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Catholic U. moves to tighten control over religious studies faculty

NCR Staff

Officials at The Catholic University of America are moving to tighten control over the School of Religious Studies by insisting that all faculty members have formal permission from the church to teach.

Observers see the move as part of a broader effort to reassert the religious identity of Catholic University in light of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the pope’s 1990 document on higher education. The university’s new president, Vincentian Fr. David M. O’Connell, gave early and enthusiastic support to the most controversial provisions of Ex Corde, including the requirement that theologians be licensed by bishops.

The proposed change in status would be part of a larger reorganization of the School of Religious Studies in the works since 1997. It would mean that all 51 faculty members in the school would need the church’s nihil obstat, or clearance to teach.

Under the current organization of the School of Religious Studies, roughly 23 faculty in theology and eight in canon law hold the status of ecclesiastical or pontifical faculty, the formal title that accompanies the nihil obstat. Theology and canon law are two of five departments in the school.

At least 23 tenured faculty members in the school do not have ecclesiastical status.

Hierarchical scrutiny

The nihil obstat requires a tedious process that subjects scholars’ writings to “hierarchical scrutiny.” Normally the nihil obstat requires Vatican approval, but at Catholic University that authority has been delegated to the bishops on the university’s board of trustees. Many of those bishops are conservatives with close ties to Rome.

Most professors in the three nonecclesiastical departments -- particularly those in religion and religious education -- are strongly opposed to ecclesiastical status, and some fear it, according to professors who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The other nonecclesiastical departments are biblical studies and church history.

Even the 23 faculty members with tenure are worried, sources said, because according to university statutes tenure is granted by department. If departments are abolished in the reorganization process, or if the entire School of Religious Studies is abolished and reorganized under another name, the tenure contracts of many faculty members -- including those who have ecclesiastical status -- could be in jeopardy, sources said.

From the perspective of nonecclesiastical faculty, the problem is illustrated by events of the past few years at other schools. At least five prominent Jesuits have been barred in recent years from serving as administrators or members of pontifical faculties at two Jesuit theology schools (NCR, March 29, 1996, and Dec. 26, 1997).

Sources said professors’ anxieties have not been dispelled by oral assurances from O’Connell that the jobs of tenured professors will be protected in the reorganization. “People are more and more skeptical,” one professor said.

A recent memorandum from O’Connell leaves little doubt that the push toward both reorganization and an ecclesiastical faculty is on. An ecclesiastical faculty that includes all who teach in the School of Religious Studies, O’Connell wrote, is “the stated preference of the prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education for CUA, the chancellor of the university, some members of the board of trustees, and my own preference.”

Cardinal James A. Hickey of Washington is the university’s chancellor. Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston is chairman of the board.

“The Catholic University of America lives and operates simultaneously in two worlds: that of American higher education and that of the church,” O’Connell wrote. “As everyone is well aware, I do not believe these two worlds to be at odds with one another.”

The memorandum, addressed to Fr. Stephen Happel, interim dean of the School of Religious Studies, was dated Nov. 10.

Neither O’Connell nor Hickey responded to a telephone inquiry from NCR.

O’Connell stressed in his memo that “the ‘ecclesiastical status’ should not be the first or even primary focus of faculty attention at this time. Because of the apparently negative or neuralgic reaction that it generates in some faculty, emphasis on this aspect will only hamper productive discussion of what the school itself should look like from an organizational/structural perspective.”

O’Connell said he intended to abide by university guidelines, including those in the faculty handbook, and engage in “appropriate consultation” before making decisions. He said he hopes the process will not be top-down, but that “sooner rather than later” he will be able to review proposals presented by faculty members themselves.

A first step?

Some faculty members said they are puzzled about reasons for the move to tighten controls. Is it a first step toward purging the school of faculty members the administration doesn’t like, or who aren’t conservative enough? some wondered in interviews with NCR. Is it being driven by the notion that faculty members aren’t doing their jobs well? one faculty member wondered, adding, “If it based on criticism, I’d like to know what it is and have the opportunity to reply.”

Faculty members resolved in a meeting in late October to ask the president to clarify reasons for the proposal that the School of Religious Studies become an ecclesiastical school.

Some faculty have also wondered whether establishing an ecclesiastical faculty, whose mandate comes from the Vatican, would be different from requiring theologians to hold a mandate from a local bishop.

In the case of Catholic University, where the president has avowed strong support for implementing Ex Corde Ecclesiae, and where a theologian’s mandate currently would come from Hickey, a theological conservative, Fr. Charles Curran thinks there would be little difference. Curran was a tenured professor of moral theology when he was ousted from the faculty at Catholic University in 1986. The Vatican declared that Curran’s view on sexual ethics made him unsuitable as a Catholic theologian. He now teaches at Southern Methodist University.

“If it weren’t for Ex Corde this would be very significant,” Curran said. “But because of Ex Corde, and because Catholic University would be one place where we can be sure it will be put into effect, the bottom line is the same,” he said. “You need a mandate.”

“As a result of my case,” Curran said, “most senior scholars in the United States are unwilling to teach at Catholic University.” Curran said he knows of several scholars who have refused offers and one who refused to accept a medal in patristics. “Quite frankly, I think the theological reputation of Catholic University has gone downhill, and this will be simply another nail in the casket,” he said.

Although dozens of schools around the world have pontifical faculties, in the United States only a few do, most of them once primarily engaged in training future priests. They include two Jesuit theology schools, Weston School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass., and the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, Calif., as well as the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, Ill., and in Washington, the Dominican House of Studies, the John Paul II Institute and The Catholic University.

Structure lacks logic

Talk of reorganizing the School of Religious Studies predates O’Connell’s tenure as president, according to Fr. Raymond F. Collins, former dean of the school. The present structure lacks internal logic, he said, because professors from the same discipline might be associated with different departments. For example, the department of biblical studies is one of five departments in the school, but three biblicists are in the department of theology, and two are in the department of religion and religious education, he said.

Further, course offerings in various departments may in fact reflect other disciplines. For example, the department of religion and religious studies -- the department that oversees undergraduate education -- offers some courses whose content is actually theology, Collins said.

“Several people -- bishops on the board of trustees and also parents -- have asked, ‘How come our [undergraduate] students can’t take theology?’ ” Collins said. “In fact, they do. Last year we did a survey of the 63 courses offered to undergraduates and found that the course content of 46 was actually theology.” But the courses were offered under the umbrella of religion “because of this historical quirk we have,” he said.

Academicians typically distinguish between the study of religion from an empirical perspective and the discipline of theology -- which assumes revelation and church tradition as points of departure.

Collins, a biblical scholar regarded as moderate to liberal, was forced to step down as dean of the School of Religious Studies earlier this year under contested circumstances (NCR, June 4).

Some faculty members said a small but powerful group of “neo-conservatives” in the theology department favors reorganization because they want access to undergraduates through courses they teach. Although members of the graduate departments, including the theology department, do teach undergraduates in the present structure, decisions about who may and may not do so as well as decisions about course content are made by the generally more liberal department of religion and religious education, according to sources at the school.

National Catholic Reporter, December 17, 1999