1968: The Year of Revolution in American Catholic Education

Since the successful coup at CUA in the late Sixties, says Fr. Peter Mitchell, "the theology of dissent against Church teaching has remained normative and prevalent in American Catholic institutions of higher education…"

Fr. Peter Mitchell’s book The Coup at Catholic University: The 1968 Revolution in American Catholic Education, recently published by Ignatius Press, is a detailed studied of revolutionary events that took place in the late Sixties at Catholic University of America. The revolution was led by Fr. Charles Curran, professor of Theology at CUA, who with more than 500 theologians signed a “Statement of Dissent” declaring that Catholics were not bound in conscience to follow the Church’s teaching in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae

The battle at Catholic University was focused on the nature, purpose, and limits of academic freedom. Curran and other dissenting theologians insisted they should be free to teach as they wished, without direction or oversight from the authority of the bishops. The bishops, in turn, said that the American tradition of religious freedom guaranteed the right of religiously-affiliated schools to require professors to teach in accord with the authority of their church. Fr. Mitchell used never-before published material from the personal papers of the key players to tell the inside story of the conflict at CUA; his account begins with the 1967 faculty-led strike in support of Curran.

Fr. Peter Mitchell received his doctorate in Church History from the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome, in 2009. He is a priest of the of the Diocese of Green Bay and has spent much of his priesthood working in Catholic education. He recently corresponded with Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, about The Coup at Catholic University.

CWR: You present the events at CUA in the late Sixties as the result, in large part, of a revolutionary clash between a short-sighted, authoritarian stance by Church leaders and the dissenting, “freedom first” approach by theologians and others. What events and movements inside and outside the Church led to that situation?

Fr. Mitchell: The immediate aftermath of Vatican II saw an unprecedented and largely unexpected release of frustration on the part of Catholic intellectuals with the attitude of the hierarchy towards priests and professors. Prior to Vatican II, there had been several incidents of censorship at CUA imposed by the bishops who made up the university board of trustees. The clerical authority that ran the university was perceived, not without good reason, as extremely controlling and fearful of genuine academic debate.

By contrast, the young, unified and highly motivated generation of priests who took control of the School of Theology self-consciously defined themselves as devotees of “post-conciliar theology” and relevance, which primarily meant that they equated the pronouncements of the hierarchical Magisterium with a narrow-mindedness that was to be eschewed for the sake of a supposedly more relevant and modern approach to faith and truth.

In turn, post-conciliar theology found a willing and powerful ally in the AAUP, the American Association of University Professors, whose principles had developed into a quasi-religious ideology of academic freedom that rejected the validity of any and all creedal statements of a priori dogmatic truth. The larger cultural context of the Vietnam War and the Sexual Revolution also contributed to a climate in which protesting and “freedom” was in and obedience to authority was out.

CWR: In what ways did the resulting controversy reveal deeper issues and tensions? And how have they informed various conflicts between bishops and theologians since then? 

Fr. Mitchell: From the very beginning of the controversy, Monsignor Eugene Kevane, dean of the CUA School of Education, declared unequivocally that the real issue at stake was the practical authority of the Magisterium over Catholic higher education. The School of Theology believed that the bishops who oversaw the university had a faulty understanding of their own authority and sought to eliminate them from having any practical oversight of the school. Kevane sought to dissent from the position of these dissenters and as a result found himself ostracized within the university academic community and eventually thrown out of his deanship in January 1968.

At the time of his dismissal, Kevane wrote a letter to the bishops on the CUA board of trustees and warned them that the issue at stake was whether the Church could continue her schools in the United States at all: “For if the plan succeeds to capture this official National Catholic University of the American Hierarchy, there will be incalculable future results. The seeds of religious doubt, doctrinal confusion and outright crisis in Faith will be sown over the entire United States through the very schools and colleges operated by and in the name of the Church.”

Kevane’s words have proven remarkably accurate: the coup at Catholic University succeeded, and the theology of dissent against Church teaching has remained normative and prevalent in American Catholic institutions of higher education as well as in secondary and parochial schools to the present day.

CWR: A key theme throughout your study is that Fr. Charles Curran and other dissenters wanted CUA — and the Church — to be fully Catholic and fully American. Why is this point so important and how did Curran and others envision such a marriage, so to speak, to come about?

Fr. Mitchell: American history has always seen a certain tension between the American cultural values of individualism and personal liberty and the Catholic tradition’s emphasis on obedience and hierarchy. Curran sought to harmonize “American and Catholic” by striving to eliminate from the Catholic understanding of authority the elements that he thought violated human rights and individual liberty. He believed that CUA would gain prestige among American institutions of higher learning by throwing off its vestigial attachment to the juridical authority of the hierarchical Magisterium. Curran was supported in his view by numerous other Catholic educators across the country who signed the “Land O’ Lakes Statement on the Nature of the Contemporary Catholic University” in July 1967.

