Spring 2000, Vol. 3, No. 1

Contents Page,
Vol. 3, No. 1


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: Wars of Religion

Charitable Choice and the New Religious Center

Religious Ironies in East Timor

Jesus, Political Philosopher

Faithless in Seattle? The WTO Protests

What's in a Name? The EgyptAir 990 Crash

Waiting for the Shoe to Drop

The NCC's Near-Death Experience

On the Beat: Condoms and Constitutions in Kenya

Letters to the Editor


Waiting for the Shoe to Drop

by Andrew Walsh

In a world of sound bites and 24-hour global news channels, the Catholic Church still moves to 13th century rhythms. Years, and sometimes decades, are swallowed up as files build up, letters exchanged, consultations launched, and stately bureaucratic procedures unfold.

Observers have been waiting for years for Rome to deliver on its promise to reign in Catholic higher education in America. Now push finally seems to be coming to shove.

On November 17, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops complied with a Vatican directive to adopt rules designed to return Catholic colleges and universities—and especially faculty who teach theology—to the supervision of the institutional Church. The bishops required Catholic theologians who teach in Catholic colleges and universities to obtain a mandatum from their local bishop—a written acknowledgement that they are in "full communion" with the church’s official doctrine—and urged Catholic colleges and universities to recruit Catholics as presidents, faculty members, and trustees "to the extent possible."

In his first day story for the Los Angeles Times, Larry Stammer called the action a bid to "break a long-standing deadlock over the power of church leaders to control theologians teaching at Catholic universities." According to the New York Times’s Gustav Neibuhr, it represented "the bishops’ response to the secularizing forces of modernity in American universities, which some conservative critics say have moved away from their religious mission."

There are 235 Catholic colleges in the United States, enrolling a total of about 670,000 students. Few receive any financial support from the Church and, since the 1960s, most have been governed by boards controlled by lay people and not clerics. By and large, they function legally as independent nonprofit corporations rather than as organic parts of the institutional structure of the Church.

The bishop’s new policy document is designed to implement the 1990 papal statement Ex corde ecclesiae, which grew out of changes to the Code of Canon Law adopted in 1983. Both Vatican documents assume that institutions that call themselves Catholic must function under the administrative control of the Church’s bishops—a situation that prevails in most of the rest of world but which has never been the case in the United States.

If Ex corde is successfully implemented over the next few years, it would mark the first major rollback of the institutional reforms and liberalizations undertaken by American Catholics after the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s.

Catholic university administrators, organizations of Catholic theologians, and many individual scholars have resisted the changes proposed under Ex corde. In fact, in 1996 the American bishops themselves attempted to win approval for an implementing document that neither required theologians to seek a mandatum nor demanded that presidents of institutions make an oath of fidelity to Catholic doctrine. But Vatican officials rejected the document as a draft and insisted that university-level theology instruction be placed under the "juridical" control of local bishops and ultimately the Vatican. At the November meeting, the bishops complied with the Vatican’s directive.

"They keep smoothing out the vocabulary to make it less offensive, but they kept all the same regulations in," Monika Hellwig, executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities told Dennis Mahoney of the Columbus Dispatch in October. Hellwig complained that the Vatican directive stemmed from members of the Congregation for Catholic Education who she said have no respect for the achievements of the American system of Catholic higher education—the largest and most successful in the world. "As far as they see it, you don’t keep your Catholic character unless there is hierarchy control. And no one can seem to get through to them that we’ve kept our Catholic character very well with friendly, but unofficial relationships."

The theologians targeted by the new policy constitute a small but influential group of scholars that has changed significantly over the past generation. Theologians teaching in Catholic colleges and universities are now far less likely to be priests or members of religious orders and far more of them have graduate degrees from non-Catholic institutions. And they are often deeply concerned about how the insertion of hierarchical authority could constrain their freedom to teach and conduct research.

"It really is redefining the relationship of Catholic universities and colleges to the church, to say that theologians must request a mandate from the bishop, which, once given, can be withdrawn," the Rev. Thomas Rausch, chair of the theological studies department at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, told the New York Times. "Many Catholic educators are worried that this will compromise the academic integrity of the institutions and the freedom of inquiry of those teaching theology."

In general, academic theologians are anxious to distinguish their work from catechism, campus ministry, or the sort of instruction that takes place in the theological seminaries. "I like to think of our department’s mission in terms of religious literacy," Paul Lauritzen, chair of the religious studies department at John Carroll University in Cleveland, told Karen Long of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "We teach the Catholic tradition, the core doctrines, and we work to enrich our students’ understanding. The other side of literacy is the introduction of students to the major religious traditions of the world. And they are hungry for it."

That’s an approach, however, that leaves many conservative Catholics and Vatican officials feeling acutely dissatisfied. "What’s at stake here is the truth about what the church teaches," Philip Gray of Catholics United for the Faith told the Plain Dealer. "It’s not up to a theologian to determine what he believes Christ taught. It’s up to a theologian to be faithful to what the church’s teaching authority says Christ taught. If he doesn’t, then the faithful can be led into error."

It’s this view that conjures up images of a crackdown by bishops, who theologians often believe are academically unqualified to judge their work. What the theologians fear most of all is that uniform standards will not be upheld and that the Church’s effective policy about who needs, can get, or keep a mandatum will vary from diocese to diocese.

"Most bishops and almost all theologians are not going to have a problem with each other," Terrence Tilley, chair of the religious studies department at the University of Dayton, told the Plain Dealer. "The issue comes with the worry that there are bishops who are obsessive about this matter and theologians who are truly obnoxious. And I can think of examples of both."

