CATHOLIC BISHOPS GAIN UPPER HAND WITH THEOLOGIANS
WASHINGTON After a decade-long
struggle between Catholic theologians and the hierarchy led by Pope John
Paul II, Catholic bishops have gained the upper hand. By a vote of 223-31,
American bishops approved new rules requiring every theologian to be
approved by his local bishop if they are to continue to teach at the
nation's 235 Catholic colleges and universities which educate 670,000
While the measure includes
assurances of academic freedom, Catholic institutions of higher education
were urged to hire a president and a majority of faculty, staff and trustees
who are ''Catholics committed to the Church.'' And theologians teaching
''authentic Catholic doctrine'' must request a ''mandatum'' or mandate of
approval from their Catholic bishop.
In 1990, the pope issued a paper,
Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church) which attempted to define
the relationship between the church and Catholic institutions of higher
learning. John Paul, a former university professor with two earned
doctorates, was concerned that Catholic theologians - particularly in Europe
- were defying traditional Catholic teaching.
Each national group of bishops was
asked to draft a plan to implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae. U.S. bishops approved
a less rigid plan in 1996. But the Vatican rejected it as too vague. Last
year the bishops had a new draft, but a vote was delayed pending more
dialogue with presidents of Catholic institutions. More changes were made.
''But the institutional presidents
are still objecting to the specifics of the document that they feel may be
attempting to turn colleges and universities into grammar schools,'' wrote
Tim Unsworth in National Catholic Reporter. Indeed, the presidents of Notre
Dame and Boston College, called the document ''profoundly detrimental to
Catholic higher education'' and an ''obvious threat to academic freedom.''
But they have no vote at the
National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
In a 90 minute debate this week,
Bishop Edward Braxton of St. Louis said, ''It is important that we support
and pass this document.'' He recalled that Harvard, Yale and Princeton all
began as theological schools, ''but have moved out of their ecclesiastical
setting. I have taught at Harvard and Notre Dame. The original Harvard seal
said, `Veritas, truth in Christ and church.' But `in Christ and church' have
been removed.'' Some professors at Catholic institutions ''think theology
should not be related to Christ but are free entrepreneurs in seeking
However, Milwaukee Archbishop
Rembert Weakland, one of the few bishops left who was elevated to his
position by John Paul's predecessor, declared, ''Passing this document now
will create a pastoral disaster for the Church in the U.S.A. The tensions
between the hierarchy and theologians now are the highest I have ever seen
it in my 36 years as a superior.
''Theologians will be ever more
defensive and have less trust. Their reputation and their livelihood are at
stake. They are also not just afraid of being at the whims of individual
bishops, but also the object of vigilante groups.'' Students who think their
professors are heretical will write to the bishop to complain, with a copy
sent to Rome.
Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los
Angeles, one of four cardinals to speak, asserted, ''To the presidents of
Catholic colleges and universities, you have nothing to fear from us as your
bishops and pastors. This is a new moment, an exciting new moment.''
Fr. Tom Reese, Editor of America
and a former professor at Georgetown, profoundly disagrees: ''Trust cannot
be legislated. It can only be done through persuasion, conversation and
dialogue. Does this mean the bishop will say who can teach and who can't? It
will torpedo the kind of dialogue that is essential to preserve Catholic
Bishop John Leibrecht of
Springfield, Mo., chairman of the report's drafting committee, emphasized
flexibility in the text. He noted, that the rules state the majority of
trustees and professors should be Catholic ''to the extent possible,''
adding that non-Catholics on campus were told that they are ''deeply
appreciated and needed.''
The new policy has to be approved
by Rome, and then it will be enacted in a year. But it gives bishops and
theologians two years to establish the mandatum.
Details are surprisingly vague.
There are no specific criteria for granting or withholding approval. What
happens if a theologian does not apply for the mandatum? The bishop does not
have the power to fire a professor. The university will have to decide
whether to defend his academic freedom or to fire the professor, sparking a
likely lawsuit. Even if the lawsuit is won, such a case could cost $50,000.
Catholics are moving into an era of
Copyright 1999 Michael J. McManus.