Oddly, even reporters on the education beat seem to have failed to grasp the significance of a meeting that took place 44 years ago of the Catholics they like to cover the most—the Kennedy family and Jesuit theologians.
We have shown how the Tipping Point, as journalist Malcolm Gladwell might put it, for Catholic Higher Education came in 1967. That was when the presidents of the oldest, established Catholic colleges and universities met at one of them-Notre Dame-and declared their independence from all authority lay and clerical.
From there, it was only a matter of time until they faced the very real danger of becoming Catholic in Name Only. We now learn that the seeds for that meeting in ’67 may have been planted at least three years before Notre Dame President Theodore Hesburgh presided over the Land O’ Lakes conclave.
We can see that the earlier gabfest provided quite a few previews of coming attractions in Catholic higher education. “In July 1964, several liberal theologians received invitations to the Kennedy family compound in Hyannisport, Massachusetts, for a discussion of how a Catholic politician should handle the abortion issue,” Philip F. Lawler writes in The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston‘s Catholic Culture. “Notice now that abortion was not a major political issue in 1964.”
“Ostensibly the meeting had been called to provide advice for Robert Kennedy, who was running for a New York Senate seat.” Among those present:
- Father Charles Curran, later of Catholic University;
- Father Joseph Fuchs, then at Rome’s Gregorian University;
- Father Richard McCormick, later of Georgetown and Notre Dame;
- Then-Father Albert Jonsen, later of the University of San Francisco;
- Giles Milhaven, one of the founders of Catholics for a Free Choice, who also taught religious studies in the Ivy Leagues at Brown; and
- Father Robert Drinan, who, when asked to leave his congressional seat where he racked up a pro-choice voting record, was immediately hired by Georgetown. At the time of the Hyannisport confab, he was a law professor at Boston College.
Correlation, of course, is not causation. Nevertheless it is eerie to see the degree to which the schools of the ’64 scholars match up with the institutions represented on “Independence Day” three years later.
“Though the theologians disagreed on many a point, they concurred on certain basics,” Milhaven remembered nearly two decades after the Kennedy conference. “These include statements which I will make shortly.”
“What was striking then and remains striking today is the difference between what Catholic theologians say about abortion and what the Catholic hierarchy say on the same subject.”
Indeed. Milhaven offered these reflections when he launched his group of pro-choice Catholics.
“Our colloquium at Hyannisport, as I recall it, was influenced by [Fr. John Courtney Murray, S.J.’s] position and reached the conclusion that Catholic politicians in a democratic polity might advocate legal restriction on abortion, but in so doing might tolerate legislation that would permit abortion under certain circumstances, if political efforts to repress this moral error led to greater perils to social peace and order,” Jonson recalled three decades after the Massachusetts bay meeting. “This position, which, of course, is much more nuanced than I have stated, seems to have informed the politics of the Kennedys.”
And what was Father John’s position? “In the 1950s Murray declared that ‘modernity is dead’ and that his generation was entering ‘a new world order,'” J. Leon Hooper, S. J., one of the elder Jesuit’s acolytes explained in 1993. “He went on to say that a ‘post-modern’ America finally was escaping the individualism, materialism, and ‘technologism’ that had been so much part of our social history,” Georgetown’s Hooper revealed of Father Murray’s vision.
“Now, he said, the nation was entering into a communitarian age in which religions would deeply inform our public life.” At the time, Hooper was a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Woodstock Center.
What is unclear is who at the Hyannisport summit was the tail wagging the Catholic in Name Only Dog-the Kennedys or the Jesuits. What is apparent is that all of those puppies were ready to take a walk from church doctrine.