Finding the Origins of Today’s Dissent in “Catholic” Colleges
May 13, 2016 | By Stephanie Pacheco | www.cardinalnewmansociety.org/CatholicEducationDaily/DetailsPage/tabid/102/ArticleID/4901/Finding-the-Origins-of-Today%e2%80%99s-Dissent-in-Catholic-Colleges.aspx
On April 18, students at Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., and at the graduate campus in Alexandria, Va., welcomed a calm and unassuming young priest with closely shaven blond hair to talk about the origins of dissent at U.S. Catholic colleges. The history and the events described during the presentation help to understand the many Catholic identity problems seen on college campuses today.
Father Peter Mitchell, a pastor in the Diocese of Green Bay, Wis., and a historian trained at the Gregorian Pontifical University in Rome, told the story of how faculty at Catholic colleges rebelled against the Magisterium in the late 1960s in the name of academic freedom. He argued that this explains the context of theological dissent in America today.
A crowd of about 70 students, alumni, interested lay people, a few priests and one bishop settled into their chairs to hear Fr. Mitchell’s presentation, based on his new book, The Coup at CUA. The setting of his tale at The Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington, D.C., offers hope for Catholic education, as the University has enjoyed a revival of Catholic identity and today is among the faithful colleges recommended by The Cardinal Newman Society in The Newman Guide.
The story began in April 1967, a few short years after the Second Vatican Council, which ended in 1965. Father Charles Curran, a young theology professor at CUA, taught openly that Catholics ought to follow their conscience, even if it differed from the teachings of the Magisterium. Fr. Curran caught special attention because his field was moral theology, and he focused on sexual ethics and contraception.
The bishops on the board of trustees of CUA tried to quietly oust the nontenured professor by not renewing his contract. Fr. Curran responded by heading straight to the press and followed up by igniting a protest that included both students and faculty. Fr. Mitchell pointed out that Fr. Curran’s protest tapped into widespread resentment among faculty about an overly authoritarian style of leadership from the pre-Vatican II hierarchy, thus adding cultural fuel to the fire.
The media sided with Fr. Curran. The sympathizing professors framed the issue as a question of academic freedom and intellectual integrity.Ultimately, Fr. Curran prevailed and the bishops, hoping for peace, restored his teaching position and granted him tenure, a position from which he publicly dissented from the Church for almost 20 more years.
Less than three months later, in July 1967, the presidents of the largest Catholic universities — the University of Notre Dame, Georgetown University, Fordham University, Boston College and St. Louis University — met in Land O’Lakes, Wis., and issued the “Land O’Lakes Statement.” The Statement declared their academic independence from episcopal oversight. Its opening paragraph stated that, “To perform its teaching and research functions effectively the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.”
Fr. Mitchell argued that this was a defining moment in the 20th century for Catholic education. He said that the confusion and disunity about doctrine so prevalent in departments of theology at Catholic colleges are part of the wake of the Fr. Curran affair, which paved the way for the “Land O’Lakes Statement.” After those events, dissent and unfaithful teachings became a staple of Catholic colleges — and still are.
Fr. Mitchell concluded his talk on that note, but his presentation explained the context of the 1970s rise of avowedly orthodox colleges. These institutions take a page from the perspective of the late Monsignor Eugene Kevane, who was a lonely voice of opposition to Fr. Curran during the 1967 protest and who was later quietly demoted by the triumphant dissenting faculty members.
Msgr. Kevane believed that a Catholic university was authentically at the service of society by being truly Catholic, by bringing the intellectual treasury of the faith to bare for the good of the nation. He went on to found the Notre Dame Catechetical Institute in Alexandria, Va., to train catechists in Church doctrine, a school which later became the theology graduate program of Christendom College.
Christendom and others colleges like it — such as Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ave Maria University and Thomas Aquinas College — were founded in the 1970s and later, established in a culture of confusion and dissent to answer a need for authentic Catholic teaching. Their example helped spark a renewal of Catholic identity at other Catholic colleges, including CUA.
Within a legitimately pluralistic society, the faithfulness of a Catholic college strengthens rather than diminishes its ability to make a unique contribution to the intellectual community and the nation at large. Fr. Mitchell argued that a “Catholic” university is no less for being Catholic; rather it is a university in the fullest sense, “dedicated to teaching the truth, seeking to understand rightly the meaning of academic freedom and tolerance for diverse opinions.”
The specific, magisterial methodology for the theological and philosophical disciplines indeed sets Catholic universities apart; it is also what gives them their distinctive character. Authentic theology models a way of investigating truth in a clear manner, albeit different from narrow interpretations of a rationalist scientific method that tend to predominate at secular universities.
The Catholic faith teaches that truth has but one source, that all truth comes from and points back to God. So there is nothing to be lost from different approaches, provided they are honest and reasonable.
The freedom to be truly Catholic is just as American as freedom of religion itself, the first clause of the First Amendment. Being a Catholic university, then, means holding to the fullness of the faith, including loyalty to the Magisterium (which in no way prevents lay people from recognizing real faults in the actions of priests and bishops themselves). There is nothing threatening, unfree or un-American about letting a Catholic university be Catholic. It exists as an expression of the freedom to seek truth in differing ways, essentially an embodiment of pluralism at its best.