As a convert to the faith I have become quite interested in the history of the Church during the whole lifetime of the Church. Pretty much every age of the Church is quite fascinating. The ups ands downs, the saints and sinners, all the ecclesiastical conflicts. These tensions in Church history are chronicled from the New Testament on.
After reading a new book I reflected on the fact that one aspect of Church history I have read a good deal on is primarily the last fifty years and the aftermath of Vatican II. Or more particularly the Spirit of Vatican II aftermath synergistic combined with cultural upheavals. This period really intrigues me as I try to understand the culture of dissent that has risen. I also noticed that the number of books regarding this period were mostly about the Church in America.
Having this interest I was happy to receive a copy of The Coup at Catholic University: The 1968 Revolution in American Catholic Education by Father Peter Mitchell published by Ignatius Press. I was somewhat aware of Fr. Charles Curran, professor of Theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, and the controversy that rose up around him. This was an important event and was a sign of things to come. A case that became an unfortunate model at other Catholic universities to emulate.
This is a very well researched book and goes into great detail of what happened when first Fr. Curran’s contract was not renewed by the Board of Trustees of CUA (all bishops). What happened next was a revolt by the faculty in Fr. Curran’s favor and the Board of Trustees reversing themselves. There are plenty of sources used in this book which includes personal papers of those involved, published documents, Fr. Curran’s autobiography. The author of the book also personally interviewed Fr. Curran.
What engaged me in this book was the wealth of detailed information delivered in a non-polemical fashion. Certainly the title of this book let’s you know how the author thinks about this history, but still this is presented rather straight-forward. Although like most history regarding dissent it is as frustrating as reading the daily paper. As this is still rather recent historically you wonder about how things could have been handled differently.
The bishops involved acted correctly in their concern regarding Fr. Curran’s orthodoxy. Yet as usual instead of addressing the problem more head-on, tried to side-step it in a rather ham-fisted way. Instead of actually addressing the theological concerns they attempted to just not renew his contract and have the whole problem go away. Very Pollyannish considering that the theology faculty had approved his remaining and that he should be promoted. Obviously there were deeper problems going on with the faculty. This really emboldened dissent regarding contraception after the release of Humanae Vitae.
What I found interesting was the template developed that we see so often now. The media-savvy dissident theologian who knows how to garner support and to get the mainstream media involved. To present themselves as rather humble and the only reason they got the media involved was to right an injustice and that the action was for others, not about them at all. That the hierarchy was totally out of touch with theological concerns of society and thus were holding the poor theologian down and preventing their growth. Women theologians have taken the page out of Curran’s dissenting cookbook and added to it by blaming everything on the maleness of the hierarchy. Basically all reciting the line from Monty Python’s “Holy Grain” – ‘Help! Help! I’m Being Suppressed!’”
Of course the banner Academic freedom was flown every which way by those involved. Phrases like Academic freedom are what I would call bunker phrases. They aren’t meant for any serious intellectual engagement, but are something to hide behind. Anybody could come up with examples of proper limits for Academic freedom and edge cases where it would not aptly apply. Still bunker phrases are meant to be invoked like magical spells freezing their opponent from being able to say something back. You can’t mean you really are against Academic freedom and research into science?
One thing I am reminded off when reading about the state of Catholic education is the Israelites desire to have a king like the other nations around them. It was not enough that in a special sense God was their King. They were warned about the consequences of having a king and the problems they bring. No mostly they were upset that they didn’t have the same form of government as the nations around them. They wanted to be like everybody else. So faculty in Catholic universities also looked around and saw what they perceived as greater liberty in other institutions. As Israel cast of the Judges, these faculties cast off the Magisterium. Embracing an understanding of the Church that reduced it to any teaching authority. Dissidents did not really believe in a parallel magisterium, but that they were the magisterium.
I think of Hillary Clinton’s “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism”, until of course the dissenters are in power. The same is true in this case if you attempt to dissent from a dissenter. This book provides one case where this was especially true and all the talk of Academic freedom and conscience meant nothing in their treatment of a priest faithful to the Church.
If you are interested, as I am, in books of this type than this is well-worth your attention. This book is very well written and the appendixes include many of the documents sourced.