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Two plans on Ex Corde gain support

NCR Staff

The paper pile on Bishop John J. Leibrecht’s desk is growing as his committee prepares to wrestle yet again with the relationship of U.S. Catholic colleges and universities to church officials and canon law.

“Can I answer in inches?” Leibrecht asked in response to an inquiry about proposals he has received in recent weeks. The proposals are aimed at influencing U.S. implementation norms for Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“From the Heart of the Church”), Pope John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic letter on higher education.

Academic leaders and U.S. bishops are engaged in last-ditch efforts to find a way around a decade-long deadlock over application of a canon law that has many academic leaders worried about outside controls. U.S. bishops will vote in November at their annual meeting on the third draft of the implementation norms.

Leibrecht of Springfield, Mo., heads the committee trying to hammer out a compromise among academics, bishops and Vatican officials. Some bishops and Vatican officials are insisting on strict application of Canon 812 in the church’s Code of Canon Law. The canon, new to the 1983 code, requires theologians to have a mandate from the “competent ecclesiastical authority” -- usually a local bishop -- authorizing them to teach in a college or university.

More broadly, the task of Leibrecht’s committee is to set standards for addressing the pope’s concerns about Catholic identity at schools that describe themselves as Catholic -- standards acceptable to both church officials and U.S. academics who are deeply concerned about preserving institutional autonomy and academic freedom.

Leibrecht said his stack of papers has mounted to about 3 inches and is still growing, although the May 1 deadline has passed. The stack includes two formal proposals that have gained the support of some academics.

Aimed at influencing the third draft of the implementation norms, the proposals will be among those to be considered when the committee begins its discussions with a conference call on June 2 and in a meeting in Washington June 28 and 29.

One of the two proposals was developed by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities; the other by Holy Cross Fr. David T. Tyson, president of the University of Portland, Ore.

The association’s proposal was sent to Leibrecht with a letter of support from the presidents of three Catholic scholarly societies: the Catholic Theological Society of America, the College Theology Society and the Catholic Biblical Association.

Leibrecht said he expects a subcommittee draft presented to bishops at their meeting last year -- and widely unacceptable to academics -- to be amended in coming months.

The subcommittee draft was prepared under the direction of Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua after the Vatican rejected a previous draft approved overwhelmingly by U.S. bishops in 1996. The most controversial provisions of the second draft call for theology professors to have a “mandate” from the local bishop, for presidents of Catholic colleges and universities to publicly recite a profession of faith and oath of fidelity, and for a majority of faculty and trustees at a given school to be “faithful Catholics.”

Academics who object say the provisions undermine academic integrity by raising the specter of outside control, that they may subject schools to lawsuits and loss of government funds and that they are generally unworkable in today’s multicultural context.

Both new proposals -- Tyson’s and the academic association’s -- sidestep the objectionable provisions, including strict application of Canon 812.

Tyson’s proposal suggests that as universities prepare for their 10-year accreditation review, a familiar process on every campus, they also conduct “a further review ... in light of the themes of the apostolic constitution and the general norms established by the Holy Father” in Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Those themes “could easily be incorporated as part of the self-study,” he said.

The component of the self-study related to the school’s Catholic identity would be submitted to a five-member visitation team drawn from bishops, administrators and faculty.

“The purpose of the visit would be to discuss with pertinent groups and individuals, including the local bishop, progress the institution has made in its implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” Tyson wrote. “After the site visit, the team would submit a report of its findings to the president of the institution, the local ordinary and, where appropriate, the sponsoring religious community. The final report would contain recommendations to facilitate further collaboration, as well as to assist the institutions in planning.”

Unlike a true accreditation process, the visitation team would not be authorized to determine whether a school was “legitimate” or not in its expression of Catholic identity.

Tyson described the process as “appropriate” because it “recognizes a formal relationship” between the church and any college and university “that calls itself Catholic.”

It also “draws bishops into a collaborative process of review,” he wrote, making them “a participant in the process” as well as a recipient of the final report. The process respects the bishop’s role “as pastor of the local church” while leaving institutional autonomy intact, he said. He described the process as “communio in action,” one that would promote dialogue and positive relations between academics and church officials.

