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Bishops’ conference approves directives

NCR Staff

Responding to the promptings of the Vatican, Catholic bishops meeting in Atlanta for their annual spring conference June 13-16 took steps to bring Catholic hospitals and universities in line with official church teaching. The bishops approved directives prohibiting Catholic hospitals from offering direct sterilization services and voted on guidelines governing ecclesiastical approval for theologians teaching in Catholic colleges and universities.

Both measures have generated heated controversy among professionals in the groups they are intended to affect.

In other matters, the National Catholic Conference of Bishops reaffirmed traditional Catholic doctrine that the Eucharist is not a symbol of Jesus Christ but his real and living presence, set Jan. 22 as a day of penance for abortion and euthanasia, and called for an end to violence between Israelis and Palestinians in the Mideast. The bishops also urged action on global climate change and greater attention on the part of the United States to refugee protection.

The bishops’ approval of a revised set of ethical and religious directives governing Catholic health care institutions is likely to affect many of the 1,140 Catholic hospitals in the nation. Instigated by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the revised guidelines are intended to close loopholes that allowed sterilization services to continue at non-Catholic hospitals when they merged with or were purchased by a Catholic hospital. Some 159 mergers have taken place during the last 10 years.

The new guidelines approved by bishops categorize sterilization as an intrinsic evil, along with abortion and euthanasia. The guidelines say that Catholic hospitals involved in partnerships or mergers with non-Catholic entities must not “engage in immediate material cooperation in actions that are intrinsically immoral, such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide and direct sterilization.”

The revised guidelines will require Catholic hospitals to put greater distance between the hospitals and affiliate organizations offering sterilization services. They were made after extensive consultations between the Catholic Health Association and a small working group of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, which submitted the revisions to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for approval prior to the bishops’ vote on it.

Another key measure, the establishment of guidelines concerning the certification, or mandatum, that theologians in Catholic colleges and universities must now seek from their bishop, follows years of debate initiated with the 1990 papal document Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“From the Heart of the Church”), which called on Catholic colleges and universities to strengthen their Catholic identity.

Moves on mandatum

The ecclesiastical authorization or mandatum, intended to assure that a theologian’s teaching is in line with church doctrine, has raised fears in the academic community, both about threats to academic freedom and a possible firestorm of litigation if theologians are ousted from their posts because mandatums have been denied or withdrawn. The guidelines, which go into effect immediately, leave it up to the individual theologian to seek the mandatum from his or her bishop and do not involve the university in the process.

There are no sanctions if a theologian does not seek the mandatum, said Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk, who chaired the bishops’ ad hoc committee on guidelines for the mandatum. Pilarczyk said a theologian’s decision not to seek the mandatum should not be construed as a sign of heterodoxy and said that the mandatum should be regarded as a private pastoral matter between a theologian and his or her bishop.

Two amendments to the guidelines that were adopted at the conference offer some reassurance to theologians worried about due process. The amendments give theologians the right to know the reasons why a bishop denied them the mandatum and to know the source of any complaints made about their work. The amendments advise bishops that any negative judgment about some portion of a theologian’s work should be assessed in terms of the significance of that portion of the work to his or her overall theological contribution, its relationship to the larger Catholic tradition and its implications for the life of the church.

Daniel Finn, a theologian from St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., who served as a consultant to the bishops’ ad hoc committee, said the amendments were “significant improvements,” though he said questions remain for many theologians about whether the mandatum will help or hurt the Catholic nature of the university. Finn spoke of the danger that theologians with the mandatum may be perceived as merely mouthpieces for the bishops or the Holy Father, a perception that would erode the stature of theologians both within the university and in the academic community.

Terrence Tilley, a University of Dayton theologian who served as the other theological consultant to the ad hoc committee, echoed many of the comments made by the bishops themselves when he said the effects of the mandatum requirement are still unclear. Tilley said it’s possible the mandatum could cause something of a brain drain from Catholic universities, with the best and brightest Catholic theologians preferring jobs at non-Catholic universities where a mandatum is not required. Tilley said the key issue is what Catholic colleges and universities will do with the mandatum. “What must they do? Nothing. What will they choose to do? That is the question. That’s going to vary widely,” Tilley said. He, along with others, believes Catholic colleges and universities may come under pressure to demand that theologians obtain the mandatum.

Global issues

Rooting their statement on global climate change in the virtue of prudence, the bishops said that significant levels of scientific consensus, even in situations of less than full certainty, justify, indeed obligate, action to avert potential dangers. The bishops said action to mitigate global climate change must be built upon a foundation of social and economic justice and should give poorer countries a genuine place at the negotiating table. “At its core, global climate change is … about our human stewardship of God’s creation and our responsibility to those who come after us,” the bishops said.

The bishops called on the U.S. government to renew its commitment to refugee protection, noting that the United States admits 43 percent fewer refugees than it did 10 years ago and has reduced support to refugee populations overseas. The bishops’ statement comes on the 50th anniversary of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees as well as the 50th anniversary of the International Catholic Migration Commission, created by the pope to respond to the plight of refugees.

The bishops reiterated their concern about violence in the Middle East. They called on Israel to end occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and cease establishing and expanding settlements there. They urged Palestinians to fully respect for Israel’s right to exist and its security.

In liturgical matters, which occupied much of the meeting, bishops approved certain U.S. norms for Mass, including a directive that Communion should be received while standing, as is currently the custom in most U.S. churches. Bishops recommended that communicants bow their heads before receiving, and said worshipers may either kneel or sit after returning to their pews.

National Catholic Reporter, June 29, 2001