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July 20, 2015 (CardinalNewmanSociety) — Students should graduate from Catholic colleges more in love with the Church and the faith than when they first arrived, encouraged Catholic University of America (CUA) President John Garvey. In interviews with The Cardinal Newman Society, Garvey and author Father Peter Mitchell discussed how Catholic colleges lost sight of this fact in the late 1960s, and how Catholic identity is being regained.

Fr. Peter Mitchell’s book, The Coup at Catholic University: The 1968 Revolution in American Catholic Institutions, details the dramatic events that took place at CUA, the nation’s flagship Catholic university, and the unfortunate precedent it set for other Catholic colleges in America during that time. However, in recent years, CUA has returned to its roots and re-strengthened its Catholic identity in many meaningful ways.

“I grew up realizing that there was a lot of dissent in the way the Church’s teaching was taught at a lot of Catholic colleges,” Fr. Mitchell told the Newman Society. The book, he said, was an attempt to uncover that trail and discover what led to the overwhelming dissent still prevalent in so many of today’s Catholic colleges.

From 1967 to 1969, a majority of CUA’s faculty in the School of Theology, led by theology professor Fr. Charles Curran, defied the bishops on the Board of Trustees and effectively wrested control of the prevailing theology at the University. Along with more than 500 theologians from around the country, Fr. Curran and faculty at CUA signed a statement of dissent on July 30, 1968, in which they decried the moral teaching of the Church in Humanae Vitae and urged the Catholic faithful that they were not obliged to follow it.

The aftereffects of this dissent eventually disseminated throughout Catholic education and have presented a long road to recovery for Catholic identity in higher education, both Fr. Mitchell and Garvey attested.

Around the same time, Catholic universities such as the University of Notre Dame, Boston College, Georgetown University, Fordham University and St. Louis University joined in the “Land O’Lakes Statement” in 1967. The presidents of these Catholic institutions declared their independence from Church authority under the guise of “academic freedom.” They attempted to distance themselves from any bishop or Church oversight and seek acceptance from their peers in mainstream higher education.

Misunderstanding of Academic Freedom

The events at CUA in the late 1960s seemed to have been the tipping point among many Catholic academics. A sense of clerical authority that ran through the University caused some academics to be fearful of genuine academic debate, said Fr. Mitchell. Any misunderstanding of academic freedom or Church teaching was certainly amplified by the outspoken theologians who “in the spirit of Vatican II” claimed to be above Church teaching, discarding it for what they felt were more relevant and modern approaches to the faith.

However, “it’s not as simple as demonizing the theologians,” said Fr. Mitchell. Certainly they rebelled in an extremely unhealthy and damaging way, he continued, but it was based in large part around their misunderstanding of academic freedom and their refusal to accept the moral teaching of the Catholic Church.

Church teaching on faith and morals acts as a guide to make us free, Fr. Mitchell explained. “The Magisterium’s teaching sets us free to know the truth and then to creatively speak to know it further,” he said. For example, Catholics do not have to wonder if there [are] three persons in one God. The teaching on the Holy Trinity is a settled matter theologically. “We are set free by that definition to then engage the truth and know it further,” said Fr. Mitchell.

Garvey recalled his own experience of the years of upheaval in the Church. “I am just old enough that I can remember 1968 and what was going on in colleges. I was a young college student myself at that time. I think it had a real impact on Catholic higher education,” he said. Unfortunately, “even today you talk to people who were in school or who worked at Catholic universities at that time and they look back on that dissent with a kind of pride,” he noted.

That is not something that Catholics should have taken pride in, especially given the effect it had on faculty, students, administrators, the policies of Catholic institutions—and by extension within the Church—and the way in which teachings on sexuality were received in the Church, he added.

There is a narrow, false understanding of academic freedom that still persists in many Catholic colleges and in the secular media, Garvey continued. However, academic freedom is not the same as being able to say whatever a person wants to say, he explained, it must be guided by the Magisterium.

A lawyer by training and past law professor at several universities such as Boston College and Notre Dame, Garvey explained the responsibility teachers have to communicate the fullness of the truth, particularly in the area of theology. “If I were an expert in, let’s say, Chinese law and I presented the law effective in China as something that it is not, I would be a bad teacher and not the sort of person the university would want to hire,” he said. “This is not to say that people who teach at Catholic universities don’t have scope to critique [or] examine critically.”

“But people who are themselves Catholic and are teaching at Catholic universities in theological subjects are going to be people—this is the point of the mandatum—who ascribe to the beliefs of the Catholic Church,” he noted. “That’s part of their mission as teachers at a [Catholic] university.”

However, Fr. Curran and the other dissenters found willing partners in going against the U.S. bishops. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the secular media were ready to jump on board and remove any Church influence. “The mentality that came out of the AAUP’s anti-religious ideology said that any kind of dogmatic authority of any kind of Church institution is inherently, diametrically opposed to freedom,” explained Fr. Mitchell. That was the rallying cry of the AAUP throughout the 20th century: “Get rid of any kind of authoritative oversight in universities of whatever nature.”

The University was unable to oust Fr. Curran and was forced to reverse its decision to deny him tenure following protests by colleagues and a campus-wide strike. In 1986, the investigation into the theological teaching of Fr. Curran—led by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the time—eventually declared that he was not fit to teach Catholic theology. Fr. Curran was removed from the University, but much damage had already been done.

Ex corde Ecclesiae Essential for All Catholic Colleges

It is no wonder, then, that Pope John Paul II visited CUA in 1979 and addressed those gathered at the University on the issue of academic freedom and the role of theology in Catholic colleges.