CWR: What sort of role did the “Land O’Lakes Statement” play in the controversy at CUA, and what impact has it had, overall, on Catholic higher education in the U.S.?

Fr. Mitchell: This watershed “Declaration of Independence” was signed by twenty-six representatives of American institutions of Catholic higher education, including high-ranking superiors of the Holy Cross Fathers and the Society of Jesus. Five presidents of major Catholic universities – Notre Dame, Boston College, Georgetown, Fordham and St. Louis University – joined with other educators in declaring that the oversight of bishops was an embarrassment for schools that were striving to enter the American mainstream and be accepted by their peers in secular higher education.

In calling for critical evaluation of the bishops and for the absence of all boundaries to intellectual inquiry, the Land O’ Lakes Statement declared that “changes of this kind are essential for the future of the Catholic university.” The American bishops were told categorically at Land O’ Lakes that any practical oversight of Catholic universities was no longer their role in the post-conciliar Church. This situation in which bishops have little if any juridical authority over Catholic institutions of higher education remains normative in the United States to the present day.

CWR: What was the role of Fr. Curran and, in your estimation, what motivated him? And why was he so successful in leading the revolt against CUA leadership and the bishops?

Fr. Mitchell: Curran and his peers sought to preserve the academic reputation of Catholic education within the greater American academic community. They believed that the Church had squelched freedom within higher education and saw themselves as crusaders for truth and basic justice. Curran’s supporters skillfully used the media to present Curran as the unjust victim of discrimination by an oppressive university administration. The bishops’ refusal to give Curran a hearing or to publicly comment on the reason for their dismissal of Curran did not help their cause. The secular press presented the bishops as being out of touch and opposed to the reforms of Vatican II, while Curran came across as youthful, easygoing, moderate, and respectable. Such sympathetic coverage caused Curran to receive substantial support from casual observers both inside and outside the Catholic Church.

CWR: How were Curran and others able to appeal to Vatican II as a source for their dissent, but then, in 1968, turn around and publicly denounce “Humanae vitae” and use that in an entirely different manner?

Fr. Mitchell: Post-conciliar theology emphasized the competence and relevance of theologians, especially young theologians, in contrast with the relative, if not total, incompetence of the Church’s Magisterium in pronouncing on theological matters. It further dismissed obedience to the teaching of the Magisterium as simplistic and unworthy of autonomous modern man, and it declared, in the name of the “Spirit of Vatican II”, that all that had been taught by the Magisterium prior to the council was contingent and historically conditioned.

Post-conciliar theologians asserted that Vatican II had called the laity to instruct the pastors of the Church, and this “Magisterium of the People of God” and the “Magisterium of the theologians” was declared to hold more validity than the Magisterium of the pope and bishops. In the words of Robert Hunt of the CUA School of Theology, “The Sacred Magisterium, which serves a function different from theologians, can never, under any circumstances, directly enter or pre-empt the Catholic theological academe. The Sacred Magisterium … is simply incompetent in theology.”

When Humanae Vitae was issued, Curran and his peers invoked their professional expertise as theologians and declared it was their duty to inform the Catholic faithful that the teaching of Pope Paul VI was not infallible and therefore not morally binding in conscience upon the laity.

CWR: It seems evident that many Catholics today, in rejecting the Church’s teaching on a host of moral issues, are using a tactic very similar to that used in the late Sixties. What lessons should be learned from the events of 1967-68, for bishops and for lay people alike? What must be done in order for Catholic universities and colleges to thrive and embody the mission of the Church?

Fr. Mitchell: Monsignor Eugene Kevane accurately predicted that confusion, doubt, and outright crisis in faith would become the norm throughout the country, and that this confusion would be caused by Catholic education. The recent survey conducted in preparation for the upcoming Synod on the Family has shown that in fact there is widespread ignorance and dissent against Church teaching among American Catholics.

This situation is largely the result of the ascendance of the theology of dissent in the years immediately following Vatican II. Many of the bishops in the late 1960s hoped that a moderate position and dialogue with dissent would lead to an eventual “moving on” from the Curran controversy, but in fact their failure to find an effective vocabulary and/or the courage to oppose Curran in a united way gave the theology of dissent an unparalleled position of influence because of CUA’s position as the keystone of the entire Catholic educational system in the United States.

John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic letter on Catholic universities, Ex corde ecclesiae, remains largely unimplemented in many Catholic institutions. John Paul spoke at CUA in 1979 and affirmed the essential and indispensable role of the Magisterium in the theological enterprise, as well as the right of the faithful to receive from the Church the Word of God as authentically interpreted by the Magisterium. More attention on the part of bishops to this right of the faithful to receive the fullness of the truth from educators who teach in the name of the Church would be a healthy development in American Catholic higher education.