e-mail us
Implementing license to teach worries theologians

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

To seek or not seek a mandatum. That is the question occupying theologians at Catholic colleges and universities across the land this semester. Obtaining a mandatum certification to teach as a Catholic theologian from one’s local bishop has become an agenda item at many faculty meetings and a conversation magnet in campus offices and hallways.

Soon it will be the subject of face-to-face encounters between the church’s professional teachers and its pastoral leaders. Meetings are being planned or are underway this month among the more than 1,000 theologians teaching at 235 institutions of higher education located in 39 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico and the 100 bishops whose jurisdiction includes a Catholic college and/or university.

Uncertainty over what the mandatum will mean in practice was exacerbated by the recent comments of two bishops. In Ohio, Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk has said that theologians have nothing to fear from the Vatican’s requirement, or mandate, that Catholic theology professors pledge to teach authentic church doctrine that is faithful to the church’s magisterium.

But 700 miles away in Nebraska, Omaha Archbishop Elden Curtiss has said he may publicize the names of any theologian who does not obtain the bishop’s certification assuring that what he or she is presenting meets the church’s standards.

Theologians are concerned

Although both positions were set out Nov. 14 at the U.S. bishops’ annual meeting in Washington (NCR, Nov. 24), the upcoming gatherings of teachers and bishops should lead to “an easing of apprehension,” Msgr. John Strynkowski told NCR. Strynkowski is assistant secretary for Catholic higher education and campus ministry at the U.S. Catholic Conference and staff to the committee on the mandatum.

As theologians are sharing their concerns about the mandatum with their local ordinary, the bishops are trying to design a standard procedure for granting, withholding or withdrawing the mandatum. The consulting bishops will meet May 30 in Detroit with Pilarczyk’s Ad Hoc Committee on the mandatum to move toward final revisions of the guidelines. In mid-June all U.S. bishops will gather in Atlanta to approve the guidelines. Implementation of the mandatum is to occur one year after the Vatican approves the plan.

The mandatum requirement is but one of the provisions of Pope John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic constitution, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“From the Heart of the Church”), which governs relations between the church and Catholic academia worldwide.

The revised Code of Canon Law calls upon Catholic theologians to be in accord with the church’s teaching. The pope’s way of enforcing Canons 807-814 is through the exhortations contained in Ex Corde. Norms for its implementation in America have undergone three revisions since the U.S. bishops began dealing with the document a decade ago.

After consulting with Catholic college administrators and with canon lawyers over many years, the bishops have just begun to talk with theologians. No one is certain where these conversations will lead. Theologian Terrence Tilley said, “It’s too difficult to figure out if everything is within Pilarczyk’s control.”

Tilley, a consultant to the Ad Hoc Committee and chair of the religious studies department at the University of Dayton in Ohio, said that not all U.S. prelates are as “benign” in their approach and viewpoint as is Pilarczyk. “If all the bishops had his understanding of the mandatum, we wouldn’t have these problems.” The University of Dayton is in Pilarczyk’s diocese.

At the November meeting, Pilarczyk stated that the mandatum did not have the force of law, but that the committee’s guidelines were a procedural instrument for bishops to “more or less” apply the mandatum uniformly. He saw it as an affirmation of the complementary roles of professors and pastors and not something that should invoke fear.

The certification applies to any Catholic teaching scripture, canon law, church history, liturgy and moral, dogmatic and pastoral theology. Some theologians who spoke with NCR were unsure whether the mandatum covered any other than full-time instructors even though Pilarczyk noted in November that it applied to any Catholic teacher of any theological discipline who is “regularly teaching” in a Catholic college or university --even a graduate assistant or visiting professor.

“The vast majority of Catholic theologians take their relationship with the church very seriously,” said Dan Finn, theology professor at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. Finn thinks the theologians’ concern is genuine, noting that it’s “a scary business when your reputation can be questioned and your livelihood threatened.”

St. John’s theologians met with their bishop, John Kinney of the St. Cloud, Minn., diocese in late November. Finn described the conversation as “frank” and the parties as “mutually supportive.” Finn addressed the bishops at their November meeting on behalf of the Catholic Theological Society of America. He said reactions to his talk have convinced him that “most bishops don’t have a big problem with their Catholic theologians.” For their part, theologians hope that the vast majority of bishops will be “reasonable” with them, though “reasonableness is not guaranteed in the document,” Finn said.

Theologians are concerned with the “unspecified discretion” a bishop may have in determining what is necessary to certify someone “a teacher within the full communion of the Catholic church,” Finn said. Is such a judgment limited to what the person teaches in the classroom, or does it include personal views and private life?

