The Coup at the (Catholic) U

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 19, 2015

It was a remarkable thing even for the 1960s—the takeover of the Catholic University of America by its heterodox Department of Theology. I am referring, of course, to the wholesale defiance of episcopal oversight as soon as the bishops on the Board of Trustees tried to put a stop to the promotion of a non-Catholic vision of sexual morality by the ever-popular Fr. Charles Curran. The sad tale is recounted remarkably well in Peter M. Mitchell’s new book from Ignatius Press: The Coup at Catholic University: The 1968 Revolution in American Catholic Education.

There were a great many factors in the success of the doctrinal rebellion at the University. For example, the Catholic theological community in general had long been alienated by the narrow, suspicious character of the Holy Office, which fueled a growing refusal to accept ecclesiastical discipline. The faculty at Catholic University itself were increasingly at odds with the school’s administration and board of trustees over questions from pay to university governance. Moreover, the secular principles of academic excellence and academic freedom championed by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) were all the rage.

In addition, of course, the dominant note of the 1960s was rebellion against past conventions. This was thought noble and heroic by anyone who was anybody. And, as I have frequently mentioned, a kind of secularization-gone-public was sweeping through what was left of Western civilization. This larger cultural meltdown left the American bishops divided, fearful, weak and ineffective.

Already Far Gone by 1965

Unlike many who will read Mitchell’s horrifying account, I lived through this period in American Catholic history. Although I was not at Catholic University, I was in college at the time, and I was flexing my muscles as a Catholic apologist. Reading voraciously in the nearly underground orthodox Catholic press (for all the major Catholic journals changed their stripes with the cultural shift), I kept myself as informed as possible about what was going on.

The details are fascinating, but perhaps the single most important thing to know about the disaster that befell Catholic University was that the secularized “Catholic” rot at the root of the crisis was already very widespread when the quarrel over Charles Curran’s sexual teaching exploded in 1967, and well before the famous statement of dissent against Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae vitae (On the Regulation of Birth) rocked the Church in 1968.

It is true that the Catholic University theologians repeatedly tried to justify their deviation from Catholic moral teaching by cherry-picking out-of-context quotes from the Second Vatican Council. Like all the Modernists, their references were thin, for they mostly invoked the spirit of the Council. But what was really driving them was their intellectual absorption by the cultural mainstream. They were already cloaked in values of secular American higher education as espoused by the AAUP. The great promise in this was that “Catholic” professors would finally gain the respect of secular universities as being worthy of their number. (Academics are no more noted for moral courage than anyone else, but they are typically far better at obfuscating the issues to conceal unworthy motives.)

The AAUP’s standards of academic freedom were rooted strongly in empiricism. They were vacant of any coherent reflection on the nature of reality or the diversity of methods each discipline must use to arrive at truth. But under the pressure of accreditation, these standards became a convenient lash with which to beat “outmoded” conceptions of theological study and ecclesiastical authority. They also provided a clever way of framing the conflict between theologians and the Board of Trustees as one of proper university governance, so that questions of orthodoxy gave way to the pressing need to have a respected university environment in which faculty were answerable only to their academic peers.

Indeed, even among Catholics who dissent from the teachings of the Magisterium of the Church today, claims of due process, the assertion of the incompetence of Rome to judge, and the sole acceptance of peer review remain the linchpins of life as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Of course only similarly misguided academics are considered true scholars and, therefore, peers of the accused. Orthodoxy remains the great disqualification.

Anyway, it is obvious from how the events at CUA unfolded that the essential academic shift had long since taken place, and that the goal in the late 1960s was to ensure its success by changes in university mission and governance. To consider just a few of the indicators, note that only one department at Catholic University offered any resistance to the rising tide of dissent (Education, under the truly courageous Msgr. Eugene Kevane). The rest of the university, including the students who had long since been won over to the views of their professors, went on an immediate and well-orchestrated strike as soon as the Board decided to let Curran’s contract lapse (he did not have tenure). With few exceptions, both the Catholic and (of course) secular press immediately championed the dissenters, though only the secular press dared to admit that the quarrel was really about the authority of the Magisterium of the Church.

Moreover, as soon as Curran and the whole raft of dissenters defeated the Board in successive victories in 1968 and 1969, the entire university community turned on Msgr. Kevane despite his exemplary credentials as a teacher, a scholar, and an administrator. The sole outspoken opponent of the reigning heterodoxy was removed from the Deanship of the School of Education without a hearing, orchestrated and approved by the very community which had reacted with such mock horror when the very same thing had been done to Charles Curran by the Board. The theologians in particular had no trouble using the tactics they had just condemned to deal with anyone who dissented against the new magisterium they had claimed for themselves!

But in this matter of how far things had slipped in the Catholic academic world even before the Council, perhaps one picture is worth a thousand words. That picture is included, among others, in Mitchell’s superb book. It comes from the CUA strike against the Board of Trustees (i.e., the bishops). It shows two nuns, still in full habit, carrying a huge sign which reads: “If there is no room for Charlie in the Catholic University OF America, there is no room for the Catholic university IN America.”

