the Shoe to Drop
In a world of sound bites and 24-hour global news channels, the Catholic Church still
moves to 13th century rhythms. Years, and sometimes decades, are swallowed up
as files build up, letters exchanged, consultations launched, and stately bureaucratic
Observers have been waiting for years for Rome to deliver on its promise to reign in
Catholic higher education in America. Now push finally seems to be coming to shove.
On November 17, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops complied with a Vatican
directive to adopt rules designed to return Catholic colleges and universitiesand
especially faculty who teach theologyto the supervision of the institutional Church.
The bishops required Catholic theologians who teach in Catholic colleges and universities
to obtain a mandatum from their local bishopa written acknowledgement that
they are in "full communion" with the churchs official doctrineand
urged Catholic colleges and universities to recruit Catholics as presidents, faculty
members, and trustees "to the extent possible."
In his first day story for the Los Angeles Times, Larry Stammer called the
action a bid to "break a long-standing deadlock over the power of church leaders to
control theologians teaching at Catholic universities." According to the New York
Timess Gustav Neibuhr, it represented "the bishops response to the
secularizing forces of modernity in American universities, which some conservative critics
say have moved away from their religious mission."
There are 235 Catholic colleges in the United States, enrolling a total of about
670,000 students. Few receive any financial support from the Church and, since the 1960s,
most have been governed by boards controlled by lay people and not clerics. By and large,
they function legally as independent nonprofit corporations rather than as organic parts
of the institutional structure of the Church.
The bishops new policy document is designed to implement the 1990 papal statement
Ex corde ecclesiae, which grew out of changes to the Code of Canon Law adopted in
1983. Both Vatican documents assume that institutions that call themselves Catholic must
function under the administrative control of the Churchs bishopsa situation
that prevails in most of the rest of world but which has never been the case in the United
If Ex corde is successfully implemented over the next few years, it would mark
the first major rollback of the institutional reforms and liberalizations undertaken by
American Catholics after the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s.
Catholic university administrators, organizations of Catholic theologians, and many
individual scholars have resisted the changes proposed under Ex corde. In fact, in
1996 the American bishops themselves attempted to win approval for an implementing
document that neither required theologians to seek a mandatum nor demanded that
presidents of institutions make an oath of fidelity to Catholic doctrine. But Vatican
officials rejected the document as a draft and insisted that university-level theology
instruction be placed under the "juridical" control of local bishops and
ultimately the Vatican. At the November meeting, the bishops complied with the
"They keep smoothing out the vocabulary to make it less offensive, but they kept
all the same regulations in," Monika Hellwig, executive director of the Association
of Catholic Colleges and Universities told Dennis Mahoney of the Columbus Dispatch
in October. Hellwig complained that the Vatican directive stemmed from members of the
Congregation for Catholic Education who she said have no respect for the achievements of
the American system of Catholic higher educationthe largest and most successful in
the world. "As far as they see it, you dont keep your Catholic character unless
there is hierarchy control. And no one can seem to get through to them that weve
kept our Catholic character very well with friendly, but unofficial relationships."
The theologians targeted by the new policy constitute a small but influential group of
scholars that has changed significantly over the past generation. Theologians teaching in
Catholic colleges and universities are now far less likely to be priests or members of
religious orders and far more of them have graduate degrees from non-Catholic
institutions. And they are often deeply concerned about how the insertion of hierarchical
authority could constrain their freedom to teach and conduct research.
"It really is redefining the relationship of Catholic universities and colleges to
the church, to say that theologians must request a mandate from the bishop, which, once
given, can be withdrawn," the Rev. Thomas Rausch, chair of the theological studies
department at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, told the New York Times.
"Many Catholic educators are worried that this will compromise the academic integrity
of the institutions and the freedom of inquiry of those teaching theology."
In general, academic theologians are anxious to distinguish their work from catechism,
campus ministry, or the sort of instruction that takes place in the theological
seminaries. "I like to think of our departments mission in terms of religious
literacy," Paul Lauritzen, chair of the religious studies department at John Carroll
University in Cleveland, told Karen Long of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "We
teach the Catholic tradition, the core doctrines, and we work to enrich our students
understanding. The other side of literacy is the introduction of students to the major
religious traditions of the world. And they are hungry for it."
Thats an approach, however, that leaves many conservative Catholics and Vatican
officials feeling acutely dissatisfied. "Whats at stake here is the truth about
what the church teaches," Philip Gray of Catholics United for the Faith told the Plain
Dealer. "Its not up to a theologian to determine what he believes Christ
taught. Its up to a theologian to be faithful to what the churchs teaching
authority says Christ taught. If he doesnt, then the faithful can be led into
Its this view that conjures up images of a crackdown by bishops, who theologians
often believe are academically unqualified to judge their work. What the theologians fear
most of all is that uniform standards will not be upheld and that the Churchs
effective policy about who needs, can get, or keep a mandatum will vary from
diocese to diocese.
"Most bishops and almost all theologians are not going to have a problem with each
other," Terrence Tilley, chair of the religious studies department at the University
of Dayton, told the Plain Dealer. "The issue comes with the worry that there
are bishops who are obsessive about this matter and theologians who are truly obnoxious.
And I can think of examples of both."
At the November meeting in Washington, many of the bishops themselves were anxious to
send reassuring signals. "I would say to the presidents of Catholic colleges and
universities: You have nothing to fear from the bishops, your pastors and friends,"
Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles said in a speech before the bishops vote.
