The Coup at Catholic University: The 1968 Revolution in American Catholic Education
by Fr. Peter Mitchell
Ignatius, 320 pages, $19.95

In the 1880s, when the bishops of the United States founded The Catholic University of America and obtained a papal charter for it, they intended it to help fulfill their responsibility to teach and promote Catholic faith. The University was governed by a Board of Trustees consisting mainly of bishops and was managed by clerics chosen by that Board.

The Schools of Sacred Theology, Philosophy, and Canon Law provided the pontifical degrees—doctorates and licentiates—that qualified recipients to teach in seminaries and work in tribunals. While the teaching in those CUA schools conformed as fully to papal teachings and norms as in any schools in Rome, formation at the pontifical university in Washington, D.C., was more convenient and apt for clerics who would serve in U.S. dioceses.

During the three years from the beginning of 1967 to the end of 1969, the majority of the faculty of the School of Theology, led by Rev. Charles E. Curran and supported by most of the rest of the faculty of CUA took from the bishops of the U.S. control of the theology that would be taught there. In doing so, they had powerful support from the secular media of communication and they made very effective use of a conception of academic freedom that had been designed to promote the secularization of higher education.

Working on a doctoral dissertation in Church history at the Gregorian University in Rome, Fr. Peter M. Mitchell carefully researched what happened during the three crucial years. After successfully defending his dissertation in 2009, he did additional work on the manuscript before arranging its publication. He is now pastor of a parish in the Green Bay diocese.

The book focuses on two main events. The first, in April 1967, was an attempt by the bishops to end Curran’s career at CUA—something they had the right to do, since he did not yet have tenure and his promotion and the granting of tenure depended on approval by the Board of Trustees. Protests by Curran’s colleagues and a campus-wide “strike” led the Board to reverse its decision and grant Curran promotion and tenure.

The second event was the public dissent in July 1968 from Paul VI’s Humanae vitae by many faculty of the School of Theology and some other faculty members. The Trustees did not meet until September 5, and then responded with a gesture that was worse than doing nothing: They consigned the matter to a faculty board of inquiry, which did not hesitate to pass judgment on both the theological issue and the Trustees, while predictably finding the dissenters blameless.

Fr. Mitchell deals thoroughly with both events, and with the long unfolding of the second of them as well as the Trustees’ ineffectual reaction to it. In doing so, he makes use of archival materials of several of the most important participants and a long interview with Charles Curran as well as a briefer one with me, bearing on an informal meeting, at which I was present, the evening before the September 5, 1968 meeting of the Trustees. Mitchell’s history seems to me entirely sound, and I expect Curran, whom I have always found to be fair-minded, would agree, despite the fact that Mitchell does not make him out to have been a hero.

Mitchell also provides a helpful background chapter on the influence of the American Association of University Professors on Catholic higher education and an interesting chapter on the successful campaign to remove Msgr. Eugene Kevane from his post as Dean of the School of Education. One of the few prominent faculty members who opposed the majority during the Curran affair in April 1967, Kevane was ousted before the 1968 event.

My only misgiving is not with Fr. Mitchell’s work but with the book’s subtitle: “The 1968 Revolution in American Catholic Education.” On this I have three observations.

First, what happened at CUA in 1967–68 was part of something much larger and more important than change in American Catholic Education, namely, worldwide, public theological dissent beginning around the time of Vatican II and quickly gaining control of most of the world’s Catholic graduate programs and journals. So far as I can see, no pope dealt more effectively with ongoing dissent in Rome than the U.S. bishops did with Curran and company in 1968. As I once said to a prelate of the Roman curia who was complaining about theological dissent in the United States: “American theologians are not very original. They are teaching hardly anything that was not taught previously in Rome and before that in Germany.”

My second observation is that the revolution in American Catholic education had been building for a long time and was much broader than the rejection of the magisterial teaching authority, which was central to the coup at CUA When I, fresh from graduate school, arrived at Georgetown in September 1957, I was surprised to find that the majority of my colleagues were unhappy with the administration for reasons that had nothing to do with theology. The same was true, as Fr. Mitchell reports, at CUA.

My third observation is that entities founded by zealous Catholics—whether lay people, religious, or clerics—to spread the faith and support it tend to lose focus and become secularized. After World War II, Catholic higher education greatly expanded, and few new hires shared the charisms of the founders. The same thing happened to Catholic hospitals. And something very similar has happened to many of the bishops’ own diocesan Catholic charities organizations.

Meeting the common standards for being a university, a hospital, or a welfare organization seems necessary and obtaining public funding seems helpful. Expanding in every possible way seems progress. But meanwhile, the ability to bear witness to one’s faith by manifesting the love of Christ toward students, patients, and poor people recedes until it is completely lost. Most professors, health care providers, and case workers are at best interested in people’s education, health, and welfare and at worst are interested only in their own career goals.

Retaining a few Catholic tokens does not preserve Catholic identity. Calling the residual entity Catholic is no longer accurate. Faithful Catholics who continue to donate are conned.

Germain Grisez is emeritus Professor of Christian Ethics at Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

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