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Bishops approve Ex Corde norms

NCR Staff

Brushing aside pleas for delay and predictions of acrimony and dissent, U.S. Catholic bishops voted overwhelmingly Nov. 16 to set in motion a plan for certifying professors who teach Catholic theology. The norms, approved 223-31 at the bishops’ annual meeting here, give bishops a mechanism for overseeing orthodoxy at the nation’s approximately 235 Catholic colleges and universities, while leaving unanswered many questions about how the rules will be applied.

Details are to be worked out in coming months, with implementation to begin one year after the Vatican approves the plan. While Vatican approval is not guaranteed, it is expected, possibly within the next few months.

The provision for controls on theologians have been the most hotly contested element of the norms, nearly a decade in the development, which aim to curb what critics describe as a trend toward secularization at many Catholic universities. The norms, now in their third draft, are required under provisions of Pope John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic letter Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“From the Heart of the Church”). The pope’s letter makes an eloquent appeal for preserving Catholic identity in higher education.

While waiting for Vatican approval, bishops are to begin dialogues with theologians aimed at developing a uniform procedure for requesting and granting certification, described in the norms as a mandatum, or mandate. The mandate is called for in Canon 812 of the church’s 1983 Code of Canon Law. The Vatican in 1996 rejected a previous draft of the implementation norms, though, like the present draft, it had been approved overwhelmingly by U.S. bishops. That draft, however, had sidestepped a specific application of Canon 812.

Bishop John J. Leibrecht, head of an ad hoc committee that has shepherded the norms through the various drafts, said procedural recommendations will come before the full body of bishops for a vote at a later date.

Among amendments approved by bishops before the Nov. 16 vote was a provision for bishops to withdraw the mandatum, or certification, that has been granted by a bishop of another diocese.

The vote on the norms pleased conservatives and dismayed many theologians, who fear the new rules could usher in an era of discord and repression related to what theologians teach and write. Pleas for delay in approving the document had come from theologians, university administrators and a few bishops speaking before the vote.

Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley, professor at Yale Divinity School and president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, said she’d talked to many theologians who were “very worried.”

“Clearly some theologians who see their role as a kind of mission are pleased with this,” she said. “However the great majority are dismayed and worried, wondering what the consequences of this will be. It will create a climate of suspicion not conducive to scholarly work or education,” she said.

In a published statement, the society said, “Theologians recognize the concerns of bishops for genuinely Catholic theology and they share these concerns. However, efforts to control the work of theologians, as they are laid out in this document, are both unnecessary and potentially damaging to the best work of theology.”

Daniel Maguire, professor of theology at Marquette University in Milwaukee, was critical of theologians and the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, which represents administrators, for what he said had been a weak voice in recent debates. “I think the Catholic theological community has been very pusillanimous in response to this draconian intrusion into the academe,” he said. “When the camel announced it was about to put its nose under the tent, the Catholic Theological Society and the ACCU began to negotiate with the camel.”

Maguire said he would not request a mandate when the time comes. “In my judgment, I have a mandate to teach and don’t need one from anyone external to the academy,” he said. “My mandate comes from my competence and my conscience.”

At the bishops’ meeting, the strongest spokesman against the document, Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, warned bishops that it would create a “pastoral disaster” and squelch the further dialogue bishops seek. Weakland said approval of the norms would make theologians defensive and mistrustful by putting their “reputations and livelihoods” on the line. Under the new rules, theologians would be subject not only to “whims of individual bishops,” he said, but also to the suspicions of “vigilante groups.” Weakland added, “There’s a tremendous unrest in my heart” about the document.

Cardinal John J. O’Connor of New York, though prevented by health problems from attending the meeting, sent a strong statement supporting the document and opposing delay.

In a telephone interview, Jesuit Fr. Joseph O’Hare, president of Fordham University in New York, said he is confident that most bishops will apply the norms “in a wise and sensitive way.” Nevertheless, O’Hare said he is “disappointed” in the document. “I think it’s more juridical than it needs to be,” he said.

Leibrecht was among bishops who put a benign face on the new rules. He said his committee has incorporated flexibility on some provisions into the latest draft, making it more acceptable to university administrators. “While no document can be perfect, we do believe we have made good faith efforts to listen to everyone and reflect concerns as best we can,” he said. In a news conference, he said the bishops’ role vis-à-vis universities is “one of relationship, not control.” The document does not authorize bishops to hire or dismiss faculty, he said.

Leibrecht said application of the norms would be reviewed 10 years after they go into effect.