"You have nothing to fear from the church, nothing to fear from the implementation of
Ex corde ecclesiae."
Speaking afterwards, Bishop John Leibrecht of Springfield, Missouri, chair of the
committee that drafted the implementation document, told reporters that the bishops
dont seek the role of disciplinarians of Catholic theologians. "The bishop is
not involved in the internal affairs of the institution," he was quoted in the New
York Times. "If a particular theologian does not have a mandatum,
its up to the university to decide what to do." He told reporters that the
committee had rejected a more restrictive draft of the document last year.
Archbishop Daniel Cronin of Hartford told the Hartford Courant that he
"would have no problem" giving mandates to those now teaching theology in his
dioceses two Catholic colleges.
Around the country it seems obvious that most bishops and presidents want to minimize
conflict. The Rev. Edward Malloy, president of Notre Damearguably the nations
powerhouse center of Catholic academic theologytold Mac Daniel of the Boston
Globe he fully supported the bishops vote. "At its core, this process is
about furthering the vital and distinctive mission of Catholic higher education, an aim
which all involved can share." The Rev. Leo ODonovan of Georgetown University
noted that "this vote is one step in a process of reflection and wide-ranging
dialogue. It is critical and helpful that the norms that were voted on were explicitly
supportive of academic freedom and institutional governing autonomy, which are essential
elements of a university."
It seems likely that the process of arranging for the implementation of Ex corde will
go more smoothly at small Catholic institutions that focus on undergraduate instruction
than at research universities with doctoral programs in theology and religious studies.
These are the centers of research and training that have embraced the American norms of
intellectual freedom and institutional autonomy most fully.
Some also think that a major unintended consequence of the vigorous implementation of Ex
corde may be the reduction in the number of Catholic theology classes offered to
students. Its unlikely that faculty unwilling or unable to secure a bishops mandatum
will be actually dismissed from an institutions faculty. So instead of serving in a
theology department, a scholar might move to teach in history, philosophy, or in
"religious studies" programs that do not explicitly base their instruction on
Catholic faith commitment. There is, indeed, already a substantial "Catholic
studies" movement in American higher education that takes Catholics and Catholicism
as its subject and proceeds according to the norms, methods, and values of the secular
academy and without reference to the norms of Catholic orthodoxy.
The bulk of journalistic coverage focused on the debate surrounding the November 17
bishops action, the complaints of theologians, and discussions about the next round
of approval required from the Vatican. Few reporters considered the important question of
how the intended recapture of Catholic higher education by the hierarchy will actually be
The Roman Curia appears to expect that this can be accomplished simply by bishops
asserting their authority. And in fact, the American bishops document on the
implementation of Ex corde ecclesiae asks the trustees of these colleges and
universities to change their institutional by-laws to give bishops the power they seek.
But the bishops do not appear to have the legal authority to impose the change.
"Under American law, the only way that either Ex corde or the American
ordinances can be applied in a legally binding way is for the universities themselves to
do it," Paul Sanders, a Catholic lawyer, argued in a 1997 Commonweal magazine
article, "The bishops cannot. If push comes to shove, nobody will budge."
Sanders noted that its unlikely that trusteesespecially at the major
universities that are the centers of Catholic theological education and researchwill
embrace changes that undermine academic freedom as it is practiced in the United States
and threaten to weaken their hard-won status as scholarly institutions of the first rank.
Patricia Rice of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, one of a handful of reporters to
address the implementation question, noted that a few Catholic colleges and universities
have governing structures that give religious authorities theological control, but most
New York Times religion columnist Peter Steinfels, a veteran commentator on the
Catholic scene, observed that while the bishops document contains the controls
demanded by the Vatican bureaucracy, the teeth are for the moment "still buried in
the newborns gums." He and others believe that as the documents guiding the
implementation of Ex corde come into force, theres likely to be considerable
litigation in both Church and civil courts for journalists to cover.
In the meantime, Catholic theologianswho are not always pleased by the
accommodating talk of university presidentsappear to be mulling a public boycott of
the mandate process. In early February, the Rev. Richard McBrien, a very prominent Notre
Dame theologian as well as a notable critic of John Paul IIs policies, announced
that he will refuse to seek a mandatum. McBrien told Richard Ostling of the
Associated Press that he expects "most of his colleagues will eventually make the
Michael Paulson then reported in the February 15 issue of the Boston Globe that
two Massachusetts-based theologians "say they plan to defy a church requirement that
they seek approval of their teaching from their local bishop." One of the
theologians, Donald Dietrich, is chair of Boston Colleges prestigious theology
department. This prompted a spokesman for the Rev. William Leahy, president of the
Jesuit-run university, to announce that B.C. will take no action against faculty members
who decline to seek a mandatum.
"Father Leahy met with the theology department and is leaving it up to them,"
John Dunn, Leahys spokesman, told the Globe. "The universitys
position is that its an individual Catholic theologians decision to seek a
mandate or not to seek a mandate."
How that approach flies with the hierarchy remains to be seen. But in the meantime,
its clear that the theologians are weighing whether to make organized efforts to
rock the boat.
Margaret Farley, president of the 1,500 member Catholic Theological Society of America
and a leading Catholic ethicist who teaches at Yale University, told the Globe that
shes "getting a lot of messages, most from individuals, but in some Catholic
universities whole departments are trying to decide what to do."
The day may come, in other words, when Catholic bishops, here or in Rome, stand up in
public to say that Notre Dame, or Georgetown, or Boston College are not Catholic