Incredible Positions (literally)

Out of so many episodes that could be recounted of the treachery of the Catholic intellectuals, the hidden values of the main players, and the episcopal failure to rise to the challenge of massive secularization at their own institution, perhaps two most clearly reveal what was really going on at Catholic University. Unfortunately, a good number of bishops seemed incapable of admitting to themselves what was at stake. There was such fear on all sides that being truly Catholic would result in loss of national and international prestige for the University!

First, let me quote from an address at Notre Dame in 1966 by David Fellman, president of the AAUP, in which he drove home the dominant attitude toward academic achievement at this time. Fellman asserted the first principles of the academic freedom necessary to a true university. He began by stating that “no one’s particular truth…can be regarded as such a final truth that it is never, thereafter, subject to critical treatment by others,” which, of course, is a bit of a straw man. But then he let the cat out of the bag. In the great American tradition of freedom which must govern university life, he insisted, there can be no absolute principles: “Its only final truth is the conviction that there are no such things” (p. 79).

Second, let me quote from the harangue (for that is what it was) delivered to Catholic University by the Middle States Association, which had the task of reviewing Catholic University’s accreditation in 1967. This was part of a larger statement of what CUA would have to do if it expected to retain its accreditation:

Those who still yearn for vanished national moods of stability and harmony are no longer in leadership positions in the American academic community. It is a day of faith in flux and of a commitment to change. Ferment will be a normal condition for some time to come. An appetite for a new look is now a professional requirement. Planning which takes account of tomorrow’s needs rather than today’s necessities becomes imperative in a day of rapid change.

The burden of this message was to force CUA into the acceptance of flexible instruments of faculty self-governance, instead of trying to tie the school to a stable Catholic mission based on the teachings of Christ and the Church. For this purpose, the MSA used an evaluation team which included “right-thinking” Catholic priest educators.

The Long Road Back

The litany of absurdity was as long as it was loud. It makes truly fascinating reading but, as I said, in a horrific way. Mitchell has done extraordinarily thorough research. He tells the story fairly and at a good pace. But the 300-page book cannot avoid being one long cautionary tale, and that is no criticism. The bare facts are an indictment of the culture, the academy, the theologians, the press, and the episcopate.

Yet despite the successful coup at Catholic University, the Holy Spirit apparently found ways to work. Pope John Paul II gave the CUA community a coherent account of academic freedom in the context of Catholic truth when he visited in 1979, ten years after the capitulation of the Board to the theologians. In 1990, the Pope issued Ex Corde Ecclesiae (Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities), which began a long (albeit very spotty) process of reflection and improvement in Catholic education. In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI likewise visited the University and reflected with the faculty again on the relationship between academic freedom and the teaching office of the Church.

But perhaps most telling was the investigation into the theological teaching of Charles Curran by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (under John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger). In 1986, the CDF declared that Curran was not eligible to teach Catholic theology. Though it came nearly twenty years late, CUA removed him from the faculty. In 1989, Curran lost a court case to be reinstated. He finished his academic career at Southern Methodist University. This time there was relatively little turbulence. Against all odds, the Catholic University of America has slowly improved ever since.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Jim.K - May. 21, 2015 1:49 PM ET USA

    The same senerio occurred at nearly all of the other Catholic Universities. There were many orthodox voices crying for help from our Bishops. We were sidelined as kooks, dissenters and worse. I believe the events of the 60's were sown in the 50's or 40's or before. The Bishops that we complained to were the enemy, placed there before the revolution. I still find it hard to believe that VII is all good and it was the "interpretations" that were bad. There is still "evil within our leadership."

  • Posted by: shrink - May. 21, 2015 5:28 AM ET USA

    Jeff, thanks for the response. I will definitely put this book on my summer reading list.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - May. 20, 2015 11:21 AM ET USA

    shrink: These details and many more are in the book, and it is true that the minority of bishops who were taking a hardish line of one sort or another (but could never sway the whole Board) finally backed off because the Vatican (in a letter from Cardinal Garonne, prefect of the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education) conveyed Paul VI's apparent desire that the Board should avoid further interference in the administration of CUA, so that the newly approved statutes and bylaws would be more likely to have a positive effect over time. (Recall that the Vatican in this period nearly always preferred “peace” to confrontation.) This letter was sent to Cardinal Krol (one of those who were holding relatively firm) with the request that he attempt to influence Cardinal O'Boyle, who was chairman of the Board. The hardest-liner was easily Cardinal McIntyre of Los Angeles, who repeatedly introduced motions (without ever getting even a second) to tell the dissenters to either withdraw their dissent or be removed from their positions, since they had violated the profession of faith they had made when they received their appointments.

  • Posted by: shrink - May. 19, 2015 9:17 PM ET USA

    Not all bishops were pushed over. OBoyle pushed back hard and was ready to go to the mat, (as noted in his NYTimes obituary by WOLFGANG SAXON: August 11, 1987) but OBoyle was ORDERED to back off by Cdl Wright in the Vatican ostensibly under the direction of Paul VI—this information (not in the obit) was told by OBoyle's theological advisor to a young Capuchin deacon who was defending Humanae Vitae at the time and was about to be black-beaned by his order. OBoyle defended him.