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What’s your mandatum quotient?

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

A Web site developed by a maverick priest has some theologians warning that a Joseph McCarthy-like witch-hunt could be on the horizon in the U.S. Catholic church in response to Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic identity of colleges and universities, and related norms requiring Catholic theologians to be certified by a church authority.

Under norms being developed by U.S. bishops, theologians will apply to their local bishops for certification as “authentic” instructors of Catholic orthodoxy.

Fr. John J. Stryjewski, a priest in the Mobile, Ala., diocese, has set up a Web page at www.mandata.org that provides information about the number of faculty members at Catholic colleges and universities who have agreed to request certification, known as a mandatum. Although the mandatum process has yet to be implemented, just the specter of this kind of watchdog approach has many Catholic theologians crying, “I told you so” as bishops try to walk the fine line between fidelity to Rome and respect for the way American universities operate: within a tradition of academic freedom that shelters academics from external controls.

Stryjewski plans to assign an MQ to each school listed on his Web page -- a mandatum quotient found by dividing the number of faculty members who have received a mandatum by the number of faculty eligible to receive one.

“The obvious purpose of this Web site is something we warned the bishops about,” said Sacred Heart Sr. Theresa Moser, assistant dean in the college of arts and sciences at the University of San Francisco and past president of the College Theology Society. “They are opening the floodgates to the harassment of theologians and universities by the self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy. This can only undermine the enterprise of Catholic higher education in this country.

“The issue of the mandatum is very complex, and there are very good reasons why faithful theologians may choose not to apply for a mandatum,” Moser said. Many theologians say that resistance to a mandatum does not signify lack of loyalty to the church or its teachings but rather is rooted in legitimate concerns about academic freedom and the role of theology in an academic institution.

Stryjewski insists that, whatever the objections, a bishop’s seal of approval is an important criterion for parents to consider before enrolling a child in a Catholic institution of higher learning. “That’s my opinion,” Stryjewski said. “If you want to take my opinion that’s fine. I’m providing a piece of information that otherwise might not be available. We’re just interested in the fact that the bishop stood behind the professor wherever he or she was. I’m just a scorekeeper ...

“You judge for yourself. If you find it acceptable, use it. If you don’t, throw it away. It’s very simple. Just information, no judgment.”

Judgment is implied nonetheless, said Fr. Kenneth Himes, professor of moral theology at Washington Theology Union and president of the Catholic Theology Society of America, which, at 1,600 members, is the nation’s largest group representing Catholic theologians. “My concern is that, not only individuals, but institutions and their reputation are going to be defamed by this Web site, which I think is very unfortunate. I don’t for one moment think bishops intend for this sort of thing to happen, because this undercuts their authority.” At the same time, he said, such a watchdog approach was “entirely foreseeable.”

“This is just the first of what will likely be a series of fairly scurrilous, self-appointed orthodoxy guardians.” Himes said the U.S. bishops have a duty to speak out “and in some way be very clear that they disavow this kind of activity.”

Traditional categories of moral theology state that “if you could foresee and predict even unintended consequences that were negative you have some obligation to try to limit the damage of those unintended consequences,” Himes said.

Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, whose ad hoc committee on the mandatum is working toward final revisions of the guidelines, does not approve of Stryjewski’s project. “This Web site is obviously not put up with the authorization of the bishops’ conference or our committee,” Pilarczyk said. “There is nothing any of us can do to stop it. I don’t think it’s a very good idea, and I don’t think it’s particularly well done. ... We all know that you can put up anything you want to on the Web, and that doesn’t make it right.”

Among inaccuracies on Stryjewski’s Web site, theologians cite inclusion of many non-Catholics on the faculty lists, though the mandatum requirement applies only to Catholics. Included are seminaries and institutions with pontifical faculties, which are subject to Vatican regulations rather than to Ex Corde norms.

In an NCR interview, Stryjewski downplayed such errors, claiming that it is up to users to offer corrections to the listed information. “We set up quite an extensive report system,” Stryjewski said. “We’ve dropped about 15 or 20 names already.”

Stryjewski says he is not rating Catholic schools but merely responding to requests from parents who have accessed his main site, www.alapadre.net, to ask him questions about what schools he recommends. “I get about 300,000 hits a month on it, and I get commensurate e-mail so that’s how that started,” he said. Because of the large number of requests Stryjewski said he created the mandata site.

One theology department head on a large Catholic campus said he did not want to go on record regarding Stryjewski’s Web site for the attention would help promote it. “You might dignify it more than it deserves,” he said. “I would just be reluctant to give it a high profile and to give the guy backing indirectly.”

Pilarczyk supports downplaying such efforts. “It seems to me that we are all, at every moment, vulnerable to attack from any number of directions,” Pilarczyk said. “And if I am going to allow the possibility that somebody may not like what I do or say and come after me in public -- if I’m going to allow that to paralyze my work, then that person that I’m so afraid of is in control.”

Most of the theologians interviewed by NCR said the writing’s on the wall, and the orthodoxy police could gain more power as time goes by, no matter how much attention they do or don’t get from outside.

Terrence Tilley, chairman of religious studies at the University of Dayton, said most of his colleagues “simply shake their heads in sorrow at this. I don’t know that anybody feels especially threatened.” Tilley said such vigilante activities are reminiscent of the notorious Sodalitum Pianum, an early-20th century network that engaged in attacks on priests and scholars whose theology was suspect.

Himes, however, thinks problems will multiply. “There’ll be all sorts of attacks on people,” Himes said. “I can foresee a theologian speaking at a conference somewhere or speaking at a parish adult ed session, and one of the first questions that will come from the floor is, ‘Excuse me, do you have a mandatum?’ That’s the kind of stuff that’ll be coming.”

Several theologians have already gone on record saying they oppose and won’t seek a mandatum. Some oppose the procedure because individual bishops will have final authority in the matter, meaning that specific criteria for issuing a mandatum will vary among dioceses.

Those educators, who for matters of conscience, refuse to apply for a mandatum, should be respected, Himes said. “A number of very faithful and loyal Catholic professors of theology are not going to seek a mandatum or accept it, not because of any disagreement with the church on matters central to the faith” but because they consider it inappropriate in the context of the American system of higher education to have a third party from outside the university rule on whether a person is qualified to teach. Moser said some universities might avoid the process for legal reasons as well.

“I don’t see this as there’s a lot of ill will out there on the part of bishops,” Himes said, “but the fact remains that precisely because they can’t come to any sort of agreed national standards there is going to be inevitably a certain hit or miss quality to why does this person get a mandatum or this person didn’t.”

The matter of who gets or doesn’t get a mandatum is supposed to be a private matter between bishops and theologians, making Stryjewski’s Web site a violation of privacy, Moser said. But at least one bishop, Bishop Elden Curtiss of Omaha, Neb., said he would make all matters related to the mandatum public. Other bishops may do likewise.

U.S. bishops are scheduled to vote on implementation of the mandatum in June. Vatican approval is required before the procedure takes full effect. Pilarczyk’s committee, which meets May 30, is developing resources for its implementation.

A discussion on the mandatum and its implementation will be part of the agenda when the Catholic Theological Society meets in Milwaukee in June.

“[The Web site] will only have people more angry and more concerned and more committed to the belief that the whole enterprise of the mandatum is ill-advised,” Himes said.

National Catholic Reporter, February 23, 2001