The Coup at Catholic University

The 1968 Revolution in American Catholic Education

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1968 witnessed perhaps the greatest revolution in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States. It was led by Fr. Charles Curran, professor of Theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, with more than 500 theologians who signed a "Statement of Dissent" that declared Catholics were not bound in conscience to follow the Church's teaching in the encyclical of Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, that said artificial contraception is morally wrong because it is destructive of the good of Christian marriage.

The battle at Catholic University centered on the major question in Catholic higher education during the turbulent years after the Second Vatican Council, "What is the meaning of academic freedom at a Catholic university?" Curran and the dissenting theologians maintained they needed to be free to teach without constraint by any outside authority, including the bishops. The bishops maintained that the American tradition of religious freedom guaranteed the right of religiously-affiliated schools to require their professors to teach in accord with the authority of their church.

This book uses never-before published material from the personal papers of the key players at CUA to tell the inside story of the dramatic events that unfolded there. Beginning with the 1967 faculty-led strike in support of Curran, this book reveals the content of the internal discussions between the key bishops on the CUA Board of Trustees.

This work attempts to disprove both the standard "liberal" and "conservative" interpretation of the events of 1968, suggesting that the culture of dissent was a direct fruit of the excessive legalism and authoritarianism which marked the Church in the years preceding Vatican II. Because the polarization in 1968 has continued to define the experience of many American Catholics and has had an ongoing effect on Catholic education, this work should be extremely interesting to those who want to understand the past so as to move forward with a greater awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of Catholic education in the United States.

Peter Mitchell

Fr. Peter Mitchell is a priest of the of the Diocese of Green Bay. He received his doctorate in Church History from the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome, in 2009. He has spent much of his priesthood working in Catholic education.


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"Fr. Peter Mitchell's book explains the ideological roots of the identity crisis that Catholic higher education has suffered for the past 50 years and a way out of the confusion. Packed with fascinating historical detail and conclusive evidence, it will stimulate a lively discussion of the meaning of academic freedom within a Catholic university."
Fr. Frederick Miller, S.T.D., Spiritual Director, College Seminary of the Immaculate Conception

"In this riveting history Fr. Mitchell tells a compelling story which reveals the origins and gives theological insight into the tensions still present in Catholic higher education. The Coup at Catholic University reveals hope for strengthening the identity and mission of our Catholic Universities by shining light on our recent past."
— Most Rev. Andrew Cozzens, S.T.D., Bishop of St. Paul-Minneapolis

"An extraordinarily rich and detailed account of what was perhaps the crucial event in modern American Catholic higher education. It should be on every short list of indispensable historical studies of the post-Vatican II Church in America."
James Hitchcock, Ph.D
, St. Louis University

"The definitive history of the wreck of Catholic higher education in the late sixties. I know - I was there."
Fr. C.J. McCloskey, Research Fellow of the Faith and Reason Institute

"Masterfully weaves together the particularly polemical period of 1968. This thoroughly researched book, which is both historically and theologically substantive, should be read by every Catholic educator and theologian."
Msgr. David Toups, STD, Rector/President, St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary

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