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Vatican OKs Ex Corde norms

NCR Staff

As a next step in its campaign to safeguard the religious identity of Catholic colleges and universities, the Vatican has approved a controversial set of norms adopted by U.S. bishops in November. Those norms, which give bishops more control over theologians, govern implementation in the United States of John Paul II’s 1990 document Ex Corde Ecclesiae, “From the Heart of the Church.”

The norms, the first Ex Corde regulations from any country to receive Vatican approval, were the second attempt by the bishops to implement the document. The first was rejected by Rome in 1997, in large part because it sidestepped requiring theologians to seek a mandate, or license to teach, from the local bishop (NCR, Dec. 3, 1999).

Representatives of the American theological community warn that a number of difficult questions remain unresolved in the wake of the Vatican action -- including who precisely is supposed to request a mandate, the criteria by which a mandate will be granted and who will be making these decisions.

The norms are slated to take effect May 3, 2001, and were returned by Rome with only a handful of changes described by most observers as non-substantive.

In addition to the mandate, the norms say that a college president should be a Catholic who takes loyalty oaths prescribed by Rome, and that “to the extent possible” a majority of trustees and faculty members should be Catholics.

Approval is “very, very good news,” according to Bishop John Leibrecht of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Mo., chair of the bishops’ committee charged with implementing Ex Corde. “We are very pleased that the Holy See has in effect accepted the document we sent over.” He said he believes the U.S. norms will become a model for other countries.

Leibrecht said he was especially pleased that the Vatican left intact clauses such as “to the extent possible” and “as much as possible,” which he said “allow an institution and a bishop to look at a norm and see how it might apply in their context.”

“It’s a major recognition of the diversity of both our state laws and the varying characteristics of our Catholic colleges and universities,” he said.

Leibrecht said that Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston, Texas, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, will create a new committee to flesh out the details over the next year before the norms take effect.

Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley, president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and a professor of ethics at Yale, said, “I hope the bishops will include on that committee theologians who are nominated by the professional organizations and not just selected by the bishops themselves.”

“I also hope the conversations don’t happen just in the committee, but take place in various dioceses across the country,” Farley said.

The Catholic Theological Society of America’s annual convention opened June 8, just as news of Vatican approval broke. During the session, a group working on proposals for implementing the new norms was due to give a report.

Leibrecht said it will be up to Fiorenza to decide who will be members of the committee.

Farley said another concern is that the discussion “operates not just on assumptions of good will, but leads to structures that can’t be used against the church or the universities by right-wing groups in this country.”

“I hope the way the mandate is implemented will not provide opportunities for self-appointed groups that monitor their version of orthodoxy,” Farley said. In part, she said, this may mean that bishops and universities should agree to refrain from publicizing who has and has not received a mandate.

Monika Hellwig, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, said several important questions confront the new committee. They include who determines consequences at a given university if a theologian opts not to request the mandate, and at what point a theologian will be expected to apply.

“Are new hires supposed to seek the mandate?” Hellwig asked. “Most people haven’t published anything at this stage, so what would the criteria be? Do they have to show a transcript or prove they went to Catholic school? Or is it just whether they’re good boys and girls?”

Hellwig said a more logical point to request the mandate would be promotion to full professor. Yet she said a subgroup of Leibrecht’s committee chaired by Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia had previously said the expectation would apply to new hires.

Fr. Richard McBrien, professor of theology at Notre Dame and a critic of Ex Corde, said he draws consolation from language calling for the bishops to take five years after the norms become effective to develop procedures for evaluating their implementation. In effect, McBrien argued, this means the bishops have six years before a final system has to be in place.

“In six years we’ll have a new pope with new priorities, and this will all be less difficult,” he said.

The Vatican made a handful of changes before approving the norms. The only one that raised eyebrows is a new footnote specifying that while a mandate is “portable” -- that is, the theologian does not have to reapply upon moving to another diocese -- a local bishop always has the right to ask the theologian to reapply.

Farley said the new footnote worries her. “This shows that so-called portability is not assured,” she said.

On this point, Leibrecht disagreed. “We as a conference are saying this is portable, and now the Holy See has said it’s portable. If an individual bishop wants to act otherwise, it would have to be a very exceptional circumstance.”

In a small word change that brought chuckles from some observers, Vatican editors amended a phrase calling dialogues between bishops and colleges “graced moments.” The line now reads more tentatively, saying that such dialogues “may be graced moments.”

Leibrecht said he hopes discussion over the next year does not revolve exclusively around the mandate.

“If it becomes the horse and not the tail, that’s not good,” he said. “We need to see Ex Corde in the broader context of the whole life of the university, its student life, its board, the whole picture.”

McBrien, however, predicted the norms will end up as sound and fury signifying nothing. “Either they will turn out to have no teeth, or they will have teeth incapable of biting into the hard steel of academic realities,” he said.

The norms approved by the U.S. bishops describe the mandate, or license to teach, as follows:

  • It acknowledges that a theologian is a teacher within the full communion with the Catholic church.
  • It is not an authorization of a theologian’s teaching. Theologians teach in virtue of their baptism and their competence, not in the name of the bishop.
  • It recognizes a theologian's responsibility to teach authentic Catholic doctrine and to refrain from presenting as Catholic teaching anything contrary to the church's magisterium.

Seeking the mandate is each theologian’s responsibility. If a theologian does not do so, the university must determine what further action may be taken in accordance with its own mission and statutes.

National Catholic Reporter, June 16, 2000