1968: The Year of Revolution in American Catholic Education | CWR Staff | Catholic World Report
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?