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November 20, 1999
Column #951

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 students.

     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 veritas.''

     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 identity.''

     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 high conflict.

Copyright 1999 Michael J. McManus.

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