 24).

From this it is evident how Curran’s first two complaints about John Paul II’s use of Scripture in Veritatis splendor are simply gratuitous. His third complaint is that John Paul II misuses Scripture in rejecting proportionalism and consequentialism and in speaking of some human acts as “intrinsically evil,” etc. According to Curran these philosophical concepts were unknown to Scripture and by appealing to Scripture to support the “hierarchical” magisterium’s affirmation of absolute norms prohibiting intrinsically evil acts John Paul II is misusing Holy Writ.

Although the terms “intrinsically evil” and “absolute moral norms” do not appear in Scripture, there can be no doubt that Scripture, both Old Testament and New Testament, clearly identify certain kinds of actions as utterly incompatible with (a) the life of God’s chosen people in the Old Testament and (b) his holy people who are one body with Christ. Competent exegetes show, for instance, that the story of Onan in Genesis, despite the efforts of some contemporaries to ignore its relevance to such issues as masturbation and contraception and that Onan was struck dead solely because he violated the Levirate law, clearly shows that what Onan did, namely, spill his seed deliberately in the ground, was abominable to the Lord as well as the end for whose sake he did this. 4 It is likewise clear that Paul clearly condemned fornication, adultery, homosexual activity, etc. In addition, no one can read 1 Cor. 6 without realizing that such sexual sins as incest, fornication, adultery, anal/oral sex bodily unite persons, and that if done by the baptized, who are irrevocably, for good or ill, bodily one with Christ, debase the entire body of Christ. 5

2. A “physicalistic understanding of natural law”

According to Curran the Holy Father’s understanding of natural law is “physicalistic,” especially in the area of sexuality. “One cannot interfere with the sexual act either to prevent procreation or even to encourage it… [But, Curran continues] for the good of the person or the relationships one can interfere with the sexual faculty and its act. The physical conjugal act cannot and should not become a moral absolute.”

This charge, which Curran and other dissenting theologians have made since the appearance of Humanae vitae in 1968, 6 is utterly false. According to Curran’s own description, physicalism consists in the “identification of the physical or biological act (e.g., the act of sexual intercourse) with the moral” (113-114). But this is precisely what John Paul II explicitly repudiates. With Thomas Aquinas, he insisted that “the morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the ‘object’ rationally chosen by the deliberate will” (no. 78). In a very important passage, he then says:

In order to be able to grasp the object of an act which specifies that act morally, it is therefore necessary to place oneself in the perspective of the acting person. The object of the act of willing is in fact a freely chosen kind of behavior. To the extent that it is in conformity with the order of reason, it is the cause of the goodness of the will; it perfects us morally….By the object of a given moral act…one cannot mean a process or an event in the merely physical order, to be assessed on the basis of its ability to bring about a given state of affairs in the outside world. Rather, that object is the proximate end of a deliberate decision which determines the act of willing on the part of the acting person (no. 78).

Note the Pope’s explicit words: “By the object of a given moral act…one cannot mean a process or an event in the merely physical order, to be assessed on the basis of its ability to bring about a given state of affairs in the outside world” (emphasis added). But on Curran’s own account physicalism identifies the moral meaning of a human act with the physical event. Sexual intercourse is an illuminating example. According to Curran, physicalists identify “the act of intercourse with the moral” (113-114). But John Paul II shows that the act of intercourse between persons who happen to be married can be, from the moral perspective, an act of adultery if the “object” of the husband’s choice is to use his wife’s body merely as a means for gratifying sexual desire without regard for her condition as his wife. 7

