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Clash of unity, academic freedom


I was disappointed but not surprised at the November 1999 vote of the U.S. bishops to implement the 1990 apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae by requiring juridic approval of faculty members teaching theology in colleges and universities. Two deep-seated values clash in this vote. On the one side is protection against university theology varying from the mind of the pope; on the other, academic freedom.

Both values have made indispensable contributions. Unity in the Catholic faith has a human source in universal theological uniformity. Catholic universities have been beneficiaries, even agents of this unity. Academic freedom, in turn, has been essential to the advancement of all learning in Catholic theology no less than in other academic disciplines.

During the nine years between the publication of the papal document and the bishops’ decision to implement it in the United States, bishops and representatives of Catholic universities met often to reconcile these somewhat competing values. Three years ago a solution seemingly acceptable to the bishops and the academics was reached and almost unanimously approved by the full body of bishops. The Holy See rejected this solution and sent the bishops back to the drawing board. The resulting disappointment, at least of the academics, was compounded by the bishops’ recent reversal of their former vote, though there was no major change in the issue upon which they were voting.

In the 1960s the Second Vatican Council in its document Dignitatis Humanae took a remarkably strong stand for religious freedom, which it extended to freedom in learning and teaching. Does this signal a rejection of certain embarrassing moments in history when the church tried to suppress new learning such as Galileo’s? Seemingly not. Less than 20 years later the Holy See revised the Code of Canon Law and introduced entirely new legislation, Canon 812, which imposed surveillance of theological teaching in universities by requiring teachers of theology to obtain a “mandate” from the competent ecclesiastical authority.

As the principal repository of academic freedom, the university and its faculty have over the years treated outside political limits on freedom as destructive of the pursuit of truth. The 20th century saw academic freedom crumble under Nazi and communist regimes where state forces were often too strong for universities to resist. Tenure in American universities began as research challenged the interests of the outside establishment. One should not be surprised at the concern of many Catholic universities at the November vote of the bishops, even if the outside pressure comes from an ecclesiastical, not a political, source. This encroachment of the Holy See and the bishops is understandably more disturbing in the United States, where the heritage of freedom is culturally so fundamental.

It is not surprising that in this issue the value of theological unity prevailed over academic freedom. The deliberations were tilted against the universities toward the Holy See and the bishops where all of the decision-making power rests. There is no appeal to an impartial third party, a highly valued procedure in the American pursuit of justice between competing interests.

My disappointment is tempered by the strong possibility that this clash of values will remain on the theoretical level only, that on the practical level the bishops and universities will continue to cooperate in maintaining truly Catholic theology and academic freedom. Only through such cooperation in the past has the Catholic church of the United States been blessed with a system of colleges and universities unsurpassed anywhere for their Catholicity and learning. The bishops have as much claim as the universities for the American heritage of freedom. Their contradictory voting on how to implement the apostolic constitution may well indicate less than enthusiastic support of their role in limiting freedom.

However, there are dangers in officially changing the relations between the bishops and Catholic universities. An overzealous or imprudent bishop could seriously interfere in the internal operations of a university, causing national repercussions damaging to the church and the universities, perhaps leading to a highly divisive lawsuit. The insistence of the Holy See that the role of the bishops in regard to the universities be juridic could undermine that less formal but friendlier collaboration.

Finally, mandates for teaching theology might create the false impression that the Catholic character of a university is to be found predominantly or even exclusively in who is teaching theology, and thus discourage universities from pursuing a broader scope of authentic Catholic objectives such as loving service to the poor, the struggle for social justice and even the academic quality of the theology courses being taught.

My optimism for the future of the Catholic church and universities rests, however, on the continuing gift of the Spirit.

Vincentian Fr. John Richardson is former president of DePaul University. Today he teaches Vincentian seminarians in Nairobi, Kenya.

National Catholic Reporter, May 5, 2000