Academic Freedom and Catholic Institutions of Higher Learning

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  • American Academy of Religion

    Academic Freedom and Catholic Institutions of Higher LearningAuthor(s): Charles E. CurranSource: Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 55, No. 1 (Spring, 1987), pp. 107-121Published by: Oxford University PressStable URL: .Accessed: 16/06/2014 11:28

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  • Journal of the American Academy of Religion. LV/ 1




    Academic freedom in Catholic higher education in the United States has once again become an important theoretical and practical issue. This paper will discuss the question in three progressive stages. The first part will summarize briefly and explain the historical devel- opment which culminated in the middle 60s with the strong endorse- ment of academic freedom for Catholic universities. The second part will discuss the threats to academic freedom which have recently come from new and proposed Vatican legislation. The third part will propose reasons why the Catholic Church itself should recognize the academic freedom of Catholic institutions of higher learning and of Catholic theology in these institutions.

    I. Historical Overview and Explanation This essay makes no pretense to propose a definite history of the

    relationship between Catholic higher education and academic free- dom. Higher education in the United States has insisted that the col- lege and university must be a free and autonomous center of studies with no external constraints limiting its freedom. No authority exter- nal to the university, be it lay or clerical, can make decisions which have a direct impact on the hiring, promoting, tenuring, and dis- missing of faculty members. The existing literature on Catholic higher education usually points out that before 1960 it was generally accepted that Catholic higher education could not and would not accept the full American sense of academic freedom (Gleason). From the Catholic side the two most in depth studies of academic freedom in the 1950s rejected the American concept of academic freedom (Donahue, Tos). Ecclesiastical authority, from which there is no appeal, can and should settle controversial questions in the academy. Non-Catholics also did not expect Catholic universities to accept academic freedom. Robert

    Charles E. Curran was recently suspended from his duties as Professor of Moral Theol- ogy at The Catholic University of America pending the outcome of the process to take away his canonical mission to teach Catholic theology.

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  • 108 Journal of the American Academy of Religion

    M. MacIver, the director of the American Academic Freedom Project housed at Columbia University, in his influential Academic Freedom in Our Time (1955) used statements by Catholics to illustrate the religious line of attack on academic freedom (134-146).

    However, in the 1960s change came quickly and somewhat dra- matically. In 1965 Gerald F. Kreyche published a paper in the National Catholic Education Association Bulletin that called for Cath- olic institutions to accept full academic freedom. The most evident sign of change was "The Land O'Lakes Statement" signed in 1967 by 26 leaders of Catholic higher education in the United States and Can- ada. According to this statement, "To perform its teaching and research functions effectively, the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself" (336). The changing times of the 1960s are well illustrated by the actions of the College Theology Society, which is the small professional society founded by teachers of theology in Catholic colleges. At its meeting in 1967 the society endorsed the 1940 statement of the American Associ- ation of University Professors and of the Association of American Col- leges on academic freedom and tenure. However, the year before this society had defeated a motion to endorse the same statement (Rod- gers: 28-30).

    Since the 1960s the leaders of Catholic higher education in the United States have generally strengthened their support of and com- mittment to institutional autonomy and academic freedom. A very few Catholic colleges have opposed this trend.

    Why this change at this time? In retrospect, there are a number of factors that influenced and helped bring about the dramatic change. In my judgment, cultural, theological, and educational factors all sup- ported the change.

    From a cultural perspective American Catholics entered into the mainstream of United States life and culture in the post-World War II era. Throughout the nineteenth century and the first part of the twen- tieth century, the Catholic Church in the United States was primarily an immigrant church. The question was often raised: Could one be both Catholic and American at the same time? Rome often feared that the Catholic Church in the United States was becoming too American and would lose its Roman Catholicism. The condemnation of Ameri- canism in 1899 was an expression of that anxiety. On the other hand, many Americans felt that Catholics could never really accept the American political and cultural ethos. The primary sticking point was the United States' emphasis on political and religious freedom. Official Catholic teaching denied religious freedom and could only tolerate as

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  • Curran: Academic Freedom 109

    second best, and not fully endorse, the American understanding of the separation of church and state.

    By the time of World War II immigration had dwindled. Catholics were patriotic supporters of their country during the war. After the war, on the home scene Catholics entered more and more into the mainstream of American life and culture. On the international scene, the United States and the Roman Catholic Church became the two bulwarks of the free world in the struggle against communism. Note that there is a negative aspect to all this which resulted in the failure of American Catholics at times to criticize their country and its policies. However, Catholics were becoming very much at home in the United States of the 1950s.