Tyson proposes that the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities functions as the coordinating agency and clearing house for site visits and establishment of teams.

Tyson said his proposal had been misunderstood as an “accreditation model,” causing it to get a negative initial reception from university presidents. In an interview in his office on May 17, he said that his proposal is similar in “concept” to accreditation but not in practice, because it gives considerably less power to the visiting group.

Monika Hellwig, executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, was unavailable to discuss the association’s proposal. It includes the following recommendations:

  • that institutions clearly state their identity in official documents and the practical implications of that identity in a mission statement;
  • that institutions not linked to the church’s hierarchy by formal statute (as is the case for most of the nation’s 200-some Catholic colleges and universities) clearly express their Catholic commitment in the principles and attitudes that govern research, teaching and ministry;
  • that schools make strong efforts to attract faculty members who are both well-qualified in their fields and committed to the institution’s Catholic character;
  • that faculty members who teach Catholic theology do so “in fidelity to the magisterium” and with respect for the “age and degree of maturity” of students “when raising new and critical issues;”
  • that every student have the opportunity to study Catholic theology, including social teaching, and that instruction in ethics be incorporated into professional programs;
  • that schools hold lectures and seminars on church documents and teachings and invite the local bishop to the campus at regular intervals for formal or informal dialogue;
  • that the local bishop and presidents of schools hold periodic dialogues concerning the institution’s Catholic character;
  • that any problems be resolved “as far as possible” between the school’s president and the local bishop, and if necessary with help from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

The proposal notes, “It is understood that both positive and speculative theology have always had a rightful place in the Catholic tradition, that there is a difference between catechesis and theology, and that it is the function of a university to conduct research and critical reflection.”

The association’s proposal was developed at the prodding of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who urged university presidents in a speech last February to work toward compromise. Tyson’s proposal appears to respond directly to George’s suggestion that a compromise might be based on a process similar to accreditation.

Tyson said, rather, that it had been inspired by a Catholic layman who works in advertising and had expressed surprise at the deadlock over the norms.

Tyson said the layman noted that Catholic colleges and universities are eager for accreditation from a variety of agencies and expend enormous energy to get it, and, second, asserted that if anyone could be said to “own” the “brand name” Catholic -- putting the issue in secular, marketing terms -- it would be the bishops. (Many Catholics, however, would challenge the notion that bishops own the brand name Catholic.)

Tyson said he considered the subcommittee’s draft to be unworkable but also had serious doubts about whether the proposal developed by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities would fly. “If it does, that’s fine with me,” he said. “But I’m not very hopeful about it.”

Further, Tyson said he viewed the response of academics since the Vatican rejected the norms approved by bishops in 1996 to be mostly unproductive “saber rattling.”

“I think the bishops are getting tired of this,” he said. “I think our role at this point should be to assist the bishops. If what we see as presidents is unacceptable, we have an obligation to have an alternative. I don’t want to lose the principles” of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, he said.

Tyson said he had received an encouraging response from academics and administrators at his university, from presidents of nine Holy Cross schools, and from Portland, Ore., Archbishop John Vlazny.

Tyson said Hellwig, the academic association’s executive director, had erroneously described his proposal in an e-mail to university presidents as based on an “accreditation model,” thus “raising red flags.”

Some, Tyson said, were opposed based on the cost of bringing in a visitation team. “I don’t understand that at all,” he said, noting that he estimated the cost to be only “a few thousand dollars” every 10 years.

Dominican Sr. Carol Dempsey, assistant professor at the University of Portland, and a member of the board of the College Theology Society, which endorsed the association’s proposal, said, “My own choice would have been to endorse Fr. Tyson’s proposal, but it wasn’t on the table when the association’s proposal came before the board. I like it because, number one, it is a genuine alternative, and, two, it involves us in mutual conversations and dialogue.”

Leibrecht, deeply committed to the project from the beginning, said he remains optimistic that a win-win resolution can be found to break the deadlock.

“That has been my hope all along and it remains there,” Leibrecht said. “I think some way can be found that will be acceptable and helpful” to all parties. “The subcommittee draft is what is on the table, and my assumption is that it will be amended in some way. I have no way of knowing how at this time.”

National Catholic Reporter, May 28, 1999