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Rely instead on the fidelity and holiness of the flock

Many Catholics agree that the Catholic identity of church-related colleges and universities has been a legitimate concern. With the decline in the numbers of priests and nuns and the evident loss of religious identity in schools founded by other denominations, there has been ample reason to consider what might be done.

However, the Vatican’s response -- requiring theologians to receive the mandatum, or certificate of approval, from a local bishop -- continues to provide more material for mischief than for solution. U.S. bishops are forced to move toward implementation of a plan that many theologians disdain.

Meanwhile, more positive approaches to the issue of Catholic identity, such as the fledgling Catholic studies movement, go begging for recognition and support.

The latest mischief spawned by the imminent mandatum requirement is www.mandata.org, a Web site that purports to help parents pick a Catholic college or university (see story page 3). One might argue that even discussing the effort confers on it far more legitimacy than it deserves. Such ad hoc monitoring efforts, however, have achieved an inordinate level of credibility and influence in the waning years of Pope John Paul II’s papacy.

This style of freelance orthodoxy policing, a kind of ecclesial vigilantism, has gained unusual access to powers in Rome and has caused a level of havoc at home that belies the small numbers pushing the levers. These groups think nothing of impugning reputations and ruining careers. Their arrogance in making absolute claims to being the purest repositories of orthodoxy is boundless.

Nothing better demonstrates the condition than tactics of former officials of the Ignatius Institute at the University of San Francisco who prohibited Jesuits affiliated with the university from presiding over the institute’s daily liturgies.

Jesuit Fr. Stephen A. Privett, university president, provides Catholic leaders with a model of how to respond to such groups (see story page 4). When critics accused Privett of trying to silence “the voice of orthodoxy” because the university’s Jesuit community does not support the Catholic church, Privett simply referred to the long history of Jesuits through the ages and questioned how the group of critics could assume “the role of judges of ‘orthodoxy.’”

If the bishops were to take that model and apply it to the wider Catholic culture, leaning heavily on the deep and wide record of fidelity and holiness of their flock, they might begin to bring some perspective to the charges that often fly about, impugning the motives of so many who serve.

The mandatum may have been well intended as a tool to assure Catholic identity. In other cultures it might fit well with how Catholic institutions have historically seen themselves. For various reasons, it just might not be that big a deal elsewhere.

But in the United States -- where law, down to the last comma and conjunction, is taken seriously, and where a tradition of academic freedom has flourished -- the net result is to set up new opportunities for punitive actions and new fuel for the vigilantes.

National Catholic Reporter, February 23, 2001