e-mail us
President takes oath as bishops debate it

NCR Staff

As U.S. Catholic bishops struggled in mid-November with tensions related to Vatican norms for higher education, one U.S. university president was preparing to buck tradition.

On Nov. 19, the final day of a four-day meeting of U.S. Catholic bishops in Washington, the new president of The Catholic University of America recited a controversial oath of fidelity.

During an inaugural ceremony at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, Vincentian Fr. David M. O’Connell vowed publicly to “hold fast to the deposit of faith in its entirety” and to “avoid any teachings opposed to that faith.”

The oath, required of Catholic college and university presidents under the 1983 Code of Canon Law, but strongly opposed by most of them, is among issues causing the tensions with Rome. Also controversial is a requirement that theologians obtain a mandate from a local bishop to teach. Bishops discussed the thorny issues in higher education Nov. 18, during their annual meeting in Washington.

Cardinal James Hickey of Washington told NCR, ‘Fr. O’Connell and the board regarded it as appropriate’ that he take the oath. Hickey is chancellor of The Catholic University

Monika Hellwig, executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, said she did not regard O’Connell’s decision as precedent-setting.

Unique position

“Catholic University is in a unique position because it is chartered by the Holy See,” she said. It is the only major university in the nation with a direct relationship to the Vatican. She said some academics had been “taken by surprise” by O’Connell’s action. But, she said, no college or university presidents had called her to discuss it.

Jesuit Fr. William Byron, a former president of The Catholic University, said he knew of no presidents of The Catholic University in recent times who had taken such an oath. Hellwig recalled that professors at The Catholic University formerly took an oath against modernism. The practice has been abandoned.

Vincent P. Walter Jr., O’Connell’s chief of staff, said the new president was too busy to speak with NCR about his action.

O’Connell, 43, took his oath in the context of an inaugural speech that suggested other universities should follow suit. Noting that The Catholic University was founded in 1887 as “the national university of the church in the United States,” he said the school “should lead the way in showing what it means to be Catholic and what it means to be a university.”

The 230 Catholic institutions of higher learning in the United States have a responsibility to set goals beyond “acceptance from the academic community,” he said. “What would it profit us to surrender that responsibility or even to strike compromises in its regard to gain the grudging acceptance of the whole academic world, only to lose our soul in the process,” he asked.

Identity and Ex Corde

O’Connell’s words evoked the spirit of Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“From the Heart of the Church”); his oath evoked its letter. Ex Corde Ecclesiae is a papal document calling for Catholic colleges and universities to strengthen their Catholic identity and conform to canon law. Since the document was released in 1990, most Catholic colleges and universities have given high priority to efforts to strengthen Catholic identity. That identity, many agree, is at risk in an era of declining vocations to religious orders that sponsor Catholic schools.

Based on six years of conversations with university administrators and theologians, U.S. bishops in 1996 voted overwhelmingly in favor of a pastoral strategy adopting the spirit of Ex Corde Ecclesiae but circumventing canonical requirements deemed incompatible with academic freedom. The Vatican rejected the pastoral approach the following year.

U.S. bishops, at their meeting last month, considered stricter norms proposed by a subcommittee headed by Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia. Bishop John J. Leibrecht of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Mo., said his committee, which developed the pastoral approach, would seek recommendations from bishops in the months ahead and, in consultation with Bevilacqua’s subcommittee, prepare a new draft aimed at compromise with the Vatican’s demands. That draft is expected to be voted on next November.

Archbishop Rembert Weakland, speaking against such compromise, asked whether it would be possible to approach Rome and reaffirm the original, pastoral draft. He said he strongly opposed further consultations with college and university presidents, whom, he said, have already spoken forcefully about their opposition to applying canonical rules. “Why sit down with us again if we’re not going to be the ones making the decision?” Weakland asked, referring to the Vatican’s refusal to accept the bishop’s previous vote.

Retired Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco cited a growing interest in Catholic religious events on campuses, such as Masses and retreats. “It would be very imprudent to place these in jeopardy” by applying norms in a way that would “diminish the status of Catholic universiies,” he said.

National Catholic Reporter, December 11, 1998