According to Curran, “The encyclical Humanae vitae itself recognizes that it identifies the biological processes with moral norms: ‘In relation to the biological processes, responsible parenthood means the knowledge and respect of their functions; human intellect discovers, in the power of giving life, biological laws that are part of the human person’ (no. 10)” (115-116). This is utter nonsense. By “biological laws” Paul VI is not referring to moral laws or norms. For at the end of this passage he adds a most important footnote, footnote 9, which refers to Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 1-2, q. 94, a. 2, the famous article where St. Thomas speaks of the “natural inclinations orienting us to the goods of human existence,” among them the good of marrying and having and raising children. That Paul VI does not identify the “biological act of intercourse” with the moral act (Curran’s own definition of “physicalism”) is clear if one takes the trouble to read the encyclical. In it Paul accurately describes the nature of contraception: it is “every action, which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act [or indeed of any genital act], or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes [intendat], either as end or means, to impede procreation [ut procreatio impediatur] (Humanae vitae, no. 14). In other words, an act is contraceptive not because of its physical or biological structure but because the acting person’s “object of choice,” i.e., what he “intends, either as means or end,” is to impede procreation. And in a key passage of Humanae vitae, ignored by Curran and others who claim it is physicalistic, Paul had written: “People rightly understand that a conjugal act [i.e., a “marital” act in the purely descriptive sense] imposed on a spouse, with no consideration given to the condition of the spouse or to the legitimate desires of the spouse, is not a true act of love. They understand that such an act opposes what the moral order rightly requires from spouses,” that is, they understand that such an act does not truly participate in the marriage itself and in the “goods” of marriage. Quite to the contrary, it violates the good of marital unity and friendship. He goes on to say: “To be consistent, then, if they reflect further, they should acknowledge that it is necessarily true that an act of mutual love that impairs the capacity of bringing forth life contradicts both the divine plan that established the nature of the conjugal bond and also the will of the first Author of human life. For this capacity of bringing forth life was designed by God, the Creator of All, according to [his] specific laws” (ibid., no. 13).

3. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” is not valid for all bodies, does not recognize the goodness of sexuality, ignores the role of passion, etc.

Curran claims that John Paul II’s theology “cannot serve as a theology for all bodies….what the pope develops in terms of the nuptial meaning of the body really does not apply to people who are single or those who are widows or widowers…. Implicitly, John Paul II’s theology of the body maintains that heterosexual marriage is the only context of human sexuality” (168). He says that John Paul II so emphasizes concupiscence and lust that he ignores the fact that “sexual passion is basically a good….The impression given by The Theology of the Body is that passion and sexual pleasure are totally suspect and in need of control. The pope does not seem to acknowledge a fundamental goodness about sexuality” (171). “These talks for all practical purposes ignore the positive aspect of sexual pleasure…[which] itself is a good” (172).

Curran explicitly chose not to consider pre-papal works such as Love and Responsibility. But it is pertinent to cite some passages from that work. In it Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II) affirmed that sensuality is a “response to the sexual values of the body-person and a response to the person as a ‘potential object of enjoyment.’” 8 Nonetheless, he emphasized that sensuality is “a sort of raw material for true, conjugal love,” and he insisted that “an exuberant and readily roused sensuality is the stuff from which a rich—if difficult—personal life may be made.” 9

It is inconceivable that the same person could have the negative attitude toward human sexuality, sexual passion, and sexual pleasure that Curran attributes to John Paul II as author of the addresses on the “theology of the body.” Curran simply failed to read the audiences making up the theology of the body carefully. In addresses numbers 47 and 48, entitled, in English, “‘Eros’ and ‘Ethos’ meet and bear fruit in the human heart” and “Spontaneity: the mature result of conscience,” John Paul II has much to say about the goodness of sexual passion. Thus he writes:

“Eros” must not be confused with lust. For Plato it “represents the interior force that drags man toward everything good, true, and beautiful” (47.2). It refers also to the natural and hence “good” desire experienced in the attraction of men for women and vice versa. However “erotic” desire is often identified with lust (47.3). A proper interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, taking into account the multiple meanings of “eros,” allows room “for that ethos, for those ethical and indirectly even theological contents which, in the course of our analyses, have been seen from Christ’s appeal to the human heart” (47.4). Christ’s appeal is “the ethos of redemption.” The call to what is true, good, and beautiful [“eros” in the Platonic sense] means, at the same time, in the ethos of redemption, the necessity of overcoming what is derived from lust in its three forms….If the words of Mathew 5.27-28 represent this call, then they mean that, in the erotic sphere, “eros” and “ethos” do not differ from each other, are not opposed to each other, but are called to meet in the human heart, and in this meeting to bear fruit (47.5).

John Paul II thus clearly recognizes, in his “theology of the body,” that the sexual desire of man for woman and vice versa is itself something good, although “lust,” sinful desire, is not. He explicitly declares that sexual desire can have a “noble” fulfillment, a joyful, pleasurable, sinless sexual union between husband and wife in the conjugal act.

