‘Humanae Vitae,’ Then and Now, at The Catholic University of America

COMMENTARY: The 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical makes for a stark contrast.

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput delivers the April 4 keynote address at The Catholic University of America’s Humanae Vitae conference.
Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput delivers the April 4 keynote address at The Catholic University of America’s Humanae Vitae conference. (photo: Courtesy of The Catholic University of America)

The Catholic University of America hosted a symposium April 4-6 marking the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae that reaffirmed the Church’s teaching on family life and against contraception.

The conference brought together theologians and authorities from all over the world to explore “Catholic teaching on human sexuality, marriage, conjugal love and responsible parenthood, as articulated in the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae upon its 50th anniversary (1968-2018).”

The symposium boldly celebrated and reflected on what is called “the encyclical’s reaffirmation of the divine plan as expressed in Catholic teaching and advanced by St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.”

It was a significant moment in the long and winding history of the encyclical and a powerful first event in commemorating and defending the prophetic reaffirmation of Blessed Paul VI, who will be canonized in October.

But for those with a long historical memory and who are alarmed at the continuing movements of dissent in the Church, the location of the symposium was as heartening and significant as its theme.

Fifty years ago, dissent from the magisterium that had been growing for years reached its inevitable crisis point, and the focal point of the dissenting theologians was Humanae Vitae. Tragically, the rebellion against Church authority found a home at The Catholic University of America, which had been founded in 1887 by the bishops of the United States, with a charter from Pope Leo XIII, to serve as the Church’s national university in America.


The Era of Dissent

The uprising against the magisterium was to some degree anticipated in the year before Humanae Vitae, in July 1967, when a group of 26 Catholic educators and college administrators — most of them American — gathered for a conference in Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin, and issued a 1,500-word statement on the role and identity of Catholic universities and that focused on the question of academic freedom and the role of the magisterium. The statement declared in essence that to perform its teaching and research functions effectively, Catholic universities needed “a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical,” and that “institutional autonomy and academic freedom are essential conditions of life and growth, and indeed of survival, for Catholic universities, as for all universities.”

Whether it was intended as such or not, the “Land O’Lakes Statement” was a clarion call for many Catholic universities to separate themselves from obedience to the magisterium.

At Catholic University, a large group of faculty in the School of Theology, led by theology professor Father Charles Curran, rejected the oversight of the bishops on the board of trustees. When Humanae Vitae was promulgated, Father Curran and many faculty at CUA put their names to a statement of dissent.

In the resulting firestorm, Father Curran and the dissenting theologians received praise and adulation by many in the press for their “heroism” in opposing the papal teaching so openly and defiantly.

Msgr. Eugene Kevane, the dean of the CUA School of Education, who was driven out of his post as dean in January 1968, predicted presciently to the bishops on the CUA board that, “if the plan succeeds to capture this official National Catholic University of the American Hierarchy, there will be incalculable future results. 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.”

Strikes and protests at CUA prevented the removal of Father Curran for almost two decades. At last, only in 1986, after a fair investigation into his theological teaching, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under Pope John Paul II and its prefect, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Cardinal James Hickey of Washington, D.C., was able to withdraw Father Curran’s permission to teach theology at a Catholic university. Father Curran remains a hero to progressives in the American Church.


The Era of Ex Corde Ecclesiae

The so-called “Curran Affair” raised critical questions regarding the identity and mission of Catholic colleges and universities.

The central element in subsequent discussions was on Pope John Paul II’s 1990 constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae on what a Catholic university should be. On Nov. 17, 1999, the Catholic bishops of the Unites States approved “The Application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae for the United States,” implementing the apostolic constitution. This action received the approval from the Congregation for Bishops May 3, 2000.

The implementation, including the requirement of the mandatum (pledge of fidelity to the magisterium), sparked opposition in some circles to what was perceived as a discouragement of academic freedom, but it also served to remind theologians of their role in the Church.

A key to understanding the relationship between the theologian and the Church was published by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith under then-Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) in 1990, with the full approval of Pope John Paul II.

The title of the instruction was “The Ecclesial Function of the Theologian.” The instruction details the relationship between the theologian and the magisterium, stating positively, “The living magisterium of the Church and theology, while having different gifts and functions, ultimately have the same goal: preserving the People of God in the truth which sets free and thereby making them ‘a light to the nations.’”

In the years that followed, Catholic University of America itself began to embrace this renewed vision of theology. Particular credit for the renewal is given to now-Bishop David O’Connell of Trenton, New Jersey, who served as president of CUA from 1998 to 2010, and to current President John Garvey.

In an interview with the Cardinal Newman Society in 2015, Garvey stressed the close relationship of the university with the bishops, the deliberate implementation of Ex Corde and the conscious promotion of authentic Catholic identity. That includes hiring faculty who are committed to teaching in fidelity to the magisterium.

“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,” Garvey said. “And I think that’s called all of us at Catholic universities to a clearer sense of how to fulfill our mission.”

Father Mark Morozowich, the dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at CUA, stressed the role of the theologian and the School of Theology on the Al Kresta radio program April 6.

“We strive always as a faculty to work together with our bishops to be of one voice in teaching and deepening in faith, so that we may grow in our understanding of God, our love of God, and, really, how we can be true prophets for our time today — prophets that invite one another in love into the depths of God’s presence.”

From dissent by some theologians at Catholic University 50 years ago to fidelity and the embrace of the magisterium today, the catalyst was the document that in 1968 was the greatest cause of that dissent, a papal teaching that was not only a needed restatement of Church teaching but a prophetic declaration for our times.

“In 1968, our university was at the center of a controversy regarding the document in the Church in the United States,” Garvey said during the CUA symposium earlier this month. “The fact that, 50 years later, we’re hosting a conference to draw attention to what we now see as the wisdom of Paul VI might be seen as a sign of the times.”

Blessed Paul VI was right. Fifty years on from Humanae Vitae, we can see it with glaring clarity. The task now is to assist institutions such as Catholic University, and Catholics everywhere, to remain firm in speaking and teaching that truth.

Matthew Bunson is a Register senior editor.