By David O'Brien, Loyola Professor of Roman Catholic
Nov. 17, 1999, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops,
by a substantial majority, adopted a set of regulations to
implement the Apostolic Constitution
on Catholic Higher Education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae ("From the Heart of the
Church"). The vote came after almost a decade of intensive debate involving Vatican
officials, American bishops, theologians and college
and university presidents.
The November vote brought to a climax two important debates in the Catholic Church,
one dealing with the relationship between Catholic colleges and universities
and the hierarchy, the second with the relationship between theologians and the
teaching authority of
the church's pastoral leaders, Pope and bishops.
The higher education debate began when, between 1967 and 1972, the majority of
American Catholic colleges and universities transferred ownership and responsibility
from their sponsoring religious orders, like the Jesuits, to independent boards
of trustees with a majority of lay members. In the years since, the colleges
and universities have prospered but Rome has always been wary. The problem was
simple but very hard to resolve. American academics believe that an institution
be an authentic university if it does not enjoy "institutional autonomy" (control
over its internal decisions) and academic freedom. As the Vatican sees it, however,
no institution can be Catholic that is not accountable in some way to
the hierarchy and ultimately to the Holy See, under
the laws of the church.
For 30 years this difference has persisted, but no crisis arose because the American
bishops treasured these centers of Catholic scholarship and trusted their leaders.
The bishops and the college and university presidents, many still members of
religious orders, relied on mutual respect and structured dialogue to work out
problems that developed.
After publication of Ex Corde in 1989, some bishops wanted to
tighten control by specifying legal relationships in canon law, but the
preferred the more pastoral approach. In November 1996, after five years
of heated debate,
the bishops by near unanimous vote sent to Rome a text of implementation
based on shared responsibility and continuing dialogue. University officials
pleased, but the Vatican rejected this text and demanded one that clarified
This forced attention to the most difficult canonical issue, the requirement
that Catholics teaching theological disciplines acquire a mandate, or license,
from the bishops. For years the Vatican has attempted to rein in Catholic theologians
who appear to challenge what Vatican congregations, and sometimes the Pope, regard
as essential Catholic teaching. But theology was changing, moving from seminaries
to university campuses, adopting new methods of research and interpretation,
seeking out dialogue with other religions and other academic disciplines. Theologians,
often lay women and men, believe that they play an important part in the life
of the church, working with the church's ordained pastoral leaders. The Vatican,
concerned with issues of orthodoxy and authority, never accepted the idea of
partnership and disciplined some outstanding scholars, with what seemed inadequate
When the bishops decided to take on the task set by Rome in 1997, they had to
deal with the canonical requirement that Catholics teaching Catholic theological
disciplines must obtain a formal mandatum clarifying their relationship to the
teaching authority of the Catholic Church. In the 1996 text the bishops relegated
the issue to a
footnote "for further study" but Rome insisted that the mandate should be required.
The issue of the theologians had intersected the problem of
The text adopted in November contains many of the good points of the 1996 message.
It affirms institutional autonomy and academic freedom. It suggests that the
majority of trustees and faculty should be Catholic but leaves room for adaptation
with phrases like "to
the extent possible." Still, the overall tone suggests a submission to canon
law that will be hard for trustees to accept. And the document requires
that "Catholics teaching theological disciplines" obtain the mandatum.
Anxieties center on three aspects of the mandatum. First, it seems to place an
academic question: Who is qualified to teach
Catholic theology? in the hands of non-academics, a move
which damages the standing of theology as an academic discipline
might weaken the
church's public articulation of the faith by limiting its voice solely to the
hierarchy. Second, it requires acceptance of an understanding of theology that
is less a partnership and more a matter of professing truths defined by the hierarchy.
For many theological scholars deeply committed to the church this requires a
surrender of professional integrity. And third, and from the point of view of
many administrators, most important, it opens the door to continued wrangling.
Ideologically-driven groups claiming orthodoxy and loyalty to the Pope are many
and vigilant, and they have been after the theologians and the universities for
years. They now have a legal foundation to challenge theologians and harass administrators
whenever they hear of remarks that seem to depart from papal teaching (as on
role of women, or birth control).
Still, the future is not entirely bleak. There is a large dose of common sense
among the bishops. They have indicated there will be time now to engage in extended
dialogue with the theologians, trying to find a method to handle the mandatum
which will be fair and unobtrusive.
Among the questions to be worked out are
- Who grants, and withdraws, the mandate (most bishops
probably will not want to exercise that role alone)?
- How does the presence or absence of a mandate affect
the status of individual theologians in the university?
- What are the limits of dissent, and how will disputes
be worked out?
Despite the mandate adopted under Vatican
pressure, theologians, academic officials and bishops hopefully
will continue the
hard won spirit of the 1996 text. These schools are filled
with students, staff and professors who think hard about issues
of meaning and value in human life. They provide tremendous
assets for the American church. We can be sure bishops do not
want to harm them. And we can be equally sure that the vast
majority of faculty and staff want to contribute to fostering
an intelligent Catholic community as a public as well as a
spiritual good. In that spirit even the mandate issue can be
handled. Without it we are
headed into treacherous waters.
Statement of Acting
Vellaccio on Ex Corde Ecclesiae
We at Holy Cross have welcomed the continuing dialogue regarding
Catholic mission and identity sparked by Ex Corde Ecclesiae.
With other representatives of Catholic higher education we
have participated in numerous conversations with the bishops
in a spirit of mutual respect and shared responsibility.
Invariably these conversations have deepened our appreciation
of the hierarchy's pastoral leadership and our commitment
to the church and its mission.
Today's vote is disappointing. It focuses attention
on a small number of issues of canon law at the expense of the overall spirit
of cooperation that has always marked the relationship between the American bishops
and Catholic colleges and universities. We at Holy Cross have worked hard to
insure a vital and creative Catholic life on our campus. We have enjoyed the
generous support of our local bishops. We will be working closely with Bishop
Daniel P. Reilly to see how we can move forward.
The mandate is a complicated issue of canon law. We
anticipate continuing dialogue between the bishops and the Catholic theological
community aimed at finding a set of procedures which will be broadly acceptable,
which will protect academic freedom and acknowledge the pastoral responsibilities
of the bishops. For our part we have complete confidence in the ability,
fidelity and integrity of all members of our department of religious studies.
We will continue to do all we can to enrich Catholic intellectual life, on campus
and in the wider church.