Ethos must become the “constituent form” of eros. Ethos is in no way hostile to “spontaneity.” The person who accepts the ethos of Matthew 5.27-28 “must know that he is called to full and mature spontaneity of the relations that spring from the perennial attraction of masculinity and femininity. This very spontaneity is the gradual fruit of the discernment of the impulses of one’s own heart” (48.2). “This discernment…has an essential relationship with spontaneity….a noble gratification is one thing, while sexual desire is another; when sexual desire is linked with a noble gratification, it differs from desire pure and simple” (48.4; emphasis added). Only with self-control can man attain “that deeper and more mature spontaneity with which his ‘heart,’ mastering his instincts, rediscovers the spiritual beauty of the signs constituted by the human body in its masculinity and femininity” (48.5).

These passages give the lie to Curran’s outrageous exegesis of John Paul II’s “theology of the body.”

4. John Paul II’s emphasis on sexual complementarity “means that men and women who are not married are not complete and lack something about their humanity”

This claim (192-193) is rooted in Curran’s apparent understanding of sexual complementarity as a “fractional” complementarity, as if a male person or a female person is only one-half a full human being and becomes “whole” only in some kind of androgynous union. 10 For John Paul II, the sexual complementarity between man and woman is integral and asymmetrical. For in his thought man and woman are gifts to each other; they are called to “give” and “receive” each other, but each does so in complementary and asymmetrical ways.

In a remarkable passage concerned with the way in which man and woman “give” and “receive” each other, the Holy Father said:

If the woman, in the mystery of creation, is the one who was ‘given’ to the man, the latter, on his part, in receiving her as a gift in the full truth of her person and femininity, thereby enriches her, and at the same time he, too, is enriched. The man is enriched not only through her, who gives him her own person and femininity, but also through the gift of himself. The man’s giving of himself, in response to that of the woman, is an enrichment of himself. In fact, there is in it, as it were, the specific essence of his masculinity, which, through the reality of the body and of sex, reaches the deep recesses of the “possession of self,” thanks to which he is capable both of giving himself and of receiving the other’s gift. The man, therefore, not only accepts the gift, but at the same time is received as a gift by the woman, in the revelation of the interior spiritual essence of his masculinity, together with the whole truth of his body and sex….Subsequently, this acceptance, in which the man finds himself again through the “sincere gift of himself,” becomes in him the source of a new and deeper enrichment of the woman. The exchange is mutual, and in it the reciprocal effects of the “sincere gift” and of the “finding oneself again,” are revealed and grow (17.6; emphasis added).

I emphasized the passage affirming that the specific essence of man’s masculinity enables him to give himself and to receive the other’s gift because I believe that John Paul II’s position here harmonizes with the view taken by Robert Joyce concerning the complementarity in the way men and women “give and receive” each other. According to Joyce, and I agree with him and believe that his thought is fully in accord with this passage from John Paul II, both the man and the woman are called both to give and to receive, but the man is the one who emphatically gives in a receiving way, whereas the woman is the one who emphatically receives in a giving way. 11 This is beautifully illustrated in the conjugal act. In it the man-person, precisely because of his complementary sexuality, is able personally to enter into the body-person of his wife, giving himself to her and in doing so receiving her. Moreover, his wife, precisely because of her complementary sexuality, is uniquely able to receive his body-person into her body and in doing so to give herself to him.

That the woman is called on to “receive in a giving way” and that the man is summoned to “give in a receiving way” is also illustrated in the “gift” of new human life. John Paul II noted that new life is entrusted “to each and every other human being.” But it is entrusted “in a special way to woman, precisely because the woman in virtue of her special experience of motherhood is seen to have a specific sensitivity towards the human person and all that constitutes the individual’s true welfare, beginning with the fundamental value of life.” 12 Indeed, he declared:

Motherhood involves a special communion with the mystery of life as it develops in the woman’s womb. The mother is filled with wonder at this mystery of life and “understands” with unique intuition what is happening inside her. In the light of the “beginning,” the mother accepts and loves as a person the child she is carrying in her womb. This unique contact with the new human being developing within her gives rise to an attitude toward human beings—not only towards her own child, but every human being—which profoundly marks the woman’s personality. It is commonly thought that women are more capable than men of paying attention to another person and that motherhood develops this predisposition even more. The man—even with all his sharing in parenthood—always remains “outside” the process of pregnancy and the baby’s birth; in many ways he has to learn his own “fatherhood” from the mother….the mother’s contribution is decisive in laying the foundation for a new human personality. 13

In other words the woman is disposed to receive her husband and others in a giving way. The husband-father, to exercise his fatherhood, must give himself in a receiving way, something he learns from the wife-mother, to his child, just as he is summoned to give himself in a receiving way to his wife in the conjugal act.

