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In wake of Ex Corde theologians ponder options

NCR Staff

While U.S. bishops ponder procedures for certifying theologians who teach in Catholic universities, some theologians have already decided what to do.

Some say that when (and if) the time comes to seek certification from a church official, they will not do it.

Others have decided to cooperate with whatever procedures bishops develop, or at least to give serious consideration to whatever is proposed.

Many others, perhaps most, are simply undecided. Several interviewed by NCR said they are waiting and hoping that bishops will fulfill their promise to engage in dialogue with theologians before deciding on a course.

According to norms approved by U.S. bishops in November 1999, theologians will be expected to request a mandatum, or mandate, from their local bishops as a way of complying with Canon 812 in the church’s Code of Canon Law. Specific procedures are to be worked out by bishops after the Vatican has approved the new rules.

Canon 812 is new to the 1983 code. Compliance has been demanded by the Vatican as follow-up to Pope John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic letter on higher education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“From the Heart of the Church”). The pope wants to ensure that Catholic colleges and universities remain faithful to Catholic tradition in their quest for academic excellence. Many university administrators have accepted the pope’s agenda, at least in part. Many also feel, though, that the pope lacks understanding of academic freedom in the United States and the need for theologians to operate within that system.

NCR queried theologians around the country following publication of an article in the Feb. 12 issue of America, “Why I Shall Not Seek a Mandate,” by Fr. Richard P. McBrien. McBrien is author of the best-selling introductory theology text Catholicism and a professor at the University of Notre Dame. He said the process of seeking and granting mandates would compromise academic integrity. It would do so, he said, “by introducing an external, non-academic agent in the internal, academic processes” that govern hiring, promoting and firing faculty. It would also allow bishops to determine what courses faculty members might teach and in what department -- whether in theology, or religious studies, for instance. Such matters are the province of university administrators and department chairs.

Several theologians, including some who requested anonymity, and some who had not decided what they themselves would do, said they were glad McBrien had gone public with his position.

“I’m glad somebody is speaking out,” said John Connolly, professor of systematic theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, who said he will not seek a mandate. “I think it’s time to stand up and oppose this. The bishops just gave in to Rome. If the bishops had said no, this would have been over.”

Connolly, a layman, said his mandate to teach theology derives not from any bishop but from his baptism and his professional credentials. “What is the mandatum going to give me that is going to enhance or facilitate my research, my teaching, my personal faith or even my relationship to the church?” asked Connolly, who has been teaching theology for nearly 30 years.

Gary Macy, professor and former chair of the theology department at the University of San Diego, said he will not seek a mandate. “I suspect that many will not,” he said.

On the other side is William Portier, who teaches at Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Md., and is a candidate for president of the College Theology Society, a Catholic academic group. Portier intends to seek a mandate when the time comes and rejects the view that it will put his professional integrity at risk.

Portier set forth his view last fall in Communio: International Catholic Review. There he wrote, “Since the affirmation of church authority is an intrinsic part of Catholic theology and not an external imposition, the application of Canon 812 would involve no violation in principle of theology’s autonomy.”

In an interview with NCR, Portier said, “It’s counterintuitive for Catholic theologians to be continually in a reflex adversarial position with the Vatican.” He added, “I belong to a different generation than Fr. McBrien. I’m 54. He belongs to the generation that taught me. He experienced Vatican II as an adult. That’s what divides him from my generation. It gives him a different perspective.” McBrien is 63.

Portier said some other theologians had reacted strongly and negatively to his views.

Roberto Goizueta, theology professor at Boston College, is among the undecided. “I want to wait and see what happens with the implementation process. Right now, we are responding to something that hasn’t been concretized,” he said.

Goizueta’s concern is that the requirement for the mandatum will ultimately “undermine the goals” of Ex Corde Ecclesiae -- that is, the goal of heading off secularization at Catholic universities. “My concern is this could actually short circuit some of the initiatives that have been taken,” he said.

Shawn Copeland of Marquette University said she is keeping an open mind. “I owe a great deal to the church,” she said. “I have been steeped in the church my whole life. I certainly want to be sensitive to whatever the church asks of me. I don’t want to reject it out of hand.”

Copeland said she understands the argument that faculty at universities should not be subject to outside controls such as Catholic bishops. She understands it, she said, but she doesn’t entirely buy it. Faculty members are open to inspections and evaluations from accrediting agencies -- groups external to the university, she said. “We accept the standards they set in order to be able to say we’re accredited,” she said. “It’s almost impossible to operate without that.”

Reactions from theologians are “all over the map,” said Sr. Mary Ann Hinsdale, theologian at College of the Holy Cross. Hinsdale is a member of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Congregation, Monroe, Mich. She holds a licentiate in sacred theology -- a pontifical degree that she considers her certification to teach. “I’ve always considered that to be a mandate,” she said. If procedures require her to seek another, she hasn’t decided what she will do. “I think it’s premature to say,” she said. “Working out the guidelines could take a long time.”

Sacred Heart Sr. Theresa Moser of San Francisco, president of the College Theology Society, said theologians as a group are deeply conflicted. University presidents are concerned about potential legal complications of the implementation norms, “and theologians just feel caught,” she said. “There’s a lot of concern and a lot of ‘wait and see.’ ”

Moser, who recently attended a meeting of college and university presidents, said, “At least one Jesuit president had pointed out that bishops have a serious pastoral problem with theologians.” Theologians think that passing juridical norms was “a betrayal of trust,” because for a long time they had been led to hope that the norms would be non-juridical, she said.

She referred to a plan for implementing Ex Corde Ecclesiae approved by bishops in 1995 but rejected by the Vatican because it did not provide for implementation of Canon 812.

Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley, president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and a professor at Yale, said giving bishops right of approval over theologians at universities represents a serious setback for the field and for the church.

“If the mandate were understood as offering a kind of blessing or missioning on the part of the church for his or her work, that would be wonderful. It’s ecclesiastically important and devotionally important. Nobody disagrees with the goal of communion” between theologians and the rest of the church. “But to give the bishops juridical power. ... It has taken years for Catholic theology to be accepted as an academic discipline in this country, and this development threatens all of that,” she said.

Farley added, “There are no theologians who would say academic respectability is the only important issue. They all feel it’s important to also be working in the service of the church.” But for that to be as effective, theologians have to maintain their credibility among their peers, she said.

Further, Farley said, mandates will have a negative effect on the church and on universities by exacerbating a “climate of suspicion” that has developed in recent years. Some theologians fear that authorizing bishops to grant mandates will give right-wing groups ammunition in their campaigns for rigid orthodoxy. A hostile environment could negatively affect alumni funding for universities, Farley said.

National Catholic Reporter, February 25, 2000