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Issue Date:  February 10, 2006

From the Editor's Desk

Clarifying the boundaries

Having said last week that we rarely run speeches, we’re running another one, this time by Holy Cross Fr. John Jenkins, the new president of the University of Notre Dame, who makes some compelling observations on the sometimes difficult issue of sustaining academic freedom while also maintaining an institution’s Catholic identity. (See story)

What are the boundaries? Must certain topics be taboo? Who sets the boundaries? Must all theological inquiry stop automatically at the limits of current understanding and teaching? Are certain questions off-limits?

About 20 years ago, a few other journalists and I were invited to the office of the president of a major East Coast university. I won’t use names because I no longer remember the precise conversation nor can I find clips of what I wrote about it. But this much I reliably recall: The president and a well-known figure, who later became a cardinal, were out to calm the speculation that was growing in the press over a proposed new provision in canon law that would require theologians to be approved by local bishops in order to teach at a Catholic college or university.

Don’t worry, we were told, this was all just Rome talk. The U.S. bishops would go to the Vatican and explain how universities worked in the United States and all would be well. It took a lot of years, but no amount of explaining could derail the eventual publication of Ex Corde Ecclesiae in 1990, Pope John Paul II’s vision of what a Catholic university should be, and the subsequent enactment of the mandatum, the requirement that theologians receive a certificate to teach issued by a local bishop. That provision became law for the U.S. Catholic church in 2001. By that time, thanks to years of episcopal appointments by John Paul, the new law found favor in some quarters of the bishops’ conference. How widely it is adhered to, of course, is an open question.

What is clear, however, is that the issue of Catholic identity -- pushed sometimes by extreme forces who would contend that they alone embody “Catholic orthodoxy,” sometimes engaged by more moderate forces looking for clarity in what makes an institution “Catholic” -- is not going to fade soon from the list of issues calling for the attention of U.S. Catholics.

That said, look in on what Jenkins has to say in his speech and in an interview with John Allen, and we’ll meet you on the back page with more thoughts on the matter.

~ ~ ~

Iran is big in the news these days and the conventional wisdom would have us believe that the country is on the brink of manufacturing nuclear weapons and at the least poses a growing threat to other countries in the region and maybe even the wider world.

It is impossible to say precisely what is going on in Iran or even to know how seriously to take the rants of its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

But knowing from recent experience that it is certainly better to ask the questions sooner rather than later, we’ve run two pieces on Iran that cut across the grain of most conventional analysis. (See stories one and two.) These pieces, of course, are hardly the final word on the situation, but I think they add some texture of history as well as cultural and political insights that are missing from the average sound bite.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, February 10, 2006

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