They also fear the lack of an adequate appeals process should a theologian be denied a mandatum. They want to trust that there is no connection between the mandatum and hiring and retention policies, as Pilarczyk affirmed in November.

No one knows who will or won’t seek a mandatum. “It’s very difficult to predict numbers at this juncture,” Strynkowski said.

Among those who have said they will not seek a mandatum are Paul Knitter of Xavier University, Cincinnati; Daniel Maquire of Marquette University, Milwaukee, and Fr. Richard McBrien of the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Ind.

Trusting the process

The 23 Catholic theologians at Creighton University in Omaha will meet Archbishop Curtiss later this month. “Things will be clarified after that,” said Michael Lawler, director of Creighton’s Center for Marriage and Family. Lawler has been chosen to field inquiries from the press but said there was “nothing to say” until after the meeting.

On Nov. 14 Curtiss told his fellow bishops that theologians need a mandatum because Catholic parents expect them to reflect church teaching. He said he would not “play games” and would deal “publicly” with a theologian who didn’t seek one and was teaching undergraduates.

Jack Phillips, a theologian at the College of St. Mary in Omaha, is “standing at the water’s edge waiting” to see what Curtiss does. Phillips, an Orthodox Melkite Christian, said Byzantine Catholic theologians want to know if the mandatum applies to them. “We are a sister church of Rome. Our synod recognized the authority of the Bishop of Rome in the first 1,000 years” of Christendom. But when Phillips teaches Catholic theology, it’s Catholic theology and not a Byzantine version of it, he said.

Phillips is not convinced that those who don’t apply for a mandatum cannot be fired. “Catholic colleges depend on that Catholic identity for their marketing. They look to Catholic high schools and parishes to feed them students.” At St. Mary, there are no tenured positions, only four-year renewable contracts, he said.

He said that small schools like St. Mary -- a woman’s liberal arts college founded by the Sisters of Mercy -- are “more vulnerable” to efforts to augment their Catholic identity -- a chief goal of Ex Corde. With no priests on campus and with no one currently serving as campus minister, “it’s harder to do things to celebrate Catholicism” than at a larger school like Creighton, he said.

The mandatum was high on the agenda of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities whose presidents met late last month in Washington. More than 200 of the presidents attended, including 27 of the 28 Jesuit presidents. Jesuits schools enroll 190,000 of the 700,000 students at America’s higher institutions of Catholic learning.

Jesuit Fr. Charles Curry, who directs the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, said he took heart from guest speaker Belgian Cardinal Godfried Danneels, who urged a spirit of communion among all parties, noting that juridical norms don’t guarantee cooperation. Danneels heads the see of Mechelen-Brussels, Belgium, is chancellor of the University of Louvain and a member of the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education.

The Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities set up a 12-person committee on Ex Corde, comprising six bishops and six college presidents under the leadership of Pittsburgh’s Bishop Donald Wuerl. Other bishops include Auxiliary John Boles of Boston; Paul Bootkoski, administrator of the Newark, N.J., archdiocese; John D’Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind.; James Hoffman of Toledo, Ohio, and George Niederauer of Salt Lake City.

College presidents on the committee are Fr. Dennis Dease of the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minn.; Marilou Eldred, St. Mary’s College, South Bend, Ind.; Christian Br. James Gaffney of Lewis University, Romeoville, Ill.; Alice Hayes, University of San Diego; Jesuit Fr. William Leahy of Boston College and Vincentian Fr. David O’Connor of The Catholic University in Washington.

Dease said the presidents are focused on the pragmatic elements of Ex Corde and are looking for clarification of the norms. He found less anxiety among the presidents than existed a year ago. Though much is still uncertain about the application of the mechanism to oversee orthodoxy in college classrooms, one thing is certain, Dease said, “The norms will be applied unevenly according to the personality of the ordinary.” College presidents would welcome the bishops’ making the application process as “uniform” as possible, he said.

At Notre Dame University, where some 40 theologians teach, Larry Cunningham said that many of his fellow theologians are taking a “wait-and-see” attitude. Those most nervous are students finishing their doctorates who “feel they’ll have to choose between a Catholic and a non-Catholic institution,” he said.

Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley, past president of Catholic Theological Society of America and an ethics professor at Yale, said theologians should be willing to “trust the process” but also said that bishops have to understand why theologians are concerned and how theologians conceive of their profession.

“The most controversial task of moral theology is to help people live their faith in the light of the times … to help them face new questions and not just to repeat or attack” the old formulas, Farley told NCR.

Patricia Lefevere’s email address is pal-scribe@erols.com

National Catholic Reporter, February 16, 2001