“John Paul II comes to Catholic University, and he affirms the importance of academic freedom and the respect for the intellectual vocation of theologians and other professors,” Fr. Mitchell stated, “but he said [academic freedom] must always be within the guidance and gift of the Magisterium in helping us to know truth.”

Ex corde Ecclesiae—the Church’s constitution on Catholic higher education—thus seeks to establish the Catholic understanding of freedom and truth in terms of practical oversight in higher education by the successors of the Apostles. Ex corde Ecclesiae, along with its application in the United States, lays out very clearly the Catholic methodological approach to theology, Fr. Mitchell explained.

“There cannot be freedom divorced from truth—that’s really the great overlying theme of all of John Paul II’s pontificate, that freedom divorced from truth is not really freedom,” said Fr. Mitchell.

Yet this freedom comes with tremendous responsibility on the part of the University, Garvey attested. In light of the vision laid out in Ex corde Ecclesiae, Catholic colleges should, among other expectations, fulfill the following: maintain a majority of Catholic faculty, inform all faculty and staff about the Catholic identity and mission of the college, hold all faculty accountable for respecting Catholic doctrine, make sure professors of theology obtain the academic mandatum from the local bishop and work collectively with Church authority.

Pope John Paul II went so far as to state:

Bishops have a particular responsibility to promote Catholic Universities, and especially to promote and assist in the preservation and strengthening of their Catholic identity, including the protection of their Catholic identity in relation to civil authorities. This will be achieved more effectively if close personal and pastoral relationships exist between University and Church authorities, characterized by mutual trust, close and consistent cooperation and continuing dialogue. Even though they do not enter directly into the internal government of the University, Bishops “should be seen not as external agents but as participants in the life of the Catholic University.” 

Garvey insisted that Ex corde Ecclesiae is something that Catholic University takes very seriously, as it should in itself be a model for all Catholic colleges. “For my money, the most important sentence in Ex corde Ecclesiae and in the application is the one that says that Catholic universities ought to have on their faculty a majority of Catholics committed to the witness of the faith.” That prescription alone communicates the unique mission and nature of Catholic universities, he said. “And I think that’s called all of us at Catholic universities to a clearer sense of how to fulfill our mission,” added Garvey.

Much of the attention after the release of Ex corde was on the mandatum, said Garvey. And still today, there is a lot of attention paid to what is said and not said by professors.

“I think it’s a mistake for Catholic universities to think they are doing their job by just policing that boundary,” said Garvey, noting that the mission of Catholic education goes much deeper. “I think the job is to present what Catholics believe and live in a way that invites people to join in and is engaging, not just in theology but in the arts and music, architecture, literature, and economics.”

The job of the Catholic university is essentially to help Catholics to live out their faith fully and “to create a real and vibrant Catholic intellectual life that people want more of, not just to police boundary lines,” he said.

Catholic Univ. Recovers Catholic Identity

A vibrant Catholic environment is certainly something that the University has been trying to restore since the events of the late 1960s, and the University continues to emphasize its Catholic identity today, said Garvey.

Bishop David O’Connell of Trenton, N.J., who served as president of CUA from 1998 to 2010, is largely responsible for the renewal that has taken place at the University. And the positive trend continues strongly today under President Garvey.

The University has a unique relationship with its bishops, Garvey noted, and the implementation of Ex corde and improvements to student life on campus are evidence of CUA’s continued growth in Catholic identity.

The issue of authority that once was a sticking point in the 1960s is now a source of great blessing, Garvey noted. Archbishop of Washington, D.C., Cardinal Donald Wuerl is the University’s chancellor, Boston’s Cardinal Seán O’Malley is the chair of the Board of Trustees and 18 bishops and archbishops in total are part of the Board. “They’re involved routinely in the governance of the institution at the highest levels,” Garvey continued. “And I think the relationship between us and the Church is a very good way of steering the ship in the right direction.”

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“I think it is invaluable and explains why we are unique among the American Catholic universities to this day,” Garvey stated, noting that Catholic University in some ways is “inside the Church” in a way that no other college can be.

“It was the U.S. Catholic bishops that were involved in our own creation,” he said. “So all the conversations that we have on the board of trustees, or the executive committee of the board, or my own conversations with the Chancellor are informed by the Church’s own particular concerns in a way that is not possible at any other university.”

Fr. Mitchell was glad to see the University’s continued growth after what took place in the 1960s. “I hear very good things about Catholic University,” he said.

In place of that theology of dissent, John Garvey and Bishop O’Connell before him have chosen to emphasize the hiring of faithful, Catholic professors who can witness to students both inside and outside the classroom—a point recently highlighted by CUA’s new provost Andrew Abela in an interview with The Cardinal Newman Society.

Changes have also been made in student life and campus policies. Despite secular opposition in 2011, the University returned to single-sex dormitories in order to put Church teaching on sexuality into practice in a concrete way and combat “binge drinking and the culture of hooking up.” That has carried over to putting chapels and religious men and women in the residence halls alongside the students, Garvey added.

“I’ve tried to make sure that student life and campus ministry and athletics, and for that matter faculty advising and administration, that all of us are focused on the importance of Catholic mission,” Garvey said. Catholic colleges will know that they are successful, he said, when “students graduate as people who love the Church more than when they arrived.”

Fr. Charles Curran and the controversy that rose up around him was a critical turning point in the history of Catholic higher education in America, and in many cases it served as an unfortunate model for other Catholic colleges to follow.

The good news is that in many places Catholic education, guided by the teaching and authority of the Church, is on the mend. Faithful institutions like The Catholic University of America and the other Catholic colleges recommended in The Newman Guide have the right end goal in mind: generations of faithfully educated young Catholics prepared to live out their faith and serve the Church.

Reprinted with permission from The Cardinal Newman Society.


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