I have shown here how utterly false are four major criticisms Charles Curran levels against the moral thought of John Paul II. His other criticisms can likewise be shown to be gratuitous and rooted in a profound failure to read carefully the texts he criticizes and to his failure even to consider other theologians’ criticism of his views on such issues as physicalism, historicism, etc.

I believe that it is now time for Curran and other dissenting theologians to repudiate their acceptance of contraception and the moral reasoning employed to justify it. It has been shown conclusively in my opinion that the denial of moral absolutes that led to John Paul II’s Veritatis splendor has its roots in the reasoning advanced in the middle 1960s to justify contraception. 14

Moreover, competent scholars have shown that Paul VI was truly prophetic in his encyclical. When it appeared its critics, like Curran, excoriated the pope for saying that the practice of contraception would lead to infidelity in marriage, sex outside of marriage etc. But social scientists such as W. Bradford Wilcox, George Akerlof, and Robert Michaels today provide abundant evidence that Paul VI was correct and not his Catholic critics. 15

  1. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2005, xii+262 pages. A volume in the Moral Traditions Series, James F. Keenan, S.J., series editor. 
  2. The citation from St. Gregory of Nyssa is from his De vita Moysis II, 2, 3 (PG 44, 327-328). 
  3. The internal citation is from Gaudium et spes, no. 22. 
  4. On this see Manuel Miguens, “Biblical Thoughts on Human Sexuality,” from Human Sexuality in Our Time, ed. Rev. Msgr. George E. Kelly (Boston: St. Paul Editions, 1979). 
  5. On this issue perhaps the very finest work is Silverio Zedda, S.J., Assoluto e relativo nel morale di San Paolo (Brescia, 1988). 
  6. Charles E. Curran, “Natural Law and Contemporary Moral Theology,” from Contraception, Authority, and Dissent, ed. Charles E. Curran. New York: Herder & Herder, 1969, pp. 151-175, Louis Janssens, “Considerations on Humanae Vitae,” Louvain Studies 2 (1969) 231-253, and a host of others including Bernard Häring, Daniel Maguire, Rosemary Ruether, etc. It has been answered time and time again by such theologians as Germain Grisez, John Finnis, Joseph Boyle, Ronald Lawler and others, but those making the claim have ignored these replies. 
  7. Thus John Paul II, in Address no. 47 of his “Theology of the Body” explicitly says (in company with a long tradition) that a husband who “looks lustfully at his own wife” can commit adultery with her in his heart. 
  8. Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, trans. H. Willetts (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1981), p. 105. 
  9. Ibid, p. 109. 
  10. On this see Sister Prudence Allen, “Integral Sexual Complementarity and the Theology of Communion,” Communio: International Catholic Review 17 (1990), an essay commenting on John Paul II’s “theology of the body.” 
  11. See Robert Joyce, Human Sexual Ecology: A Philosophy and Ethics of Man and Woman (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1980), pp. 67-71; See also William E. May, “Marriage and the Complementarity of Male and Female,” Anthropotes: Rivista di Studi sulla Persona e la Famiglia 8.1 (June 1992) 41-60. A shorter version of this essay was published as chapter two of May’s Marriage: The Rock on Which the Family Is Based (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1995), pp. 39-66, at pp. 50-54. 
  12. Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici, no. 51. See also Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem, no. 30: “The moral and spiritual strength of a woman is joined to her awareness that God entrusts the human being to her in a special way. Of course, God entrusts every human being to each and every other human being. But this entrusting concerns women in a special way—precisely because of their femininity—and this in a particular way determines their vocation.” 
  13. Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem, no. 18. 
  14. On this see Finnis, Moral Absolutes, pp. 84-90; my own book Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2000), chapter 4, on contraception. 
  15. W. Bradford Wilcox, “Social Science and the Vindication of Catholic Moral Teaching,” in Proceedings of the 27 th Annual Convention of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, Pittsburgh, PA, ed. Kenneth Whitehead (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2005), in press. 
Dr. William E. May About Dr. William E. May

Dr. William E. May is the Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University in Washington, D.C. He is the author of a dozen books, most recently the revised 2nd edition of his An Introduction to Moral Theology (Our Sunday Visitor, 2003). May served on the International Theological Commission from 1986 through 1997 and during those years worked closely with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. Dr. May has lectured in universities throughout the world.