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Ex Corde reversal another slap at U.S. bishops

Bishop John J. Leibrecht put on a game face in reacting to the news that the Vatican had rejected the U.S. adaptation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II’s 1990 Apostolic Constitution on Higher Education.

The rejection, delivered by Cardinal Pio Laghi, head of the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, is not a setback but a continuation of a process, Leibrecht said. “We’ve been working a long time with university presidents and bishops, and the next step is to work with the Holy See.”

Leibrecht, who headed the committee that developed the U.S. document, is gracious and perhaps politically astute in the bargain. But his words, benign as they may be, point to a deeper, more disturbing reality than merely delicate negotiations between Rome and the United States. He and a lot of other U.S. bishops, in one rejected document or initiative after another, are systematically being transformed into little more than figureheads. They are being refashioned into Rome’s messengers, or as one U.S. archbishop remarked in dismay, “Rome’s altar boys.”

Many of the U.S. bishops and leading Catholic educators from the United States have diligently worked with the Holy See over the higher education issue. There have been many exchanges and meetings. If, in the end, the Holy See cannot trust its own appointed leaders on this matter, then what state have we reached? Rome seemingly has little regard for their thinking or their ability to lead and to teach.

In its latest decision, the Vatican gave a thumbs down to the results of a collaborative effort that spanned six years, countless hours of meetings, visits to Rome and broad consultations among U.S. academics and the U.S. bishops.

The final product was a document widely praised in U.S. Catholic academic circles and approved by the bishops last November by a vote of 224-6.

The U.S. accommodation was to fashion a compromise that would have allowed the church in this country to observe the spirit of Ex Corde while avoiding the inevitable clash that would occur should Catholic institutes of higher education be forced to live the letter of some of its provisions. One of the most controversial provisions, set forth in Canon 812, would require that “those who teach theological subjects in any institute of higher studies ... have a mandate from the competent ecclesiastical authority.”

In other words, if strictly applied, theologians would be required to have the approval of the local bishop before being hired by a local Catholic college or university.

That kind of arrangement, of course, would run head-on into characteristics such as academic freedom that are distinctive to the United States. Interference from outside the university could also have serious implications for government funding of research and government loans and grants for students.

Rome seemingly has little regard for such American concerns -- with potentially devastating implications for U.S. Catholic higher education. As troubling, however, is the distrust and disregard Rome has shown for the U.S. bishops. The Vatican is clearly rejecting collegiality as the means for accomplishing the church’s mission, as it was spelled out during the Second Vatican Council.

Church observers know well that Rome’s rejection of the work on higher education is the latest in a series of rebuffs that have all the appearances of power politics and little to do with even traditional notions of Catholic ecclesiology and the role and function of bishops as leaders of their Catholic communities.

However pure or soiled its intentions, Rome is doing irreparable damage to the long-term health of U.S. Catholicism.

These issues were central to the concerns raised by Archbishop John R. Quinn, retired archbishop of San Francisco, when in June 1996 he delivered a speech at Oxford University in England, calling for broad reforms in the way authority is exercised in the church. At that time he warned that the increasingly centralized control of church affairs in Rome threatens to make “bishops managers who only work under instructions” rather than “true witnesses of faith who teach -- in communion with the pope -- in the name of Christ.”

The issues were raised earlier in a statement formulated by a dozen U.S. bishops -- and informally endorsed by many more -- released in June 1995. That statement said: “It is undoubtedly a caricature, but there is a feeling afoot that among the criteria for selecting bishops, leadership qualities are considerably overshadowed by a concern for characteristics that would identify a candidate as ‘safe.’ Yet, a leader is precisely a person who will take risks and be creative and who is not afraid now and then to make a mistake.”

The 1995 statement noted that Rome had overridden the work of the U.S. bishops on documents covering a range of topics, from the teaching ministry of bishops and the U.S. bishops’ attempt to fashion a pastoral on women to rejection of a translation of the Universal Catechism, an issue that had been “taken completely out of our hands.” In the time since, the Vatican has rejected inclusive translations of Mass texts approved by the bishops.

The result is the demoralizing and disaffection of untold numbers of the church’s once most loyal members. With each new move against the U.S. bishops and against collaboration, Rome diminishes its own authority, compromises wider episcopal credibility and makes Catholicism, as an institution, less appealing to many educated minds.

Our bishops, theologians and educators have been patient through it all -- to a fault. This is because all prize unity and deeply respect the papacy. But the papacy and curia are run by human beings, sometimes well, sometimes badly. At times, failure to speak honestly and to defend one’s Christian vision can be the greater act of disloyalty. Quiet assent, when it compromises conscience and damages the church, is no longer a virtuous act.

National Catholic Reporter, June 20, 1997