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. 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.
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.
Prof. Daly certainly pushed the envelope. In 1968, she published “The Church and the Second Sex,” a book that accused the Catholic Church of oppressing and “humiliating” women by excluding them from its “patriarchal” hierarchy. The title of her most famous work, “Beyond God the Father” (1973), is self-explanatory. At some point afterward, Prof. Daly, despite being raised Catholic and earning degrees in theology and literature from three different Catholic colleges plus the University of Fribourg, left the church to embrace ever more belligerent brands of feminism.
She got into trouble with Boston College, the Jesuit institution where she had taught since 1966, for barring men from her advanced classes in women’s studies. In the wake of a sex-discrimination complaint launched by a male student, Prof. Daly and her employer engaged in a round of litigation during the late 1990s that culminated in her voluntary retirement in 2001. She spent her last years promoting vegetarianism, antifur activism, a protest of Condoleezza Rice’s 2006 commencement speech at Boston College, and the coining of male-baiting neologisms (an example: “mister-ectomy”).
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, Father Küng swept through a tour of U.S. Catholic universities to accolades in 1963. And his 1971 book questioning papal infallibility—which got him stripped of his license to teach Catholic theology in 1979—turned him into a living martyr among progressives. He is still at Tübingen (last heard from in October blasting Pope Benedict XVI’s overtures to conservative Anglicans as “angling in the waters of the extreme religious right”), but he’s 81.
The Belgian Dominican priest Edward Schillebeeckx, who had worked unsuccessfully to persuade the assembled bishops of the Second Vatican Council to downgrade the authority of the pope—and who was condemned in 1986 for holding that there was no biblical support for the ordaining of Catholic priests—died in December at age 95. The Rev. Charles Curran, who was a controversial figure at Catholic University as early as 1967, when he was temporarily removed from his tenured position over his views on birth control, and who moved to Southern Methodist University after his final dismissal from Catholic two decades later, is now 75.
Another prominent figure in liberal Catholic intellectual circles is Sister Sandra M. Schneiders, who is famous for her assertions that Jesus was a feminist and that God should be referred to as “she” as well as “he,” as well as for her advice that progressive orders of nuns treat representatives of a planned Vatican investigation like “uninvited guests.” She is also past retirement age and is listed as “professor emerita” at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif.
So where is the second generation of brilliant progressive Catholic theologians? There are plenty of liberal lay Catholics. The church’s ban on artificial birth control is nearly a dead letter, a majority of Catholics say they believe their church should ordain women, and 40% have no moral objections to abortion, according to a 2009 Gallup poll. But dissident Catholicism seems to have lost steam as an intellectual movement, and not only because the issues relating to sex and papal authority that originally sparked Catholic dissidents have not changed in nearly 50 years.
The first-generation dissidents were products of a strong and confident traditional Catholic culture against which they rebelled, one whose intellectual standards grounded them in the faith they later came to question. Sister Schneiders, for example, earned four degrees from Catholic institutions, including the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. Yet most Catholics of her generation have not passed on the tenets of their faith to their children—the offspring of the Vatican II generation tend either to be churchless or not to go to church—or, in the case of academics, to their students. It’s hard to rebel when you don’t even know what you are rebelling against.
Not that conservative Catholicism is in any better straits; it’s a vibrant but niche branch of the religion, and its leading intellectuals—Robert George, Mary Ann Glendon—aren’t theologians. But 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.