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Dis-invited speakers: deja vu all over again


By Joe Foy


February 1963. A cold, dark winter night, and this third Basselin (program at Theological College, National Seminary of the Catholic University of America) was waiting to board one of the fleet of buses which had been chartered to carry the CUA student body over to Georgetown University. John Courtney Murray, SJ, editor of Theological Studies, had been uninvited to speak at CUA by its Board of Governors, and then Georgetown had invited him to speak over there. His topic was freedom of religion, which many of the hierarchy in Rome feared and disagreed with, and for which Murray had become a high-profile champion. It was my first involvement in any sort of “protest” and I was both excited and scared.

For advancing alternative theological ideas, Henri de Lubac and other French Jesuits had been silenced by the Vatican in June 1950; Yves Congar and French Dominicans silenced in February 1954; and, for championing universal religious freedom, Murray had been silenced in July 1955. As persona non grata, he had not been invited to the just-completed first session of Vatican II. We all knew that. We also knew that a high-profile member of our own CUA School of Theology, Joseph Fenton, had been welcome at the first session, and had for years attacked Murray and his thesis with extreme vigour.

We knew that our Theology faculty was split on the issue — the Sulpicians were split, the University was split, and the 180 students at Theological College were split. We knew that several papal decrees had been negative about religious freedom.

Murray’s talk that evening was logical, clear, and convincing. Returning home, my head was spinning. What was safe to read? What questions was it safe to ask? And, most importantly, what was it safe to say?

When asked by friends over the years “What was it like to be in seminary during the Council?” I answer truthfully: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Pure chaos: exciting and terrifying.

Collectively, our hierarchy (especially its Roman base) does not often seem pleased to see alternative ideas emerge in theology. Not then; not now.

James Martin, SJ, has recently advanced some alternative theological ideas, and so it is not completely surprising that he has been just been dis-invited to be the main speaker at our upcoming Alumni Days at Theological College.

But how this came to pass shows that the epicentre of the problem has shifted. Now we are not dealing with the Vatican. Instead, we have some very angry Catholics, intensely opposed to seeking alternatives in theology, who have used social media to incite a virtual mob almost overnight, and believably threaten to create a physical mob if Martin shows up. And we know from recent events in nearby Virginia that angry people can do just that.

So far as I know, there is little consensus on how to deal with this new phenomenon. I am glad it was not me who had to decide what to do about our invited Alumni Days speaker and the virtual mob arising in protest. I only know this: the episode has dredged up some painful, disturbing memories, which I was not expecting and am not enjoying.

Ken Burns recently quoted a chap from my own Hannibal roots, Mark Twain: “History does not repeat itself . . . but it does rhyme.” I guess we are stuck with that. I hope it will draw even more alumni to the upcoming reunion, not discourage them from coming. Ecce quam bonum . . .

(John Courtney Murray’s masterful talk of that long-ago February evening was printed in America. For text, see:

Joe Foy, philosophy/theology, Theological College 1960-1966. He writes from Hantsport, NS.