At the November meeting in Washington, many of the bishops themselves were anxious to send reassuring signals. "I would say to the presidents of Catholic colleges and universities: You have nothing to fear from the bishops, your pastors and friends," Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles said in a speech before the bishops’ vote. "You have nothing to fear from the church, nothing to fear from the implementation of Ex corde ecclesiae."

Speaking afterwards, Bishop John Leibrecht of Springfield, Missouri, chair of the committee that drafted the implementation document, told reporters that the bishops don’t seek the role of disciplinarians of Catholic theologians. "The bishop is not involved in the internal affairs of the institution," he was quoted in the New York Times. "If a particular theologian does not have a mandatum, it’s up to the university to decide what to do." He told reporters that the committee had rejected a more restrictive draft of the document last year.

Archbishop Daniel Cronin of Hartford told the Hartford Courant that he "would have no problem" giving mandates to those now teaching theology in his diocese’s two Catholic colleges.

Around the country it seems obvious that most bishops and presidents want to minimize conflict. The Rev. Edward Malloy, president of Notre Dame—arguably the nation’s powerhouse center of Catholic academic theology—told Mac Daniel of the Boston Globe he fully supported the bishops’ vote. "At its core, this process is about furthering the vital and distinctive mission of Catholic higher education, an aim which all involved can share." The Rev. Leo O’Donovan of Georgetown University noted that "this vote is one step in a process of reflection and wide-ranging dialogue. It is critical and helpful that the norms that were voted on were explicitly supportive of academic freedom and institutional governing autonomy, which are essential elements of a university."

It seems likely that the process of arranging for the implementation of Ex corde will go more smoothly at small Catholic institutions that focus on undergraduate instruction than at research universities with doctoral programs in theology and religious studies. These are the centers of research and training that have embraced the American norms of intellectual freedom and institutional autonomy most fully.

Some also think that a major unintended consequence of the vigorous implementation of Ex corde may be the reduction in the number of Catholic theology classes offered to students. It’s unlikely that faculty unwilling or unable to secure a bishop’s mandatum will be actually dismissed from an institution’s faculty. So instead of serving in a theology department, a scholar might move to teach in history, philosophy, or in "religious studies" programs that do not explicitly base their instruction on Catholic faith commitment. There is, indeed, already a substantial "Catholic studies" movement in American higher education that takes Catholics and Catholicism as its subject and proceeds according to the norms, methods, and values of the secular academy and without reference to the norms of Catholic orthodoxy.

The bulk of journalistic coverage focused on the debate surrounding the November 17 bishops’ action, the complaints of theologians, and discussions about the next round of approval required from the Vatican. Few reporters considered the important question of how the intended recapture of Catholic higher education by the hierarchy will actually be achieved.

The Roman Curia appears to expect that this can be accomplished simply by bishops asserting their authority. And in fact, the American bishops’ document on the implementation of Ex corde ecclesiae asks the trustees of these colleges and universities to change their institutional by-laws to give bishops the power they seek. But the bishops do not appear to have the legal authority to impose the change. "Under American law, the only way that either Ex corde or the American ordinances can be applied in a legally binding way is for the universities themselves to do it," Paul Sanders, a Catholic lawyer, argued in a 1997 Commonweal magazine article, "The bishops cannot. If push comes to shove, nobody will budge."

Sanders noted that it’s unlikely that trustees—especially at the major universities that are the centers of Catholic theological education and research—will embrace changes that undermine academic freedom as it is practiced in the United States and threaten to weaken their hard-won status as scholarly institutions of the first rank.

Patricia Rice of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, one of a handful of reporters to address the implementation question, noted that a few Catholic colleges and universities have governing structures that give religious authorities theological control, but most don’t.

New York Times religion columnist Peter Steinfels, a veteran commentator on the Catholic scene, observed that while the bishops’ document contains the controls demanded by the Vatican bureaucracy, the teeth are for the moment "still buried in the newborn’s gums." He and others believe that as the documents guiding the implementation of Ex corde come into force, there’s likely to be considerable litigation in both Church and civil courts for journalists to cover.

In the meantime, Catholic theologians—who are not always pleased by the accommodating talk of university presidents—appear to be mulling a public boycott of the mandate process. In early February, the Rev. Richard McBrien, a very prominent Notre Dame theologian as well as a notable critic of John Paul II’s policies, announced that he will refuse to seek a mandatum. McBrien told Richard Ostling of the Associated Press that he expects "most of his colleagues will eventually make the same decision."

Michael Paulson then reported in the February 15 issue of the Boston Globe that two Massachusetts-based theologians "say they plan to defy a church requirement that they seek approval of their teaching from their local bishop." One of the theologians, Donald Dietrich, is chair of Boston College’s prestigious theology department. This prompted a spokesman for the Rev. William Leahy, president of the Jesuit-run university, to announce that B.C. will take no action against faculty members who decline to seek a mandatum.

"Father Leahy met with the theology department and is leaving it up to them," John Dunn, Leahy’s spokesman, told the Globe. "The university’s position is that it’s an individual Catholic theologian’s decision to seek a mandate or not to seek a mandate."

How that approach flies with the hierarchy remains to be seen. But in the meantime, it’s clear that the theologians are weighing whether to make organized efforts to rock the boat.

Margaret Farley, president of the 1,500 member Catholic Theological Society of America and a leading Catholic ethicist who teaches at Yale University, told the Globe that she’s "getting a lot of messages, most from individuals, but in some Catholic universities whole departments are trying to decide what to do."

The day may come, in other words, when Catholic bishops, here or in Rome, stand up in public to say that Notre Dame, or Georgetown, or Boston College are not Catholic institutions.