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Bishops to advise society

Special Report Writer

Ten U.S. Catholic bishops have agreed to be advisers to the Cardinal Newman Society, a group dedicated to preserving Catholic identity in higher education through rigorous advocacy of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the controversial Vatican document on Catholic colleges and universities.

The society made the announcement in late September from its Falls Church, Va., headquarters.

Named after the 19th-century Anglican cleric and Catholic convert who wrote The Idea of a University, the Cardinal Newman Society describes itself as “the only national organization dedicated to restoring respect for Christ and his church at the more than 235 Catholic colleges and universities in the United States.” The group, which has access to high officials at the Vatican, seeks to “faithfully implement” Ex Corde Ecclesiae and to assist the trustees, administrators, faculty, staff, students and alumni of Catholic colleges and universities in retaining their institution’s Catholic identity.

The 10 bishops are among “the most conservative” of the more than 250 active U.S. bishops, at least when it comes to “full support and implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” said Patrick Reilly, executive director of the society. The group sent invitations to 30 bishops, sorting through lists of prelates and selecting those who had spoken in favor of Pope John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic letter or those who were quoted in press clippings as supporting the pope’s appeal for preserving Catholic identity in higher education.

While all 30 “responded favorably to what we’re doing,” only 10 agreed to be advisers. “A lot felt overwhelmed by their work loads,” Reilly said, noting that the group had hoped to engage Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, who is one of five bishops charged with developing procedures for granting the mandatum (mandate) to teach theology in Catholic schools. The most controversial tenet of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the mandatum is to be given to theology teachers by the local bishop, who also can revoke it. Exactly how the mandatum is to be administered has yet to be worked out.

‘Fiercely loyal’

One of the five bishops on the mandatum procedural committee -- Bishop Thomas Doran of Rockford, Ill. -- accepted the society’s invitation. He will be joined by Archbishop John Donoghue of Atlanta; Franciscan Archbishop Roberto Gonzalez of San Juan, Puerto Rico; Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb.; Bishop Raymond Burke of LaCrosse, Wis.; Auxiliary Bishop John Dougherty of Scranton, Pa.; Bishop Alfred Hughes of Baton Rouge, La.; Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Martino of Philadelphia; Bishop John Myers of Peoria, Ill., and Franciscan Bishop Sean O’Malley of Fall River, Mass.

“These bishops are fiercely loyal to the Vatican and will be much more interested in having Ex Corde Ecclesiae implemented” than many others among the bishops who voted 223 to 31 last Nov. 16 to set in motion a plan for certifying professors who teach Catholic theology in Catholic institutions, Reilly told NCR.

Following the bishops’ vote, the society has changed from its role of advocacy for the Ex Corde to one of assisting those who want to implement it, he said. “We want to become a clearing-house of ideas, but we want to ensure that what we’re doing is consistent with the direction the bishops are taking. We need a few bishops to monitor what we’re doing. We need bishops we can go to when we have a question,” Reilly said.

Both the bishops and the society have the same agenda, he noted -- enacting the document. “The question is ‘How can the Cardinal Newman Society best do that?’ We need their input and participation. We don’t want to go off on our own.”

The Cardinal Newman Society is likely to run into opposition from the nation’s Catholic theologians, many of whom are less than enthusiastic about the new rules. In a recent report, a committee of the Catholic Theological Society of America voiced continuing serious reservations about the mandatum. The group has asked the bishops to establish a national review and appeal procedure that could be invoked if a bishop wants to withhold or withdraw a mandatum. “Many theologians are deeply concerned that any due process guarantees with which the U.S. bishops may agree are nonetheless too likely to be subverted if a curial official decides to intervene and unilaterally directs a bishop to withdraw a mandatum,” the report said.

Reilly noted that most of the communication with the bishops on the new advisory group has been by letter, though members of the society have met “several times” with Jesuit Fr. Terrence Toland of the U.S. Bishops’ education staff, Reilly said. “We’ve had more contact with the Vatican than with the U.S. bishops,” he added.

