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Special report
Catholic colleges face new rules

NCR Staff

When U.S. Catholic bishops hold their annual meeting in Washington later this month, some will undoubtedly be pondering the relationship of endings to beginnings.

Just two years ago, the bishops thought they were nearing the end of an eight-year process when they voted overwhelmingly, 240 to 6, to approve a pastoral document sidestepping Vatican efforts to gain greater control over higher education in the United States.

U.S. academics said outside control over Catholic higher education would be unworkable in the United States, where academic freedom is a condition of respect. The Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education nevertheless rejected the pastoral approach last year and called for a direct application of canon law.

During their Nov. 16-19 meeting, bishops are expected to engage in heated discussion of a subcommittee report calling for changes that, some say, would please the Vatican while threatening the autonomy and possibly the very survival of Catholic colleges and universities in the United States.

In contrast to the pastoral approach, worked out in six years of discussion among bishops and academics, the subcommittee report calls for schools to revise their bylaws, university presidents to take an oath of fidelity and theologians to ask local bishops for permission to teach.

The Vatican’s effort to gain control began with the 1990 release of a document titled Ex Corde Ecclesiae, (“From the Heart of the Church,”) which called on Catholic institutions to take steps to assure continuation of their Catholic identity by challenging culture where appropriate, and -- most controversial -- implementing Canon 812, which requires Catholic theologians to have a mandate from a bishop to teach theology.

Subsequently, Bishop John J. Leibrecht of Springfield, Mo., conducted discussions around the country among bishops and academics that culminated in the pastoral document approved by bishops in 1996 and rejected by the Vatican the following year.

The subcommittee that developed the latest set of norms, representing the worst fears of many college and university administrators, was headed by Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua of Philadelphia. Bevilacqua declined to discuss the report, saying he thought it would not be appropriate to do so before the bishops’ meeting. Bevilacqua and all members of his subcommittee are canon lawyers.

Others involved in the tedious process, now nearly a decade old, put on a good face in interviews with NCR. But sources said some bishops are deeply upset, and academics are understandably concerned.

Monika K. Hellwig, executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, said the proposed norms, which would bring U.S. schools into strict compliance with canon law, will renew administrators’ determination to “keep explaining” to the Vatican the uniqueness of American higher education.

“It’s disheartening in one way, because Rome evidently hasn’t heard what’s been said before, she said in a telephone interview with NCR. On the other hand, colleges are determined to keep explaining, to stay in conversation about this because their financial survival may depend on it.

Hellwig referred to a possible loss of federal funds if canon laws are strictly applied as called for by the subcommittee’s report.

‘It’s very difficult, but I feel our bishops will work through this thing.’

Leibrecht said the subcommittee’s report has been widely distributed among bishops and academics, who will be discussing it in local settings for the next 12 months. He said he expects the document, subject to amendments, to come before bishops for a vote in November 1999. Leibrecht said he did not want to discuss what might happen if bishops defied the Vatican by rejecting the subcommittee’s report.

“It’s very difficult, but I feel our bishops will work through this thing,” he said.

Following are some sections of the subcommittee’s 16-page report that academics find particularly troubling:

  • Catholic universities are urged to recruit and appoint “faithful Catholics” so that “those committed to the witness of the faith will constitute a majority of the faculty.”
  • “Catholics who teach the theological disciplines in a Catholic university are required to have a written mandate granted by competent ecclesiastical authority” -- that is, a local bishop.
  • A professor’s declaration that he or she will teach “in communion with the church” is to be expressed “by the profession of faith and oath of fidelity or in any other reasonable manner acceptable to the one granting the mandate.”
  • The mandate is to remain in effect indefinitely “unless and until withdrawn by competent ecclesiastical authority.”

Catholic universities are advised to conform existing statutes “as much as possible” to the proposed new norms.

Many schools undermined

If such rules were imposed, the status of many schools would be seriously undermined, Hellwig said. The result, she said, could be “that some would have to stop calling themselves Catholic” or face loss of full accreditation and/or of federal funds. The reality is that many schools today could not survive without those funds, she said.

Marianist Fr. James Heft, chancellor at the University of Dayton, said he objected to using a profession of faith or oath of fidelity as a means of control.

“There are certain dimensions of oath-taking that Catholics do every Sunday morning when we profess the creed with other believers,” he said. “There is nothing inherent in professing one’s faith that is repugnant.

“The issue is whether a means of control -- or at least what is perceived as control -- is the best way to appeal to adult Catholics.”

Conflict or communion?

Theresa Moser, assistant dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of San Francisco and president of the College Theology Society, said the subcommittee’s proposed norms would ultimately promote “conflict and discord” rather than the aimed-at “spirit of communion” among academic and church authorities.

Heft said he, too, has confidence in U.S. bishops’ ability to find a way to compromise with Rome. “I think the bishops in general in the United States understand well the complexity of this problem, and I think they will do what needs to be done to stay at the table, not only with us but also with Rome to arrive at a solution that’s workable,” he said. “I’m concerned. I think anybody who understands what’s at stake should be very concerned. But I also am confident that in time a workable solution will be arrived at.”

Heft regards ongoing struggle between U.S. church officials and Rome as “a very profound exercise in multiculturalism.”

“There are very few Catholic universities in Europe along the model we have in the United States,” he said. In Europe, Catholic faculties may be appointed at secular universities, but Catholic universities per se are rare. Furthermore, he said, the U.S. theological enterprise, in which “huge numbers of lay people teach theology to undergraduates” is atypical. “It just doesn’t happen in most of the so-called Catholic universities around the world,” he said.

Heft and others said the discussions among U.S. academics and bishops in recent years had been highly productive. Over the past decade or so, “there has been a gradual clarification among American bishops” about the difficulties of imposing canonical norms, as well as “a greater understanding of the qualities of a lot of the Catholic colleges and universities,” in particular “their mission and character,” he said.

Hellwig concurred. “On one hand, this is taking an awful lot of time and energy,” she said. “On the other hand, eight years ago American bishops were all across the spectrum on the issue” of how university and church authorities should relate. Today, she said, as a result of a lot of very useful substantive discussion, there is a much closer sense of cooperation, she said.

Highlights of proposed new norms
  • Catholic universities urged to recruit “faithful Catholics” so “those committed to the witness of the faith will constitute a majority of the faculty.”
  • Catholics who teach theology are required to have a written mandate from a local bishop.
  • A professor’s declaration that he or she will teach “in communion with the church” is to be expressed “by the profession of faith and oath of fidelity or in any other reasonable manner acceptable to the one granting the mandate.”

To read Ex Corde Ecclesiae on the Vatican’s Web site go to www.vatican.va/, pick the language of your choice, then click on “John Paul II,” then click on “Apostolic Constitutions,” and finally “English” under “Ex Corde Ecclesiae”. (This document is availiable in several translations, we have taken the liberty of choosing English as a translation in these instructions.) This is also listed in our Documents section as well.

National Catholic Reporter, November 13, 1998