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College presidents drop defiance, try compromise on norms

NCR Staff

Presidents of U.S. Catholic colleges and universities decided Feb. 2 to firmly oppose Vatican efforts to gain more control over their institutions, then met in closed session a day later and decided to work toward compromise.

The change in course, according to Monika Hellwig, executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, was prompted by a discussion with Cardinal Francis George of Chicago following his keynote address.

Expressing a view widely unpopular among administrators and faculty of Catholic schools, George said in his talk that he believes the relationship between the church’s hierarchy and the schools should and will be codified in church law. Bishops will vote in November on norms to be sent to the Vatican.

University administrators would serve their own interests best by working to improve the norms rather than continuing to fight them, George said. Rather than assume that norms would infringe on academic freedom, "it would seem to be more profitable to explore details of the proposal and see what impact it would have," he said.

Before George spoke, association members had agreed to resubmit a 1996 document that the Vatican has already rejected, effectively digging in their heels in resistance. The 1996 document avoided discussion of canon law.

Administrators and faculty have been deeply concerned in recent years over the Vatican’s efforts to apply Canon 812 of the church’s code to U.S. colleges and universities. On the other hand, the Vatican and many U.S. bishops have been concerned about what they regard as loss of Catholic identity at many of the schools. The Vatican addressed those concerns in Ex Corde Ecclesiae ("From the Heart of the Church,") and asked bishops of various countries to develop national implementation norms.

The canon, new to the code issued in 1983, requires persons teaching "theological subjects" in colleges or universities to "have a mandate from the competent ecclesiastical authority," generally understood to be a local bishop. Such external control of faculty, opponents say, would threaten academic freedom and inhibit an institution’s ability to compete academically with non-Catholic schools.

U.S. bishops have been considering since November a proposal from a subcommittee that goes beyond canon law. It urges Catholic schools to ensure that a majority of faculty members are faithful Catholics, regardless of the discipline they teach, and requires university presidents to take a loyalty oath.

Monika Hellwig, executive director of the association, said presidents had turned out "in full force" for the recent meeting. "What emerged," she said, was "substantial consensus" to develop an alternative proposal. Details will be worked out in coming months, she said.

George told administrators he considered their schools to be "not only salvageable" but headed for "their best days."

Acknowledging the role of bishops in a Catholic university’s life only makes visible what is invisible, much as sacraments make visible "invisible mysteries" in the life of the church, he said. He suggested that the context be regarded as one of relationship rather than intimidation.

"It is a juridical recognition that a Catholic theologian teaches in communion with the church, that the theologian is related to the pastor of the faith community who recognizes the importance of his or her work within the community of faith and that the discipline of theology receives its data from that same community of faith," he said.

A requirement that a bishop grant a mandate to a theologian "doesn’t make the bishop personally responsible for anything the theologian teaches, nor does it make a theologian a particular bishop’s mouthpiece," he said. "No bishops are out there thirsting to control a university, nor is somebody eager to crack down," he said.

At the same time, George said he saw a need for administrators and bishops to work on a plan that would prevent "a maverick bishop" from taking "advantage of a mandate situation." It might be possible, he said, to establish an accrediting association composed of bishops and professors "that would help an individual local bishop" decide when to grant a mandate.

"Recently a professor compared the hierarchy to a huge family gorilla," George said. "I appreciated the acknowledgment of being in the family," he said — adding that the analogy also made him feel important because he is not tall. While such jokes are "in good fun," George said, "they might also indicate an attitude of contempt or resentment that makes serious conversation more difficult."

George said he’s been told that since becoming archbishop of Chicago in 1997, he’s appeared more often at the University of Chicago, a secular institution, than at Catholic universities in his archdiocese. "I feel very much at home at the University of Chicago, with the president and a lot of the faculty, Catholic and non-Catholic," he said. "But that’s easy to understand. At Chicago I’m a curiosity. At a Catholic university I’m a threat. We have to get past that," he said. "But initiatives have to come from both sides."

George said he disagrees with those who say norms authorizing bishops to grant mandates to theologians is tantamount to giving bishops control over universities. "Granting a mandate ... does not put the bishop into the governance structure of the university any more than granting a theologian membership in the Catholic Theological Society of America puts that organization into the university’s governance structure," he said.

Even so, George said, if norms stop short of granting control to a bishop, they would increase his influence. "If there’s a relationship, there’s influence," he said.

A clear sign that a relationship problem exists, George said, is the assumption by administrators and faculty that any juridical norms — any effort to apply canon law — is an "attempt to control," he said. Such a reaction, George said, stems from a view of the church rooted more in American notions of autonomy and freedom than in a Vatican II notion of the church "as communion."

For Americans, a major obstacle to "receiving" the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (1963-65) is "a poverty of imagination," George said. Americans are so accustomed to seeing the church in the context of church-state conflicts that they have difficulty seeing the church "as communion ... a network of relationships," he said.

Americans live in a "legalistic society," one that is "very much concerned about control," he said. His "plea," he said is that administrators and faculty try to see the efforts to strengthen ties between bishops and universities "in light of an ecclesiology of communion."

Still, George said, some concerns expressed by university administrators and professors need to be taken seriously. For instance, he said, norms should be developed that would prevent a "maverick bishop" from applying standards unevenly or inappropriately.

"A bishop has no right to impose his own proclivities or his own theology on the faith community," George said. "He has only the obligation before God to see that the Catholic faith in its integrity is taught and handed on. What is a faithful Catholic is not up to the individual bishop. It’s up to the church herself, and within that there’s a lot of wiggle room."

George said many such questions still need to be addressed before bishops vote in November. Others on the table include:

  • Will non-Catholic faculty teaching theology be able to receive a mandate?
  • What will be the status of a faculty member who is unwilling to obtain a mandate?
  • Would theologians with mandates be subject to some form of evaluation?
  • Should some courses be taught only by theologians who have a mandate?
  • Would a mandate be transferable between universities in different geographical areas?
  • What might be the financial implications of such a system on a university?
  • Is some form of recourse needed by a university or professor in case of a problem?
  • Could a uniform mechanism be developed to ensure fairness in granting mandates?

For previous NCR coverage of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, click the following links (use your browser's Back button to return to this page):

National Catholic Reporter, February 19, 1999