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Back to drawing board on Ex Corde Ecclesiae

NCR Staff

It’s back to work for U.S. Catholic bishops who have spent the past six years in a painstaking effort to adapt the Vatican document Ex Corde Ecclesiae to the standards of Catholic colleges and universities in the United States.

The Vatican Congregation on Catholic Education has delivered four pages of criticisms on a draft prepared by bishops and academics working under the direction of Bishop John J. Leibrecht of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Mo. -- an effort widely praised in the U.S. academic world and approved by bishops last November by a vote of 224-6. The document was then sent to the Vatican for approval.

Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“From the Heart of the Church”), Pope John Paul II’s 1990 Apostolic Constitution on Higher Education, directs Catholic colleges and universities to affirm their Catholic identity and take steps to safeguard and perpetuate their Catholic missions. Bishops’ committees in each country were to develop local norms.

The latest development is not a setback but a continuation, Leibrecht said in a telephone interview with NCR. “We’ve been working a long time with university presidents and bishops, and the next step is to work with the Holy See.”

The Vatican has also asked for more study of the U.S. bishops’ 1989 document that proposes guidelines for due process when conflicts develop between theologians and local bishops. That document is titled “Doctrinal Responsibilities: Approaches to Promoting Cooperation and Resolving Misunderstandings Between Bishops and Theologians.”

Monika K. Hellwig, executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, told NCR that the word from the Vatican is “perhaps disappointing but not surprising. Many had hoped the document would be accepted in its present form, but we would have expected some negotiation,” she said.

The most difficult point in the document for U.S. academics -- and one carefully sidestepped in the draft rejected by the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education -- is implementation of canon 812 in the church’s Code of Canon Law. The canon states, “Those who teach theological subjects in any institute of higher studies must have a mandate from the competent ecclesiastical authority” -- in effect, the local bishop.

Although Ex Corde Ecclesiae is aimed at Catholic schools worldwide, its primary effect is in the United States, where some 230 Catholic colleges and universities enroll more than 600,000 students -- far more than in any other country. Many U.S. academics are deeply disturbed by the implications of Canon 812 for academic freedom and possibly for government funding. In recent decades, state and federal funds have become critical to ongoing research and even survival at many schools.

In response to the Vatican’s request for a new draft, Bishop Anthony M. Pilla of Cleveland, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, has appointed a subcommittee headed by Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua of Philadelphia to work on the revision.

Bevilacqua was among the sharpest critics of the U.S. draft sent to Rome. He challenged what he regarded as its failure to address the requirements of canon 812. He voted in favor of accepting the document last November, but only after a footnote was added saying U.S. bishops would give further study to Canon 812’s requirements.

Leibrecht said the Vatican has also asked for more explicit directives on the “essential elements” of mission statements that educational institutions are required to develop, as well as revised language that is more “canonical.”

Leibrecht said he expects the new subcommittee to be sensitive to the characteristics of higher education distinctive to the United States. “I don’t know what their recommendations will be, but I have no doubt they will look at Canon 812 in light of the historical experience of Catholic higher education in the United States,” he said.

According to a May 27 news release from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Pio Laghi, head of the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, presented four pages of “observations” on the draft, along with a request for a new one, to Pilla when he and other bishops met with Vatican officials in May.

The news release contained some quotations from the observations. But a bishops’ conference spokeswoman, Mercy Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, said the full text would not be released. Appointed to Bevilacqua’s subcommittee were Cardinal Adam J. Maida of Detroit; Bishop Thomas G. Doran of Rockford, Ill.; Bishop Raymond L. Burke of La Crosse, Wis.; and Msgr. John Alesandro, an episcopal vicar of the Rockville Centre, N.Y., diocese.

Alesandro is a canon lawyer, as are all bishops on the subcommittee, according to Leibrecht.

The subcommittee is to serve under Leibrecht’s original committee, which is composed of seven bishops, eight university presidents and consultors. The committee developed its draft based on broad consultation with U.S. academics, who met with local bishops around the country.

In a memo to bishops and Catholic academic leaders regarding the new development, Leibrecht said he and other bishops on his committee will meet with Laghi and the staff of his congregation in Rome to discuss their concerns.

Leibrecht said he expected colleges and universities to continue their ongoing “dialogues on identity and mission,” guided by the principles of Ex Corde Ecclesiae. The document, his memo said, “offers insights and challenges for local dialogues and professional associations, which can be constructively addressed now.”

In the news release, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops said that Laghi had expressed “profound gratitude” for the work of U.S. bishops thus far.

(This article contains information from Catholic News Service.)

National Catholic Reporter, June 6, 1997