    Two events in the 1960s illustrated the fundamental compatibility between being Catholic and being American. In 1960 a Catholic, John F. Kennedy, was elected President of the United States. The conven- tional wisdom was that a Roman Catholic could never be elected Presi- dent of the United States. Kennedy's election thus put to rest forever what had been a generally accepted axiom in American political life until that time. Roman Catholic acceptance and endorsement of the United States political system with its emphasis on religious freedom and the separation of church and state came at the Second Vatican Council in 1965. The Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom rec- ognized the need for religious freedom. Thus, the chasm between being Catholic and being American was overcome. Again, one must note the danger of Catholicism's losing any critical view of United States structures, ethos, and policies. The ultimate Catholic accept- ance and appreciation of the principles of United States higher educa- tion with their emphasis on the autonomy of the institution and academic freedom must be seen in the light of this broader context of the relationship between being Catholic and being American.

    The theological factors influencing the acceptance of academic freedom by American Catholic higher education in the 1960s are asso- ciated with developments that occurred at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). The most significant theological development was the already mentioned acceptance of religious freedom. There can be no doubt that Catholic thought has traditionally given more importance to order than to freedom. In the realm of political ethics, Catholic teaching opposed much of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century developments precisely because of their emphasis on freedom. Indi- vidualistic liberalism and freedom were the primary targets of much Catholic opposition. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Catholics were strong opponents of political freedom. However, in the twentieth century the social structures changed. No longer was

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  • 110 Journal of the American Academy of Religion

    the threat coming from proponents of individualistic freedom, but now from the theoretical and practical tenets of totalitarianism. In the light of the new threats of fascism, nazism, and communism (with the recognition that Roman Catholicism was always more fearful of the totalitarianism from the left), Roman Catholic teaching and theology began to defend the freedom and rights of individuals. The first full- blown statement in defense of human rights in official Catholic social teaching appeared only in Pope John XXIII's 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris (par. 11-27). The growing appreciation of freedom in the Catho- lic tradition found its greatest obstacle in the older teaching denying religious freedom. However, the Second Vatican Council was able to accept religious freedom on the basis of the dignity of the human per- son. In the light of the growing emphasis given to freedom in Roman Catholic self-understanding and the acceptance of religious freedom, it was much easier for American Catholics to recognize the impor- tance of and need for academic freedom.

    The Second Vatican Council, in keeping with the Catholic tradi- tion, recognized the autonomy of earthly institutions and cultures pro- vided that autonomy is properly understood. Created things and society enjoy their own laws and values which must be developed, put to use, and regulated by human beings. In this light, one can more readily accept the American institutions of higher learning with their insistence on the autonomy of the institution. Catholic institutions of higher learning thus serve the church by being colleges and universi- ties in the American sense of the term. Colleges and universities should not be changed into catechetical schools or seen merely as a continuation or extension of the pastoral teaching function of the bishops.

    In the light of the Second Vatican Council, the self-understanding of Catholic theology itself changed. The manualistic neoscholasticism, which was in vogue immediately before the Second Vatican Council, tended to see theology as an extension of the teaching role of the pope and bishops with the need to explain and confirm this teaching. How- ever, the general theological shift at Vatican II, especially the accept- ance of historical consciousness, made theology conscious of a role that did not involve merely the repetition, explanation, and defense of church teachings. The very historical process that was the experience of the Second Vatican Council showed the creative role of theology and the need for theology to constantly probe the meaning of faith in the contemporary cultural and historical circumstances. The theolo- gians who had the greatest effect on the council had been disciplined and suspect before the council began. Theology is called to have an important role in bringing about change in Catholic thought and life.

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  • Curran: Academic Freedom 111

    Changes in the area of education itself also affected the Catholic community's willingness to accept institutional autonomy and aca- demic freedom. In 1955 John Tracy Ellis published what is now recog- nized as a classical essay in which he questioned the failure of Roman Catholicism to contribute to the intellectual life of the United States. Many others (e.g., O'Dea; Ong) took up the challenge of this essay and explained its ramifications. Catholics had been entering into leader- ship roles in many areas of American life, but their intellectual contri- bution was little or nothing. Perhaps the very fact that such a question could be raised and thoroughly discussed showed the growing matur- ity of American Catholicism. These discussions inevitably led to ques- tions about Catholic higher education.

    Many changes began to occur in Catholic higher education in the 1950s and 60s. Catholic colleges and universities were generally estab- lished by religious communities of women and men. The professors were often members of religious communities, and Catholic lay profes- sors had little or no say in the functioning of the administration. The presidents and chief academic officers often were appointed by the religious community from among its own members. Boards of trustees were either nonexistent or heavily composed of members of the reli- gious community. The college or university was often seen as an extension of the religious community and its pastoral mission.

    This structure gradually gave way to new and different structures by the 1970s although some of the remnants of the older structure con- tinued to exist. In general, one can describe these changes as an attempt at a greater professionalization of the role and the structure of Catholic institutions of higher learning.

    In the 1960s more lay people were functioning as professors and administrators. Some of these had been trained at the best American institutions of higher learning and brought with them the standards and operating procedures of the American academ...


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