Testing the Truths

The Coup at Catholic Universityby Peter M. Mitchell

Ignatius Press. 320p $19.95

The Second Vatican Council (1962–65) caught American Catholics, and American bishops, by surprise. In the United States the Catholic Church expanded dramatically in the years after World War II. The number of Catholics almost doubled, and for the first time bishops and religious orders had the human and financial resources to meet their needs. Building, fund-raising and providing basic pastoral care took up almost all the energy of the bishops. Few anticipated the changes and challenges that the council inspired. Addressing those changes during and after the council was complicated by unprecedented conflicts in the country. It was “the Sixties.” Much did change; whether those changes were due to the Vatican II, to developments within the American Catholic community or to the pressures of “secular” society was and remains an unsettled question.

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By the time of Pope John Paul II, in the process of reform and renewal deep divisions had opened within the American church. Now, a half century after the council, we have in The Coup at Catholic University an honest expression of those differences.

The Rev. Peter M. Mitchell describes himself as a John Paul II Catholic, part of a generation inspired by the pope’s call for a more assertive, evangelical faith. As he sees it, the previous Vatican II generation tried hard to adapt Catholic faith and practice to American conditions, in the process undermining authority and placing Catholic identity, even integrity, at risk. His generation, committed to affirming a distinctively Catholic faith, is recovering the American church’s identity. Father Mitchell hopes that by helping American Catholics understand the Vatican II generation, he can contribute to overcoming those divisions.

The Coup at Catholic University is a well-researched and carefully told story of how the U.S. bishops, who controlled The Catholic University of America, dealt with the case of the Rev. Charles Curran, the moral theologian, in 1967–68. At first they decided not to renew Curran’s contract, ending his career at the university. In the past this would have been the end of the story, but this time the faculty, who had endorsed Curran’s candidacy for renewal and tenure, refused to accept that decision. They were joined by many students, including priests who were graduate students, in a strike and well publicized demonstrations. The university chancellor, Bishop Patrick O’Boyle of Washington, and the board backed down, handing victory to Curran and the faculty.

A year later Pope Paul VI published the encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” which renewed the church’s condemnation of artificial birth control. Curran led a large group of theologians, many from Catholic University, who expressed their public disagreement with the encyclical. Individual bishops sidelined some dissenters; but, once again, the university, in the name of academic freedom, did not penalize faculty members who had expressed their opposition. As Mitchell and others see it, this was a critical turning point in U.S. Catholic history.

Peter Mitchell tells the story well within the larger historical framework he sets at the start. For him Curran and his supporters wanted the “absolute” autonomy of the university based “entirely on academic freedom.” By backing down, the church’s bishops lost control of Catholic higher education and Catholic theology, at great cost to the church. He interviewed the living veterans of the struggle, including Father Curran, and he treats the dissenters and demonstrators with respect. But he adds drama to the story by resurrecting the memory of the Rev. Eugene Kevane, dean of the School of Education, who resisted the pro-Curran march of the faculty and whose correspondence with key bishops demonstrated, to Mitchell’s satisfaction, his keen insight into what was at stake in the crisis. If Curran won out, Kevane wrote, “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.” He was right, Mitchell thinks, but Kevane was not reappointed, after another fight, and left the university. He seems like the victim of the Vatican II “coup,” as Curran, fired again years later, might be seen by some as the eventual victim of John Paul’s counterrevolution.

But the book is limited to the 1967-1968 disputes. Three points deserve attention. First, Mitchell never explains that Catholic University was unique in its pontifical status and governance by the U.S. hierarchy. A few other colleges were established under diocesan authority, but the vast majority of colleges and universities were established, and before 1968 governed, by religious orders. Bishops rarely contributed funds and almost never interfered with academic governance. One bishop complained that he felt “like a potted plant at graduation.” The introduction of theology into the curriculum and the development of conflicts among theologians was a post-Vatican II phenomenon that set the stage for the long conflict between the universities and Rome. Aside from Catholic University and its pontifical faculties, it was rarely for the Vatican a question of who controls the university, but of who controls theology. That fight is still going on.

Second, Mitchell tries to be fair to the Vatican II bishops and dissenters, but he follows the narrative that sees their actions as dictated by a desire to win acceptance and prestige in secular academic life. That is clearly inadequate, as the work of the historian Alice Gallin, O.S.U., makes clear (her two books and one collection of documents on post-Vatican II Catholic higher education are not referred to here). The architects of university autonomy had a vision of shared public responsibility, working at the center, not the edge, of modern and American culture. They hoped that Catholics could engage, enrich and in some cases—like race, economic justice and war—transform society. Most of all they hoped they could nourish the creative intelligence and imagination of American Catholics. Mitchell’s adaptation-to-secular-society framework trivializes the stakes and mischaracterizes half the players.

Third and most important, Mitchell simply bypasses the challenges posed by Vatican II, especially the challenge posed by the idea that truth could be found outside as well as inside the church and the subcultures it created. For Curran truths of faith had to be related to truths of human experience, especially in human sexuality. For many faculty members, the faith had to be tested by standards of truthfulness in science and in the give and take of intellectual and religious pluralism. Mitchell admits that the “dissenters” never challenged the ministry of bishops and pope to protect the central truths of the tradition, but he fails to acknowledge their confidence that even the most basic Christian truths could be better known when placed in dialogue with others. The “Pastoral Constitution on the Church and the Modern World” seemed to affirm that idea. The actions of the Vatican and the hierarchy, beginning with the Curran affair, often seemed to contradict it. So the stakes were indeed high, and people on both sides knew it.

History provides memory for communities and institutions, sometimes shared memories that give meaning to the common life. But often there are sharp contests over the content and interpretation of memory. Father Mitchell clearly loves the church and hopes to reconcile contending parties, but his book, perhaps like this review, stands within and not above the battleground. More than this “coup” story will be needed to draw our Catholic generations together.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Carolyn Disco
2 years 2 months ago
Thank you, David O'Brien, for your review of a book I shall be sure not to buy. "Trivializes" and "mischaracterizes" sounds exactly right to me.
Lisa Weber
2 years 2 months ago
"Humanae Vitae" clearly fails the criteria that "truths of faith had to be related to truths of human experience," especially if the human experience of women is considered. It was divisive because it fails that test. Trying to "control theology" is doomed to failure if theology draws conclusions that are not truthful in human experience.
Henry George
1 year 2 months ago
Lisa Weber, The "Sexual Revolution" seems only to have led to ever more casualness about sexual relations, divorces, and abortions. Is it really that hard for most couples to abstain from conjugal acts for 8 days a month ?

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