Leibrecht said the committee had worked hard to avoid any language “that would exacerbate any legal concerns” that college and university administrators had expressed. Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia said language in the fourth draft had minimized legal risks. “That’s not to say there won’t be litigation, but the risk of negative decision — provided universities have a good lawyer — is minimal,” he said.

The requirement for a mandatum will apply to all theologians, even those who have been teaching for many years, Leibrecht said. He noted that the canon law from which the U.S. plan is derived has been in place since 1983. No one is grandfathered in, he said in a news conference.

Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles said in the long discussion before the vote that it represented “a very historic moment,” one that would help Catholic leaders “be an influence in the society in which we live.”

“I would say to presidents of Catholic colleges and universities, ‘You have nothing to fear from us, from the church, from the implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae,’ ” Mahony said.

Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, speaking in favor of approval, said, “Catholic colleges and universities are not just part of our legacy but, please God, will be an integral part of our future.”

Bishop John D’Arcy of South Bend, Ind., who favored delay to allow for more dialogue on the role of academic freedom in Catholic education, said, “While we can use Protestant universities as a wakeup call … we don’t have to go down that road.”

In a report to bishops on The Catholic University of America by its president, Fr. David O’Connell, the day before the vote on university norms, O’Connell said the university had succeeded in being “distinctly Catholic and credible among our peers. It can be done intelligently and well,” he said. “It can be done without fear.” The Catholic University is chartered by the Vatican. Theologians on its faculty are subject to Vatican approval.

Although the higher education issue clearly dominated the conference, and headlines afterward, bishops dealt with less controversial issues. Among those, the bishops:

  • Adopted a pastoral message on charity, stressing the government’s role in guaranteeing basic human needs and calling on Catholics to make a Jubilee pledge for justice, charity and peace. “We are shocked and scandalized by the global dimensions of poverty and exclusion,” the bishops said in their message.
  • Approved a plan to fold the bishops’ two-conference structure into one, called the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and double the number of regional representatives on the administrative committee to 26. The effect, some bishops said, is to shift power away from more specialized committees that rely on input from lay advisers and expert consultants.
  • Discussed a subcommittee’s report on lay ministry, a controversial topic that affects more than 29,000 lay ministers who assist some 27,000 U.S. priests. Several bishops warned of dangers associated with blurring distinctions between lay ministers and priests.
  • Agreed on a plan for informing bishops of any preexisting problems when candidates for the priesthood change seminaries.
  • Discussed at length and called for revisions in a policy statement on church architecture. A more prominent place for the tabernacle in churches was an important concern for many bishops. Bishop Sean O’Malley of Fall River, Mass., complained of “the suburbanization of the heavenly Jerusalem,” sizing up recent trends in church building.

Statement of Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland in opposition to the new rules for Catholic colleges and universities
Bishop Leibrecht, I rise to speak against passage of this document now. …Because we have heard so few speak in opposition to this implementation document now, I hope my fellow bishops will listen to me carefully. I have tremendous unrest in my heart. I am very uneasy about it. I believe passing this document now will create a pastoral disaster for the church in the U.S.A. I feel it is not the right moment.
We have done much dialoguing with the presidents of Catholic colleges and universities. I hope that good spirit will continue. But I fear it will not with the juridical norms.
We have not had the same good spirit with the theologians. Probably the tension between hierarchy and theologians now is the highest I have ever seen it in my 36 years as a superior in the Catholic church. Now theologians will be ever more defensive and have less trust. We have talked about procedures for granting or denying the mandatum, but the real question will be the criteria upon which such decisions are made. Theologians also have souls and must be the object of our concern. Their reputation and their livelihood are at stake.
They are also not just afraid of being at the whims of individual bishops, but also the object of vigilante groups. I can tell you, my fellow bishops, that it is not easy to find out or monitor what is being taught in our church. Having been chancellor of San Anselmo in Rome for 10 years, and having had to deal with several cases where a student denounced a professor to the Holy Office, I can assure you it is not easy to find out what is being taught and bring justice to a situation.
In addition, by placing so much emphasis on the mandatum for theologians, I wonder if we are not putting too much emphasis on the influence of theologians in a Catholic university. We must not forget our role as teachers with regard to what is taught in our faculties -- English, history, philosophy, business schools or -- as we learned with the economic pastoral letter (“Economic Justice for All,” 1986), the economics faculty as well.
Because of the tension between hierarchy and theologians and the distrust that exists among so many, I feel that it will lead only to public bickering and public disputes that will bring harm to the church.
Non est tempus opportunum.

National Catholic Reporter, December 3, 1999