Mary Daly, a retired professor at Boston College who was probably the most outré of all the dissident theologians who came to the fore of Catholic intellectual life in the years right after the Second Vatican Council, died on Jan. 3 at age 81.
Mary Daly was roughly the same age as my mother, a Catholic convert.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, which might be called the golden age of Catholic dissidence, theologians who took positions challenging traditional church teachings—ranging from the authority of the pope to bans on birth control, premarital sex, and women's ordination—dominated Catholic intellectual life in America and Europe. They seemed to represent a tide that would overwhelm the old restrictions and their hidebound adherents.
How true, and as a youngster and teen during those years, my generation was lost in the shuffle. Our Catholic schools didn't teach the faith partly because they didn't know what they were supposed to teach under the elusive "spirit of Vatican II," or the influence of dissident thought made it uncomfortable to do so. The bishops of the day let it happen. As St. John Chrysostom once opined, the road to hell may very well be paved with the skulls of bishops.
Now, 45 years after Vatican II concluded in 1965, most of those bright lights of dissident Catholicism—from the theologian Hans Küng of the University of Tübingen to Charles Curran, the priest dismissed from the Catholic University of America's theology faculty in 1987 for his advocacy of contraception and acceptance of homosexual relationships—seem dimmed with advanced age, if not extinguished. They have left no coherent second generation of dissident Catholic intellectuals to follow them.
In hindsight this is not surprising. The work of the dissident Catholic intellectuals was sterile and the results we see decades later are fruitless. They failed to plan for their own mortality and while they may have helped form a generation of Catholics who know little to nothing about their faith, that same generation was more likely to just drift away rather than take up the cause. Instead of inspiring more dissent, they brought about malaise and inspired boredom. American Catholics of my vintage came to see Catholicism as something their parents did, with a few nice customs that made us feel warm and fuzzy during our childhoods, but that we had no intellectual interest in pursuing as young adults. And to pursue elite intellectual thought on dissenting Catholicism was about as enticing as watching paint dry. We simply didn't care.
The trajectory of her life story is not unusual among Catholic dissidents. The Young Turk of Vatican II—and pet of the progressive Catholic media of the time—was Hans Küng. A Swiss-born, movie-star-handsome priest whom Pope John XXIII had made a peritus, or theological adviser, to the council, ... but he's 81.
Charlotte Allen gives a list of Whose Who in the Aging Dissenting Liberal Catholic Crowd.
Edward Schillebeckx - 81
Rev. Charles Curran - 75
Sister Sandra M. Schneiders- over 65.
Ms. Allen goes on to surmise that perhaps Catholic liberal theology is dead because the church hasn't moved one iota on the causes such theology cried out for. She goes on to opine that the Catholics who grew up during the hay day of Daly et al simply didn't pass the faith on to their children. That's true. A generation that didn't know it's faith failed to pass it on. Didn't Hitler say "He who owns the youth, owns the future"? Ignorance of the Catholic faith owned the youth of my day, and the future was neither pious or progressive. It was milquetoast.
And although I think Allen is right that many Catholics today live a Progressive Catholic Ideal (birth control, abortion) I don't think it was because we were a generation of eager students lapping up Progressive Ideologies as fast as we could. But rather because there was no one to tell us why these things were wrong and a lot of secular thought on why they were good and even welcome, we just accepted them as the norm.
Ms. Allen ends with this:
it is fair to note that when Prof. Daly died, she left behind no young Mary Dalys to continue waging her quixotic war against the faith that shaped her, whether she liked it or not."
But here is something I think Professor Daly never realized and that Ms. Allen overlooks - we were young and stupid but were only going to wander in the desert for so long. Even the Jews only did it for 40 years! Innumerable young Catholics in the 1980s and 1990s felt that gap in our formation and sought out the informationto fill it in, many times with a baby in our arms and children at our knee; those children are grown and starting their own families in the faith. Daly, Kuhn and the rest will be interesting footnotes that our children will gloss over. Their thoughts will be disappear and return to dust with them. And the Church goes on.