During each of the past few years a member of the society has gone to Rome “to apprise them of our work,” Reilly said. Earlier this year Manuel Miranda, president of the society’s board of directors, met with Archbishop Giuseppe Pittou, secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education, and with Archbishop Zenon Grocholewski, prefect of the congregation. Miranda is a corporate lawyer in Washington.

Catholic identity contradicted

Reilly, 30, helped initiate the society in 1993, along with five other young Catholics. The founders were graduates of The Catholic University of America and of three Jesuit schools -- Fordham, Georgetown and the University of San Francisco.

As students and alumni of Catholic universities, all of them were concerned that “Catholic identity was not apparent, but that it was being contradicted” at their respective schools, Reilly said. “We’d expected something a little more focused on the spirituality of the whole person, but we didn’t find it,” he said.

As a Fordham undergraduate, Reilly was excited to read Ex Corde Ecclesiae. But he found few professors or students who knew or cared much about it. As editor of The Ram, Fordham’s student newspaper for 1990-91, Reilly sought to rouse debate on the editorial pages about the nature and identity of a Catholic university. A decade later, he and his organization have dispatched some 5,000 copies of Ex Corde Ecclesiae to bishops and to staff, students, alumni and trustees of Catholic colleges and universities.

Although the society has decided not to establish branches at any Catholic institution, it reaches out to students, staff and alumni by supporting alternative papers such as Right Reason at Notre Dame and The Georgetown Academy at Georgetown. “We want to turn our attention to campus life and student affairs through these kinds of publications,” Reilly said. The society has also established links with a number of antiabortion groups, including those at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, the University of Dayton in Ohio and the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.

While it has “no close alliance” with Opus Dei or the Legionnaires of Christ -- which operate on several Catholic and secular campuses -- it carries links to both groups on its Web site. “They share similar concern for the re-emergence of Catholic culture in the university,” Reilly said. Members of both groups have attended the society’s four annual conferences.

A fifth conference, to be held Nov. 10-12 at Georgetown’s Law Center, will feature presidents or heads of a dozen Catholic colleges and universities, including Catholic University and Loyola University in Chicago. The society hopes to engage the presidents with one or two bishops to discuss collaborative ways to meet Ex Corde’s challenges.

So far, only Bishop John Dougherty of Scranton, among the 10 advisory bishops, has agreed to attend the conference, which falls on the eve of the bishops’ annual meeting.

Over the past few years, a number of bishops have donated a total of $10,000 to the society, which garners 95 percent of its income from individual contributions, said Reilly, the only paid employee. About half of the adviser bishops have made contributions, he said.

‘Not an oversight group’

The 10 advisory bishops represent dioceses with 19 Catholic universities and colleges among them -- 14 of which are in the Philadelphia and Scranton sees. Five of the 10 bishops lead dioceses in which there are no Catholic institutions of higher learning.

Should theologians worry about a society that now has an episcopal advisory board that has access to top Vatican officials and that raised objections last year to 13 graduation speakers at Catholic colleges and universities -- finding them at variance with church teaching on abortion, birth control and sexuality?

Gerald Zaboski of the University of Scranton saw nothing in the society’s literature to provoke anxiety. “They’re not an oversight group like the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is coordinating the dialogue between colleges, theologians, bishops and the Vatican,” said Zaboski, acting director of public relations at Scranton. He pointed to the “very collegial relations” the Jesuit-run university maintains with the diocese. All University of Scranton theologians meet yearly with both Bishop James Timlin and with Dougherty. The university has also established a subcommittee to study the mandatum issue and to maintain and continue the dialogue over Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

Mercy Sr. Sharon Euart, associate general secretary of the U.S. bishops’ conference, found little cause for worry: “I don’t think any faculty should be concerned with the impact of an organization that doesn’t relate to them in any way,” she said. Theologians will relate to the local ordinary “not to an advisory board of bishops.”

As for the Cardinal Newman Society itself, Euart said its relation to the U.S. Catholic Conference was that of an independent organization with its own purposes and strategies. “They are not an arm of the conference,” she said, but rather a group whose focus is the implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae. This goal is not unlike that of the Catholic Theological Society of America and the Canon Law Society, she noted.

National Catholic Reporter, October 6, 2000