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More time sought as final vote on Ex Corde nears

NCR Staff

As U.S. bishops approach what could be a final vote on legal norms for U.S. Catholic colleges and universities, many academics are hoping bishops will opt for more time.

Monika Hellwig, executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, thinks more discussion is needed on the meaning of academic freedom before the bishops finish their work. “It’s a term we’ve used extensively, but probably most of the people involved have not given much thought to what it really means,” she said. “That would, I think, be a very fruitful conversation, one which would open all kinds of new possibilities.”

The vote on norms for implementing Ex Corde Ecclesiae, a 1990 Vatican document on Catholic identity in higher education, is scheduled to take place in November, during the annual meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Bishops will vote to reject the guidelines, approve them, possibly with revisions, or to extend the process. Passage of the guidelines requires a two-thirds vote of conference members, some 280 active bishops.

Academics were encouraged recently when one of those bishops, Bishop John M. D’Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., urged his colleagues to spend more time in talking with university administrators, theologians and trustees about the meaning of academic freedom in the context of U.S. education rather than risk a “stalemate” by rushing to a vote.

Hellwig, along with Jesuit Fr. Charles Currie, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, and the presidents of two Catholic theology societies, said they regard the latest draft as unworkable. Academics acknowledge that it is more pastoral in tone, but it retains several objectionable provisions. At least one of those -- a requirement that theologians get approval from a local bishop to teach -- has been a major sticking point since it became part of the church’s new Code of Canon Law in 1983.

Currie told NCR, “I think many of us were very disappointed that there wasn’t much change from the previous draft, based on some of the input that the committee had received.”

Bishop John J. Leibrecht of Springfield, Mo., said his committee, charged with developing the norms, is open to “further improvements. Even though we intended to help out, we’re not quite sure the way we designed this is the best way,” he said.

Despite the criticisms, Leibrecht said he thought the latest draft did reflect some, if not all, of academics’ concerns. “We are trying to look more carefully at some of the legal implications of the document regarding state and federal provisions, and we’re also trying to make the document, which is juridic in nature, as pastoral as we can,” he said. “That is quite a challenge.”

A previous draft developed by Leibrecht’s committee, though overwhelmingly approved by bishops in 1996 and largely acceptable to U.S. academics, was rejected by the Vatican. After that, a subcommittee of canon lawyers, including Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, tightened the norms to conform more specifically to canon law. The latest draft somewhat softens the subcommittee’s draft.

Sacred Heart Sr. Theresa Moser, president of the College Theology Society, gave the committee high marks for efforts to put the guidelines in the context of “communion ecclesiology” -- that is, to situate colleges and universities within the community of the church -- but said theologians are also likely to be disappointed. “Substantially, nothing has changed” with regard to the troublesome requirements, she said.

Moser said her theology society would have no opportunity between now and November to formally consider the document. “At most, we have only six weeks between now and the bishops’ meeting,” she said.

Hellwig noted that some of the troublesome points of the previous draft had simply been shifted to footnotes in the new one. For instance, footnotes give bishops the right to ask theologians, as well as university presidents, to sign or recite the problematic profession of faith.

In the latest draft, the guidelines’ most controversial provisions include those that call for:

  • Theologians to obtain a portable mandatum from the bishop who oversees the diocese in which their first teaching assignment is located. The mandatum (a Latin word that replaces mandate in the previous draft) would be portable.
  • A majority of a school’s board and faculty, “to the extent possible,” to be composed of demonstrably committed Catholics. The term “faithful Catholic,” considered by critics to be vague and subject to a variety of interpretations, has been dropped.
  • Catholic college and university presidents to demonstrate their commitment to the church in accordance with Canon 833. The canon requires a “profession of faith” according to “a formula approved by the Holy See.”

The mandatum’s purpose, according to the guidelines, is to recognize “the professor’s commitment and responsibility to teach authentic Catholic doctrine and to refrain from putting forth as Catholic teaching anything contrary to the church’s magisterium.”

Liebrecht said that theologians who hold views contrary to authentic Catholic teaching would be expected under the proposed norms to clearly identify those views as representing “his own opinion at the time.”

“We’re not interested in some professor saying, ‘Here’s my interpretation of Catholic teaching,’ ” he said. “We’re interested in the Catholic teaching being authentically presented, and if a professor has something else to add, identifying that as a theologian’s present thinking on the matter.”

“It has to be done responsibly,” he stressed. “There are ways that could be acceptable and other ways that would create real problems.”

Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley, president of the Catholic Theological Society, said theologians certainly recognize their need to present authentic Catholic teaching to students, but also are required by their vocation to be true to the academic task. That task -- “to facilitate students’ thinking through things” -- demands that theologians at the university level also present the views of critics of Catholic teaching, she said.

As written, the norms “put theologians in a difficult situation if they are trying to be faithful to the teaching of the church, but also to be faithful to the task of theology,” she said. “The language is very loose” in the present draft, she said. “It will be implemented in different ways in different dioceses.”

Currie thinks new discussions could be productive, even though the process has been going on for many years. In past discussions, the various parties “were talking past one another. I think we’re reaching a new clarity about how many difficulties these guidelines pose for theologians, schools, even for bishops,” Currie said. Where lawsuits result over disputes involving the mandate, “it will be very time consuming, costly and divisive.”

Hellwig has said in recent months that she had found officials in Rome to be sympathetic to the problem that a strict interpretation of church law presents for U.S. universities in the context of U.S. law and a tradition of academic freedom.

Hellwig told NCR that she had indeed found Cardinal Pio Laghi, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, and Archbishop Giuseppe Pittau, the congregation’s secretary, to be sensitive to U.S. academics’ concerns. She said the two officials had told her, however, that the Vatican’s Council on Legal Documents was insisting that the norms be in strict accordance with canon law and that their hands were tied “unless the American bishops would take a really strong and united stand” in opposition.

But, Hellwig told NCR, Leibrecht’s committee had subsequently told her that they had received a letter from Rome saying that Vatican officials had never intended to give her that impression.

“It’s very difficult,” she said. “It’s a huge bureaucracy, and, like many bureaucracies, it has a kind of life of its own. It’s like a multinational corporation. You find nothing you can get hold of, because when you find an individual who, say, understands your argument about social justice and goes along with it, he suddenly retires from the corporation.”

Fr. Ladislas Orsy, canon lawyer and professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, said the Vatican is departing from its own history in efforts to tighten controls. “Right from the Middle Ages, the church realized that universities are very special institutions and therefore often granted them an exemption from a local bishop’s authority,” he said. Orsy added. “Bishops are not necessarily experts in theology. You must remember that St. Thomas Aquinas was condemned by the bishops of Paris and Oxford.” Orsy said the proposed norms would undercut the university’s role in the church. “They would put a person teaching at a university in a position similar to one teaching in a seminary,” he said.

Orsy concurred with Farley that the language in the proposed norms is ambiguous. “On many points, they are not sufficiently clear,” he said. “They can be interpreted two ways. Perhaps the intent was to leave a certain freedom, but when clarity is missing, questions may arise, and interpretations are left to the local bishop. If there are 160 different dioceses, you could have 160 different judgments. It’s an immense problem.”

As for that profession of faith, Orsy said the formula currently required by the Vatican “overreaches,” going well beyond the Nicene Creed by requiring adherence to doctrines both “definitively” and “nondefinitively” defined.

National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 1999