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Academic leaders hope to head off bishops’ vote on Ex Corde norms


Catholic university presidents are making a last-ditch effort to head off a Nov. 17 vote by U.S. Catholic bishops that many academics say could threaten the future of Catholic colleges and universities in the United States.

Until the vote, it’s an anxious waiting game for academic leaders who are, for the most part, united against the fourth and latest draft of implementation norms for Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II’s apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education. The 1990 document, whose title is translated “From the Heart of the Church,” calls for stronger Catholic identity -- and church laws to ensure it -- at the schools.

Although the waiting has already extended over nearly a decade, most theologians and university administrators say they’d prefer more waiting to the proposed new rules.

Ironically, both proponents and opponents of imposing laws express support for the pope’s intent: stronger Catholic identity.

Fr. Charles Currie, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, said bishops and university presidents are meeting quietly and locally, following up on a suggestion by Bishop John J. Leibrecht of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Mo. Leibrecht, who heads the bishops’ committee working on the norms, proposed continuing informal talks in a letter that accompanied release of the fourth draft in September.

Departments of theology and religious studies have also been meeting around the issue, with most taking a “wait and see” approach.

If the norms pass as written, theologians at Catholic schools will have to ask bishops for a mandatum -- essentially a certificate of approval -- to teach, and university presidents will have to recite a new profession of faith and oath of fidelity, both objects of theological consternation after they were promulgated in 1989.

Further, bishops could require theologians to recite the problematic profession and oath before a mandatum would be issued.

The proposed norms also call for a majority of a school’s faculty and board “to the extent possible” to be composed of Catholics demonstrably committed to the church.

Currie said he knows of no one willing to predict how the bishops will vote -- whether they will adopt, reject, amend or, as many academics hope, table the document. The Vatican, which gets the final say on any norms the bishops pass, rejected a pastoral, non-juridical approach overwhelmingly approved by U.S. bishops in 1996.

Two Catholic theology societies and the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities have written the bishops urging them to table the document and extend opportunities for further discussions. Commonweal published in its Nov. 5 issue an open letter from officials and professors at the University of Dayton. The letter stressed that furthering Catholic identity, an effort already well underway at many schools, depends on relationships rather than rules -- relationships that would be “damaged by an overly juridical approach.”

In a letter to U.S. bishops, Monika K. Hellwig, executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, asked bishops to table the proposed norms or, failing that, “to vote against adoption.” She enclosed talking points for discussion, including one that read: “We are aware that some of our member colleges have expressed the opinion that they could work with this draft given their present particular situation.” However, “the overwhelming majority” finds some of the requirements “problematic” and “fears lawsuits, loss of federal and/or state financial aid and other problems.”

Officers and board members of the Catholic Theological Society of America wrote to Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, on Oct. 20, presenting objections to the present draft. Copies were sent to all U.S. bishops and college and university presidents.

Among objections, the society said the document fails to set out specific criteria for applying for, receiving, being denied or losing a mandatum, and does not provide “effective norms” for resolving disputes. More fundamentally, the letter objects to “juridicizing” the role of theologians at all.

“The challenge we now face is to affirm and nurture the authentic ecclesial communion we all share in ways that serve best the mission of the whole church,” the theologians wrote.

The College Theology Society’s board wrote college and university presidents expressing support of those points.

In an interview, Mercy Sr. Margaret A. Farley, professor at Yale Divinity School and president of the Catholic Theological Society, stressed that theologians are “almost without exception a faithful group that wants to serve the church. Sure we need to worry about Catholic identity” at Catholic institutions, she said, but imposing external controls “may in fact undermine Catholic identity in the long run.”

Some experts note that several Southern Baptist colleges, including Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and Mercer University in Macon, Ga., have distanced themselves from their sponsoring denomination after church leaders moved to impose strict theological controls. That effort followed a conservative takeover of the denomination in the 1980s.

Similarly, Catholic traditionalists strongly support the proposed norms. In mid-September, speakers at a conference at The Catholic University of America’s law school insisted that legal norms were workable in the United States. Texts of talks have been mailed to U.S. bishops with funding from Thomas Monaghan, traditionalist Catholic financier. Monaghan, founder and former owner of the Domino’s Pizza empire, recently founded the conservative Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Most theologians, though, argue that episcopal controls over theologians would diminish respect for a field that already struggles for a recognized place in academia. Terrence Tilley, chair of religious studies at the University of Dayton, said the specter of outside control would almost surely drive the most qualified graduate students in theology to more secular schools such as Harvard, Yale, the University of Chicago and Duke. The shift would weaken theology departments at Catholic schools, producing the opposite effect of what bishops intend, he said. “I feel strongly that imposing a mandate is shooting ourselves in the foot theologically,” Tilley said.

The American Association of University Professors passed a resolution in June supporting efforts aimed at norms “that comport with generally accepted principles of academic freedom and governance.” Jonathan Knight, associate secretary of the association, said in a telephone interview that its committee on academic freedom and tenure has before it a new statement, proposed for adoption just after this issue of NCR goes to press, asserting that the latest draft “does not allay our concerns.”

The bishops’ public debate and vote on Nov. 17 will follow a discussion of the document in a closed executive session the preceding day. Leibrecht said the purpose of the executive session is to make sure bishops in dioceses that have no colleges and universities have all the information they need before a vote. “Some of us began to be concerned that bishops involved in the dialogues” with university officials “had certain advantages over those who had not had those experiences,” he said.

No vote, not even a straw vote, is planned for the executive session, Leibrecht said, although he added that he can’t be sure what individual bishops might propose after the private session begins.

Leibrecht said voting would be by written ballot. Some academics had expressed concern that a vote by show of hands -- allowing bishops to see how their colleagues are voting -- might inhibit some bishops from voting to table or reject the document.

Educational leaders who oppose legal norms have seized on a statement by Bishop John M. D’Arcy calling for further dialogue on the issues, especially with theologians. So far, discussions have involved mainly bishops and presidents of institutions.

An educational leader who asked to remain anonymous said D’Arcy had taken considerable heat from some cardinals and fellow bishops after his views were published in Today’s Catholic, the newspaper of D’Arcy’s diocese of South Bend and Fort Wayne. Ind. The University of Notre Dame, one of the nation’s top-ranked Catholic universities, is in South Bend.

In an off-the-record interview with a reporter for NCR, a highly placed church leader in Rome said Americans take laws too seriously. “In Rome they make nice laws, then everyone does what is realistic. The law is very beautiful, but no one takes it literally. In America, a text is a text. Everyone assumes you have to implement it just as it is.”

Farley of the Catholic Theological Society said it’s unrealistic to impose laws on Americans and expect them to react like Italians. “We’ve been saying ever since Vatican II that we know there are two different ways of approaching law in the church: the Anglo-Saxon way and the Latin way,” she said. “You get inculturated into how you look at the law.”

Because Americans don’t ignore laws, the Vatican should resist imposing laws that are unworkable, she said.

National Catholic Reporter, November 12, 1999