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Down to the wire: the mandatum debate

NCR Staff
Portland, Ore.

Catholic theology professors attending a meeting of the College Theology Society here grappled with ways to respond to a new requirement that theologians obtain a mandatum, essentially a license to teach from a local bishop. The requirement is expected to take effect following a vote by U.S. bishops June 15 during a meeting in Atlanta.

In an afternoon session June 2, time set aside to discuss the mandatum, one panel member warned of potential legal pitfalls for theologians and universities if the mandatum is interpreted as a part of contractual agreements under civil law.

A second panel member urged theologians to adopt a stance of nonacceptance, noting that church laws eventually become defunct if they are rejected by the community to which they apply.

A third panel member lamented lack of provisions for due process in guidelines bishops are set to approve, despite efforts by two major U.S. theology groups to put them in place.

At stake, opponents of the mandatum say, is academic freedom that, if lost, will seriously diminish the academic standing of Catholic schools. U.S. bishops are operating under pressure from the Vatican to implement the mandatum in the United States, as required in a 1990 papal document that calls on Catholic colleges and universities to strengthen their Catholic identity.

Over the past decade, many educators, at first resistant to Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the 1990 document, have come to value its warnings against creeping secularization in Catholic schools. Some have also said they have no problem with seeking a mandatum, but many theologians remain seriously troubled about bishops having direct control over Catholic theologians.

Terrence Tilley, professor at the University of Dayton and the panelist addressing potential legal problems, warned, “The mandatum does not have civil law status. It can only acquire civil law status if you or your institution allows it to. If you do accept a mandatum, make sure it is clear that it has no civil status,” he said. He provided a handout with proposed wording for theologians to use in correspondence with bishops on the mandatum.

Tilley also urged theologians to demonstrate mutual respect, despite differing views and ways of responding. “Some will ask for a mandatum with great joy, others with reluctance. Some will refuse it with great joy, others with reluctance,” he said. “The worst thing would be to let it divide us. We’re not sheep and goats on this one. We are people with very difficult problematic issues.”

Under the bishops’ plan, all theologians are to obtain a mandatum by June 3 of next year. But Sacred Heart Sr. Theresa Moser, associate dean at the University of San Francisco, urged theologians to adopt a stance of noncompliance. “The appropriate strategy is to do nothing” by way of requesting a mandatum, she said, or, if one is offered, to “very respectfully decline.” Moser cited a longstanding canonical doctrine that renders a law nonbinding if rejected by its intended community. After 30 years, a law never accepted and obeyed becomes a “dead letter,” Moser said.

Canon 812, the church law from which the mandatum derives its authority, was promulgated in 1983 and has yet to be implemented. Thus, Moser said, if theologians refuse a mandatum, the canon would become noneffective in another 12 years.

Moser said, “Wherever I’ve been, the focus has always been on the problems with the mandatum. That’s not good law.” She noted that the Vatican had pressured U.S. bishops into imposing the mandatum, though many were initially resistant.

Moser distributed an article by canon lawyer James A. Coriden, “The Canonical Doctrine of Reception,” published in The Jurist in 1990. Coriden wrote that the doctrine, “broadly stated, asserts that for a law or rule to be an effective guide for the believing community, it must be accepted by that community. The doctrine is very ancient.”

Coriden said nonreception does not represent disobedience or disregard for legitimate authority. “Reception is not subversive of legitimate authority,” he wrote. “Rather, it supports and enhances it. … On the rare occasions when laws are not received, it is because they do not suit the community.”

Both Tilley and Moser are past presidents of the College Theology Society, one of the nation’s two major professional groups for Catholic theologians. The other, the Catholic Theological Society of America, has scheduled a similar discussion of the mandatum for June 8 in Milwaukee.

A third panel member, Daniel Finn, professor of theology and economics at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., said that theologians had been largely unsuccessful in efforts to secure a provision for due process should a theologian’s mandatum be revoked. He said, however, that one of seven recent amendments to the document bishops will be voting on represents a small step in that direction. It requires bishops to meet personally with a theologian before revoking a mandatum. Another positive step, he said, is a stipulation that the mandatum is about teaching and not about morality. For example, Finn said, it is not to be used to bar from teaching a priest who has resigned from the priesthood.

Finn is chair of the Catholic Theological Society of America’s ad hoc committee on the mandatum and a consultant from the society to the bishops’ committee on the mandatum. Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati heads that committee.

Pilarczyk was represented on the four-member panel by Fr. John Strynkowski, executive director of the bishops’ secretariat for doctrine and the staff person from the National Conference of Catholic Bishops appointed to the mandatum committee.

Strynkowski pointed out that guidelines offer a safeguard, as they call for specific evidence, presented in writing, if a mandatum is denied or revoked.

Noting that bishops around the country have recently been holding meetings with theologians in their dioceses, Tilley added: “It’s very important that, if we refuse the mandatum, we don’t preclude working cooperatively with the bishops.” Many of the recent meetings have been “very cordial,” he said.

Tilley also cautioned theologians to observe carefully the final form of mandatum guidelines after the bishops vote. “There are amendments proposed that could make a significant difference in your response,” he said.

National Catholic Reporter, June 15, 2001