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Heresy in Ohio

Heresy in Ohio

Thomas M. Columbus February 27, 2023

In 1967, I had just signed a teaching contract with a university hundreds of miles west of my grad school when I read a small piece in the Washington Post. A group of faculty members at that school, it was reported, had accused colleagues of heresy.

Aggiornamento, the updating of the Roman Catholic Church envisioned by the Second Vatican Council, was off to a rocky start at the University of Dayton; its president, Father Raymond A. Roesch, S.M. ’36, had his hands full.

The controversy, though regarding Church teaching, was not centered in the religious studies department but involved philosophers. Indeed, it wasn’t primarily about heresy; there was more interest in contraception than Purgatory. The affair, however, was about a lot of things — all of which generated strong emotions.

Sorting it all out has been Mary Jude Brown, now retired from UD where in 2003 she received a doctoral degree in U.S. Catholicism. Her findings are gathered in her book, Heresy in the Heartland: The Controversy at the University of Dayton, 1960-1967 (The Catholic University of America Press, 2022).

Heresy in the heartland book cover, depicting red and blue colored caricatures of people.
Heresy in the Heartland

Upon hearing of the publication of the
book, her grandson asked, "Is this the book you’ve been working on all my life?" He’s 25 years old.

Time moves slowly in the Church. Hearing someone say a Church council takes 100 years to have its full impact, a scholar of councils laughed, "Oh, no. It takes more like 200." And the Church tends to records with reluctance. Brown waited years to see a report of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati on the Dayton affair. The result was anticlimactic; there was no formal report, mostly just notes, which spurred more research.

The most scholarly of the UD traditionalists, according to Brown, was Joseph Dieska, who framed part of the debate in an article, "Teilhard De Chardin or Thomas Aquinas?" Thomistic philosophy had held sway in Catholic universities for centuries; Dieska saw the thinking of Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin as flawed and a threat to the magisterium, the teaching authority of the Catholic Church.

Many faculty, however, believed that to be a "real" university they needed academic freedom and did not see that as a threat to the pastoral role of the Church. This was coupled with the current at the time of young people chafing at just being instructed and but wanting to seek truth through questioning established assumptions, through active learning.

And it was all done as we say now "in real time." Emotions ran high.

When one of the accusers wrote a letter to Cincinnati Archbishop Karl Alter, the diocese became involved. When the accuser wrote to the apostolic delegate, involvement spread. The delegate was an acquaintance of Father James Darby, S.M. ’39, the Marianist provincial, so Marianists beyond UD became involved. Some local pastors thought the diocese should take over teaching philosophy at UD. Others didn’t. One reportedly saw some of his fellow pastors as wary of the Marianists’ French origins. The local papers, writes Brown, "published 60 articles, six editorials, and seven letters to the editor." The New York Times had three stories in its Sunday edition. A dozen national Catholic magazines had full-length stories.

When the smoke cleared, many of the faculty involved moved on to other schools or other careers.

Who won?

The traditionalists did to an extent. "The archbishop’s fact-finding commission," Brown writes, "upheld their accusations that teaching contrary to the magisterium were being presented." But Thomism as the center of philosophy at Dayton and elsewhere faded.

The progressives were not fired. Eulalio Baltazar, according to Brown, "the only true scholar in the group of professors accused," was named UD’s 1967 Professor of the Year. He also received a visiting professorship from Bishop Fulton Sheen at his Rochester, New York, seminary. But the progressives’ view of education also did not prevail.

"The winner," Brown writes, "was Father Roesch and the University of Dayton."

"To the higher education community in general, the University of Dayton emerged from the controversy looking like a real university. Roesch affirmed that the faculty had academic freedom to pursue their research and teaching. However, Roesch still insisted on respect for the magisterium and the Church’s teaching as part of academic freedom."

And Teilhard de Chardin? The sculpture "Omega Point" with his words sits prominently at the east entrance to Roesch Library.

Upon a wall of the Jesse Philips Humanities Center, the face of St. Thomas Aquinas gazes at the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception.

Blanket of snow