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Chair defends Catholic studies institute

NCR Staff

While quietly working to attract funders, a fledgling international institute focusing on Catholic studies got the kind of attention it didn’t want and, according to its national leader, attention it didn’t deserve. It came in the form of an attack from the right.

The institute, formed as the Catholic Institute for Advanced Studies, but recently renamed the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies, is seeking $50 million for an endowment that would provide grants and scholarships for promoting research in the Catholic intellectual tradition.

As conceived by Marianist Fr. James L. Heft, chancellor of the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio, and chair of the Commission on Catholic Scholarship, the group overseeing the institute’s formation, the institute will operate independently of the church’s hierarchy and of any particular institution. The commission is composed of priests, religious and laypeople, many of them prominent Catholic academics.

Most academic institutes already operate independently of the hierarchy, though they are usually sponsored by a university. Increasingly in recent years, independence from the hierarchy is regarded as a red flag by conservatives, who view it as an effort to sidestep moves by Rome to gain control over the teaching of theology in Catholic colleges and universities. The 1983 Code of Canon Law calls for theologians to have a mandate from an ecclesiastical authority, usually interpreted as the local bishop, to teach theology in Catholic schools. U.S. bishops have been working for nearly a decade to find a way to appease Rome without jeopardizing the academic freedom prized by U.S. schools.

The attack on the institute, well before it is even off the ground, came from Dominican Fr. Matthew Lamb, theology professor at Boston College and an outspoken conservative whose views often conflict with mainstream views of other U.S. Catholic theologians. Lamb told the Rome-based ZENIT news agency last month that he feared the institute, once established, “would just give some dissenters another platform to oppose the church’s papal and episcopal magisterium.”

Heft said in a telephone interview that Lamb’s criticisms were “highly unfair and inaccurate.” Further, he noted, the attack is ironic, given that the institute will address some of the concerns Lamb has expressed over the years about academic study of church tradition: for instance, that it is often lacking in rigor, breadth and depth.

“I agree with some of his criticisms of Catholic scholarship,” Heft said. “What he fails to realize is that the institute is one of the best hopes for addressing his concerns.”

An anonymous foundation has provided $10 million in start-up funds, to be matched by the institute’s supporters and is prepared to give another $5 million once the matching funds are secured, Heft said.

Lamb was unavailable for comment.

According to an informational statement distributed to scholars about the institute, it would promote study of the Catholic tradition “in its manifold expressions,” as well as “study from a Catholic perspective of questions of contemporary interest.”

The institute would differ from a think tank because it will neither operate “from a particular ideological stance nor focus on practical problems,” according to the statement.

The plan is to gather groups of 20 to 25 scholars for nine-month periods for “serious theological research in a variety of disciplines,” Heft said.

Heft said the institute has gained the support of Catholic university presidents “precisely because they saw that it was designed to strengthen the Catholic intellectual capital of their faculties.” Further, he said, the idea is not something concocted to sidestep the hierarchy because of Rome’s recent efforts to gain more control of the teaching of theology in Catholic higher education.

“The idea for the institute was presented over 10 years ago by me at a national conference in San Francisco to the deans of graduate faculties at Catholic colleges and universities,” he said. That was well before the recent conflicts between Catholic university presidents and Rome.

Heft noted that canon law asserts that in certain circumstances the church’s mission can be better fulfilled by enterprises that are not founded or controlled by the hierarchy.

Attracting funding has presented a major challenge Heft said. But, he said, once the institute is in operation, he expects people will see that it stands to make “a major contribution to Catholic colleges and universities.”

The 26 members of the Commission on Catholic Scholarship include Jesuit Fr. Michael Buckley, a former theological adviser to U.S. Catholic bishops; Jesuit Fr. William Byron, former president of The Catholic University of America; Fr. David Tracy, a theologian who teaches at the University of Chicago; Monika Hellwig, executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities; Ursuline Sr. Alice Gallin, Hellwig’s predecessor; Fr. J. Brian Hehir, professor of religion and society at Harvard Divinity School; Jesuit Fr. John Coleman, theology professor at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles, Mercy Sr. Doris Gottemoeller, president of the Sisters of Mercy, and Lisa Cahill, theology professor at Boston College.

National Catholic Reporter, April 16, 1999