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Ex Corde gives every reason to fear

The most benign interpretation one might apply to the approval by the U.S. bishops of the requirement that teachers of theology be certified by local bishops is that it will make no difference in the way Catholic colleges and universities operate.

Perhaps they meant it when they said that theologians and presidents of Catholic colleges and universities have nothing to fear from the bishops. If that is true, the obvious questions are: Why bother passing it? Why put everyone in the academic world and beyond through years of anxious fits over the issue?

The answer, of course, is that it is not true. The attempt to allay fear is so much public posturing -- silly window dressing on a serious matter. The fact is the bishops now have the power to disrupt academic careers and attempt to bring academic institutions to heel. College presidents and theologians have every reason to fear.

We believe that most bishops, under ordinary circumstances, would not want to exercise such power and will be content to allow institutions to continue running their affairs as usual.

But these are not ordinary times in the church.

Certainly many bishops will disdain casting this issue in political terms, wishing the wider world would perceive the effort as a noble attempt to safeguard the integrity of Catholic tradition, to ensure the Catholic identity of institutions.

Preserving Catholic identity is a worthy and necessary end. If college presidents and faculty are to be believed, that end had taken a central place in discussions since the pope first issued Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church), a document that made an eloquent plea for preserving Catholic identity in institutions of higher learning.

In light of Ex Corde, however, any discussion of Catholic identity will now take place under the cloud of legislation -- an implied threat. Honest discussion cannot occur under the threat of punishment.

A number of years ago, the bishops’ best instincts led them to devise an implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae that was masterfully pastoral while downplaying the heavy-handed requirement that theologians acquire a mandate from the local bishop in order to teach or continue teaching in a Catholic college.

Since then, the issue has become highly politicized. It follows other capitulations by the conference to heavy-handed interference by the curia: on the catechism, on the translation of the lectionary, on the very nature and rules for national conferences, on rules governing bishops’ relationships with theologians.

It is clear that the U.S. bishops have become, in the words of some bishops critical of the current Rome-U.S. relationship, little more than branch managers whose energies are spent satisfying the home office.

The vision of the conference has become, correspondingly, petty and turned inward. The bishops no longer lead -- they act in order not to displease the curial offices in Rome.

So now we have an implementation plan that is designed to please Rome, and the bishops are trying mightily to convince the world that it will make no difference. Are we really to believe that university presidents in a lot of dioceses will not be looking over their shoulders with every new hire in the local theology department?

Are we to believe that theologians -- who already have reason to fear the wackier elements of the extreme right -- will have nothing to fear now that the orthodoxy police have a new law on their side?

And who, exactly, determines orthodoxy? Some bishops and cardinals, in recent synods and interviews, have taken positions on issues such as celibacy, ordination of married men and women, papal authority, sexual ethics and inculturation that are at odds with the curial view. Would they be unfit for the theology faculties at Catholic universities and colleges?

What happens if a professor decides he or she will not apply for a mandate? What if an entire faculty decides to resist the requirement? And what happens -- as inevitably it will -- if in one diocese the rules defining acceptable orthodoxy are far tougher than those in another?

The bishops have no rules, no standards and no one is certain of any consequences.

But we have the law. That is a consequence of leadership motivated by fear of displeasing Rome.

It seems the only certainty about Ex Corde is that it will exacerbate the already rocky relationship between the bishops and Catholic theologians while trivializing Catholic colleges and universities.

National Catholic Reporter, December 3, 1999