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Does Catholic U. hold patent on Catholic education?

The intent to require all faculty in the School of Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America to seek formal church permission to teach is an example of the leverage the document Ex Corde Ecclesiae provides those who equate a good Catholic university with total control of theological thought.

Just as the bishops recently told the academic world that it had nothing to fear from Ex Corde, the relatively new president of Catholic University, Vincentian Fr. David M. O’Connell, is telling faculty they have nothing to fear. Of course, the opposite is true. The colleges, and in the case of CUA, the individual faculty members, have every reason to fear.

For it is impossible to view this latest move apart from the steady, slow march by Rome and those doing Rome’s bidding in the United States to grab control of theology faculties and rid the academic landscape of annoying questions.

It has happened in such tiny increments and over such a long period that the erosion goes largely unnoticed until the ultimatum comes down from the president’s office.

Faculty at Catholic University certainly can draw little cheer from the recent case of Professor Michael Stoeber, denied tenure in the department of religion and religious education by the university’s board of trustees despite near-unanimous faculty support at every level of review. Stoeber, a scholar of Eastern religions, apparently got into trouble for some too positive remarks on the Hindu doctrine of reincarnation (NCR, July 2).

A former dean of the School of Religion at Catholic University said talk of reorganizing the school predated O’Connell and was prompted by a lack of logic in the internal structure of the school.

Undoubtedly there were confusing aspects to housing faculty members that had the church’s nihil obstat, or clearance to teach, with those not required to hold such clearance in the same discipline.

But an O’Connell memo on the matter said that the new requirement for faculty was “the stated preference of the prefect of the [Vatican] Congregation for Catholic Education for CUA, the chancellor of the university, some members of the board of trustees and my own preference.”

The preference is an extension of sentiments that O’Connell has determinedly stated in public in several contexts: That Catholic University “should lead the way in showing what it means to be Catholic and what it means to be a university.” Apparently as a way of backing up that claim, he made a public show at his installation of taking a controversial Profession of Faith required of almost anyone who teaches at any level in the church, but formally taken by few.

Without disparaging anyone’s motives for taking the Profession of Faith or Oath of Fidelity, O’Connell had to know that his statement was also steeped in the politics of a debate in which he has been afforded a clear advantage.

While other college presidents and theologians had debated for nearly a decade the merits of Ex Corde and the terms of its implementations, only O’Connell was given front and center at two consecutive bishops’ meetings to declare that Catholic education’s hope lie in a full embrace of the most stringent proposals for the papal document on higher education.

The bishops, at least at recent annual meetings, never heard from representatives of the majority of academics and Catholic college presidents who, over the years, have strongly opposed strict juridical norms for implementing Ex Corde.

O’Connell has staked his claim -- Catholic University will show us all what it means to be Catholic and a university. One can only presume that many who have labored long and hard in the arena of Catholic higher education at institutions they regard as fully Catholic would find his a rather arrogant claim.

The question remains whether O’Connell’s vision will advance Catholic thought in the best tradition of the academy or show that a university can actually be a theologian’s most dangerous threat.

National Catholic Reporter, December 17, 1999