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Catholic Colleges and Universities

Little clarity on mandatum as school begins


The guidelines for the mandatum are written, stamped with the U.S. Catholic bishops’ seal of approval, and complete with how-to instructions for both bishops and theologians. But four months after the guidelines were put into place, many Catholic theologians are still wrestling with the question of whether they should apply for the mandatum, the official imprimatur that they are teaching in accordance with church doctrine that the Vatican now requires.

Since the issue first arose in the 1980s, the mandatum has become a hotly debated topic. Many theologians see the requirement that they receive a mandatum from their bishop as a threat to academic freedom and their own reputations for independent scholarship. In June, U.S. bishops finally approved the guidelines governing the granting of the mandatum, which is called for in the papal document Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“Out of the Heart of the Church”). The requirement that theologians currently teaching in Catholic colleges and universities should obtain a mandatum by June 2002 went into effect immediately, though no sanctions exist if theologians do not apply for it. The bishops have called the issuing of a mandatum a private pastoral matter between a theologian and his or her bishop.

So far, there’s been no stampede to obtain the mandatum on the part of the theologians or to grant them on the part of bishops. Many in the theological community say the issue is too fresh and the school year too young to see how the issue of the mandatum will work itself out in practice. Sacred Heart Sr. Theresa Moser, assistant dean at San Francisco University and immediate past president of the College Theological Society, said there’s been little discussion of the mandatum since June. “It has really been very quiet,” Moser said. “I think people are going to be making up their minds about it.”

At Regis University in Denver, for instance, theologians are in a wait-and-see mode.

“It’s too early to make any decision about how it’s going to play out in terms of our individual decisions,” said Fr. Lester Bundy, chairman of the Religious Studies Department at Regis University. “We’re in the process of studying, meeting and discussing these things and working cooperatively.”

‘Un-Christian and a bad law’

The same is true at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. There, however, one theologian earlier in the summer staked out a clear position. An article that appeared in the Los Angeles Times quoted John Connolly, a lay professor at Loyola Marymount, as saying he would not seek the mandatum, which he thinks violates academic freedom. “It is unnecessary, unjust, un-Christian and a bad law,” he told the Los Angeles Times.

Most at Loyola Marymount are more equivocal, however.

“The reactions on our faculty here are quite varied,” said Fr. Tom Rausch, chairman of the department of theology at Loyola Marymount. “Some are very much against it, and there’s a good number who will try to make the best of it. Nobody is happy about it.”

Ex Corde Ecclessiae was born out of a concern that Catholic universities were losing their Catholic identity. Rausch said most theologians share the concern over Catholic identity but don’t necessarily view the mandatum requirement as the best way to provide for it. “Should it be done by consultation and collaboration between theologians and bishops in a local church or should it be done by the imposition of a juridical requirement of obtaining a mandatum, always with the threat that the mandatum could be withdrawn or denied if the bishop believes the theologian is not teaching in accord with the church?” Rausch said.

As at Regis, many at Loyola are still waiting to see how the mandatum will be implemented before taking action.

“It’s a new academic year, so I think the posture of most people is to wait and pray about it,” said Michael Horan, associate professor of pastoral theology at Loyola-Marymount. “There is a sense clearly among colleagues that we do not want to let this divide us, or adversely affect the spirit of collegiality.”

Rausch said he thinks most of the theological faculty are waiting to hear from the archbishop how he is going to implement the norms. “I don’t think people are rushing to seek the mandatum on their own. Perhaps some have. I just don’t know of any,” he said.

In Cincinnati, the process has evolved several steps further than in Denver or Los Angeles. There Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk has asked the presidents of the Catholic colleges and universities in Cincinnati to forward to him the names of Catholics teaching theology. At the University of Dayton, for instance, Marianist Br. Raymond L. Fitz, the president of the university, sent each member of the theology department a letter with a brief questionnaire asking whether they were Catholic and whether they taught the canonical disciplines as defined in Ex Corde.

The latter provoked some unexpected discussion, said Terrence Tilley, chairman of the University of Dayton theology department, because some theologians felt they did not teach the disciplines as defined in canon law. “There are a number of people here who do history of Christianity and religion and culture, and we had some lengthy discussions about whether they taught theological disciplines,” Tilley said.

Tilley said he didn’t know and won’t know the names of those in his department who have received the mandatum. Tilley said the archbishop sent a list to the president of those who have accepted an offer of mandatum. The archbishop has said he will not make this public, Tilley said. Still unclear is whether the University of Dayton will answer questions about teachers who have or don’t have the mandatum or will refer questions to the individuals involved.

It’s a touchy issue for some theologians, who fear that those who do not apply for the certificate or who have been denied it might be singled out for censure and public disapprobation. Already, concerns have been expressed about a Web site that’s been set up by conservative Catholics at www.mandata.org that lists theologians who have not received the mandatum.

Reassuring nervous theologians

Tilley is optimistic that revisions to the mandatum guidelines made following the June bishops’ meeting may help reassure theologians nervous about due process and vigilantism. The guidelines recognize the professor’s “lawful freedom of inquiry” and state that the mandatum should not be construed as authorization or approbation of a theologian’s teaching by church authorities. Ecclesiastical authorities who withhold or withdraw the mandatum must state their reasons in writing and give the theologian the right to seek recourse.

The guidelines governing the mandatum process are sufficiently flexible to enable either theologians or bishops to initiate the process. In Louisville, Archbishop Thomas Kelly issued mandata to all religion professors at three Catholic colleges in the area, saying in a written statement that these professors have “a long history of service to our church and an excellent relationship with me.”

Mandata have also been issued to the theological faculty at the Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, where all theological faculty take an oath of fidelity to the local bishop. Since the oath of fidelity was instituted in 1989, all new theological faculty and those involved in the spiritual formation of students take the oath at a Mass held at the opening of the school year, and the granting of the mandatum by Bishop Gilbert Sullivan was viewed as routine.

Oblate Fr. Bevil Bramwell, acting chair of the theology department at Franciscan University, believes the furor over the mandatum requirement is overblown.

“A lot of the discussion about the mandatum has started from a cultural presupposition, and that is that we start out as adversaries. In fact, that is not the truth. Even though we have an adversarial legal system and business system, the church is not adversarial. It’s not set up that way,” Bramwell said.

“If you look at Ex Corde and if you look at the bishops’ conference statements, both of them are discussing the community in which we discover the truth. The bishops are very much a part of that process. What it says is that they are not extrinsic to this community that is working out the truth.”

Where does the mandatum issue go from here?

“I think it’s going to be a dead letter very soon,” Moser said. “This is just a bad law for the U.S., and I think people will use their heads and ignore it.”

The mandatum may not mean much, but at least on paper it will and does exist, either to be hung on a wall or shoved in a drawer. Bramwell at Franciscan University described it as “a small certificate that’s printed out with the basic text.”

“The mandatum is going to vary from diocese to diocese. One suspects some dioceses will have it hand-lettered and illuminated in gold to fit their medieval administration,” Tilley said with tongue in cheek. “In most it’s just going to be a memo.”

Margot Patterson is NCR senior writer. Her e-mail address is mpatterson@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, September 28, 2001