Is Curranism Finally Dead at the Catholic University of America?

A few weeks ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education got all spun up about whether “Catholic U.’s Chaste Brand” was scaring off prospective students.

Some anonymous professors were practically gleeful that the reassertion of authentic Catholicism at CUA, begun under Father David O’Connell and continued robustly under current president John Garvey, was finally shown to have failed.

Market researchers hired by the administration had completed a report on how CUA can increase enrollment from 3,300 undergraduates to a goal of 4,000 and the challenges getting there. Among the many issues discussed in a faculty presentation in January was Catholic identity. The researchers concluded that CUA has reached the maximum students it can attract by an overt appeal to the religiosity on campus and that other appeals should be made, chiefly CUA’s niche as a global Catholic research university.

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But what was spun by disgruntled professors and dutifully reported by the Chronicle and others is that Catholic has supposedly become too religious and this has hurt enrollment, the implication being that the school should curtail all that Catholic stuff or a good part of it. No more videos about the Catholic mind, no more nuns and priests and popes on the CUA homepage. I will repeat. This was not the conclusion of the market researchers. The researchers did not say the religious identity of Catholic should be reduced or changed or anything like that, only that other aspects of CUA needed to be emphasized.

The report comes at a time when Catholic is going through a restructuring of its academic programs, faculty workload and assignments. Through its “Proposal for Academic Review,” the administration seeks to “strengthen both academic excellence and financial sustainability,” according to a letter sent to an ad hoc committee of the academic senate by CUA provost Andrew Abela. The administration wants each faculty member to teach three courses per semester, something already mandated by the Faculty Handbook. The result of this would be a surplus of teaching hours which would allow for a reduction in full-time faculty—35 in all; most of whom have taken voluntary early retirement. Such reductions would save $3.5 million a year and strengthen some expanding departments.

Not so much in the background, however, is unhappiness among some that CUA continues, in fact seems to have sped up, its commitment to being known not just as Catholic but as faithfully Catholic, explicitly Catholic, really really no kidding Catholic. This started long ago when Fr. David O’Connell took over in 1998. According to the Washington Post, when O’Connell took over the “campus was unkempt and spiritually adrift.”

Under his tenure, controversy followed controversy. As the Post reports, celebrity speakers were disinvited, student newspapers seized, and—gasp!—student sex was prohibited. At a time when gays were really flexing their muscles and even Catholic colleges and universities went gay-crazy, O’Connell would not let them organize on campus, even though there was a recognized group under his predecessor.

John Garvey took over in 2010 and almost immediately let them know the orthodox trajectory would continue. For starters, he ended co-ed dorms. Moreover, in a 2013 letter, Garvey wrote that the debate about “consent” in sexual relations was misplaced. He said, “Chastity is an unfashionable virtue nowadays, but the idea is not hard to understand. Casual sex is harmful if there is no coercion. It plays at love for sport. It makes promises that the players don’t intend to keep. It insults the dignity of the other person by treating him or her as a sex toy rather than a child of God. It divorces sex from the creation of new life and the unity of a family.”

Regarding faculty, Garvey and his colleagues unashamedly look for faithful Catholics. One senior administrator openly says not every faculty department has to have 100 percent faithful Catholics, but they expect the majority eventually to be. Garvey compares CUA faculty hires to the University of Chicago. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Garvey says, just as an economist with a preference for regulation and big-government stimulus might be a poor fit at Chicago, so too would a professor with little interest in the Catholic intellectual tradition be an unlikely match at Catholic University.

And this would include not just new faculty but also faculty of the ancien régime, which brings us to Charles Curran and the long death-throes of poisonous Curranism. CUA could quite easily have gone the way of Marquette and the way Providence College seems to be headed. An early cheerleader for that was Charles Curran.

Charles Curran is long gone, 32 years now, from CUA and is almost but not quite forgotten. His ghost can still be seen flitting among the halls and in this debate.

Curran was the theology professor at Catholic University who waged war on Church teaching and who, after losing a legal battle with CUA, decamped to Southern Methodist University. Having lost his Catholic platform for dissent, Curran has hardly been seen or heard from since. Did you even know Curran was alive?

And yet, his shadow and all it means has loomed over Catholic University for years. What does it mean to be a Catholic university? Are you as an institution faithful to the Magisterium or are you in dissent? Are you still Catholic in some way or have you gone utterly secular? Are you proud of your faith or embarrassed? Are you Marquette, Trinity, or what? These are questions that Fr. David O’Connell grappled with first and what Dr. John Garvey has engaged with so successfully in his time.

The current debate at CUA is as much about Catholic identity, and about Curranism, as it is about budgets and workload. A few of the Curran generation are still around and are resisting the changes brought to campus. Blessedly, though, their days are numbered, and Catholic University of America, with enlightened leadership and young orthodox faculty, will finally put Curranism away and complete the restoration of authentic Catholic education in that part of Washington DC some call “Little Rome” and what I call the “Pope’s Little Acre” where you will find students and faculty, even priests and nuns, all cultivating the Catholic mind at a great university.

And, by the way, this week the Academic Senate approved the proposal that so riled a few on campus by a vote of 35-8. It wasn’t even close.

(Photo credit: Wikimedia)


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