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Now theologians, alone face the mandatum

Almost imperceptibly, it seems, after more than a decade of sometimes heated debate and anguished negotiations, the Catholic academic world is about to cross a line that could alter the way it does its work for a long time.

This is the season of theological gatherings, when two of the major Catholic theological organizations -- the College Theological Society and the Catholic Theological Society of America -- will meet. They do this annually at the end of the academic year. But this year is different.

Soon after their meetings, U.S. Catholic bishops will gather June 14-16 in Atlanta for their annual spring meeting. One of the agenda items is to vote approval of the final draft of the guidelines concerning the academic mandatum that requires teachers of theology in Catholic colleges and universities to obtain authorization to teach from the local bishop.

Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the 1990 papal document on higher education, called for the implementation of Canon 812, which contains the requirement for the mandatum.

Nothing will stop the bishops from approving the requirement. In earlier stages of debate, the bishops rejected the provision of the mandatum and later attempted to negotiate a modification of the statute with Vatican authorities, all to no avail.

Vatican officials today have little regard for national conferences, and today’s bishops apparently have little inclination to carry the debate any further.

Which leaves the academic community, particularly theologians at Catholic colleges, as the last line of defense against the imposition of this new rule.

Many bishops have met with theological faculties in advance of the spring vote. Most of the informal reports we’ve heard tell of cordial gatherings, with most bishops trying to reassure the scholars there is nothing to worry about. But the question here is not whether the local bishop is a benevolent and charming chap. Bishops change.

The question, rather, is whether our best and brightest theologians will take a step that will be difficult to undo, a step into unknown territory that could well compromise their academic discipline for years. For no matter how soothing a bishop might be in explaining his position on Ex Corde, in reality no one knows what sanctions a given bishop might attempt to impose against a theologian. No one knows the ramifications for an institution of higher education should a bishop decide to discipline a theologian.

In an affront to U.S. standards for academic conduct, crossing the line means theologians, whose work is inside the university, will now be seeking validation and approval outside it.

While certain elements in Rome argue that Ex Corde is meant to shore up Catholic identity, it is difficult to see it as much more than an expression of distrust and exercise of unwarranted power. The Vatican has already neutralized the authority of the U.S. bishops by ignoring their wisdom and the nearly unanimous votes that would have put in place a less severe juridical measure, one that also had the broad approval of the academic community.

The bishops’ original approach and the first draft of the implementation of Canon 812 advocated a pastoral approach. Rome insisted on a more juridical approach. Now the bishops are left trying to put a pastoral face on a legal scheme.

Anyone who values the theological endeavor knows these are dangerous times for Catholic thinkers. Only history will show how deeply the discipline has been damaged in this era of crackdown and disciplining where it seems a Vatican congregation is bringing action against a theologian almost weekly.

One has to wonder, though, what would happen if our best theologians at the most prestigious institutions decided not to seek the mandatum. Perhaps the more appropriate question is, what happens if they do?

National Catholic Reporter, May 25, 2001