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Prisoners, immigrants, the mandatum

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

In documents they hope will influence public policy, the U.S. bishops turned their attention during their recent national meeting here to two populations that remain relatively hidden to the broader culture -- prisoners and immigrants.

The bishops approved a 42-page document, “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice” (NCR, Nov. 3) that strongly opposes the trend toward more prisons, stiffer sentences and more executions as a response to crime.

The group also approved a 52-page document titled “Unity in Diversity: Welcoming the Immigrant Church in the U.S.” that urges church leaders to welcome immigrants and celebrate diversity. The bishops also called for changes in harsh policies of the U.S. Immigration and Nationalization Service.

While those documents might generate heated debate outside the bishops’ meeting room, inside the Hyatt Regency Hotel, site of the Nov. 13-16 annual meeting, the longest debate occurred over the five pages of guidelines concerning the mandatum, or mandate to teach, that professors of theology at Catholic universities and colleges will be required to receive from local bishops. The requirement for a mandatum is one of the provisions of Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“From the Heart of the Church”), the Vatican document governing Catholic higher education.

The mandatum, a controversial provision that has been debated in the conference for years, “recognizes the professor’s commitment and responsibility to teach authentic Catholic doctrine and to refrain from putting forth as Catholic teaching anything contrary to the church’s magisterium,” according to the guidelines.

Under the guidelines, a bishop has nothing to do with the hiring or firing of a theologian, only with granting the mandatum if sought or with withholding or withdrawing it if the teacher does not fulfill the conditions of the mandatum.

Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, who chaired the ad hoc committee on the mandatum, reminded his fellow bishops that if the conditions for granting the mandatum are fulfilled, the teacher has a right to receive it and the bishop is obliged to grant it. “You don’t say to a candidate: ‘Prove to me you’re in union with the church. The onus is on the other side,” he said. Moreover, bishops cannot withdraw the mandatum on the basis of unsubstantiated criticism of the theologian, he said. Such an action must be based on “specific and detailed evidence that the teacher does not fulfill its conditions.”

Such assurances did not alleviate the anxiety of Daniel Finn, a theologian at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. “The deep-seated misgivings that so many theologians have about the mandatum should not be interpreted either as questioning the truth of Catholic teaching” or as challenging the bishops’ role as guardians of that tradition, said Finn, one of few lay persons to address the bishops’ meeting.

He said he feared that theologians could be giving up rights they currently have in civil law as soon as they begin to cooperate with the mandatum process. Labor lawyers seem convinced, Finn said, that under labor and civil rights laws the mandatum would have to be a bona fide occupational requirement if it ever came to play a part in employment decisions.

In that case each bishop as well as the university would be legally liable for how it was handled, he said. “The attorneys for the NCCB, I am told, predict that the bishop would win such suits, due to a religious or ministerial exemption from prevailing law.”

Finn said he and other lay theologians supporting a family could not afford to hire an attorney to answer these questions. He also worried that the draft guidelines do not lay out procedures for removing a mandatum and that they allow individual bishops too much discretion.

Finn urged the bishops to read the Catholic Theological Society of America’s report on the mandatum (NCR, Sept. 29). While the bishops have consulted with university presidents for most of the 1990s, he noted that they held their first meeting with theologians on Nov. 1

Auxiliary Bishop Raymond Goedert of Chicago took up Finn’s concern. Goedert said the guidelines discussed at last year’s bishops’ meeting “were more benign … It was up to the individual teacher to seek a mandatum. If he doesn’t, that’s OK. Now it seems like we’re lowering the boom. … This is more than guidelines,” Goedert said.

Pilarczyk countered that the newest guidelines “are more concrete, not more severe or demanding.” But Omaha Archbishop Elden Curtiss said he would deal “publicly” with a theologian who didn’t seek a mandatum and was teaching undergraduates. “If this person doesn’t have a mandatum, it’s not a matter of ‘take it or leave it.’ We’re responding to a problem that’s taken place. We’re not playing games,” Curtiss said.

Pilarczyk noted that “the diocesan bishop has no power to enforce anything within the university’s life,” though a bishop is free to say who does and who doesn’t have a mandatum. He urged bishops to meet with their theologians in the months ahead and even to begin to “hand out the mandatums.” In May he plans to convene a meeting of all prelates whose diocese included a Catholic college or university. The bishops could vote final approval to the guidelines at their June meeting.

When Bishop Robert Banks of Green Bay, Wis., asked Pilarczyk whether the guidelines grew out of the Code of Canon Law or “is it us who are requiring it,” Pilarczyk was quick to reply: “We have been required to require this.”

With its statement on criminal justice, the bishops tried to shine the light of hope into the nation’s prisons. “We are convinced that our tradition and our faith offer better alternatives that can hold offenders accountable and challenge them to change their lives, reach out to victims and reject vengeance.” It also reiterated the church’s rejection of the death penalty and called for pastoral attention to the victims of crime and the families of criminals.

Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces, N.M., called the document “one of the most timely and important statements ever made by the bishops.” America’s two million in the prison population outnumber the U.S. military or those in U.S. graduate schools, he said

The document can be seen on the bishops’ Web site, www.nccbuscc.org/sdwp/criminal.htm and will soon be available in Spanish.

The bishops also advocated on behalf of the reunification of immigrant families. A resolution urged several reforms in U.S. immigration law and policy. Newark Archbishop Theodore McCarrick said the bishops themselves needed to secure a permanent body of regulations on the importation of foreign priests. Currently the nearly 1,000 foreign priests working or studying in America are subject to various immigration procedures. Renewal of visas is often difficult, McCarrick said.

The second immigration item, the pastoral “Unity in Diversity: Welcoming the Immigrant Church in the U.S.,” calls on Catholics to work against prejudice and distrust and for the full integration of immigrants into the life of the church and the community.

National Catholic Reporter, November 24, 2000