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Voices Online Edition
Winter 2000
- Volume XV No. 1

National Conference of Catholic Bishops
November 1999 Report
Education at all levels on the bishops' agenda'

Domus Dei draft on church architecture - Ex Corde Ecclesiae implementation - Catechism Committee

by Helen Hull Hitchcock and Susan Benofy

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops had an unusually packed agenda at their last plenary meeting of the millennium, held in Washington, DC, November 15-18, 1999.

A highly publicized item was their discussion of the long- delayed implementation of the 1990 Vatican document Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church) on "truth in advertising" in Catholic institutions of higher learning.

The bishops continued discussion of plans for restructuring the Conference, which will combine the NCCB with its social policy wing, the United States Catholic Conference, into one body, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. They voted on several documents - including a statement on seminary formation, and two promoting the Jubilee. There was a lively discussion on proposed "complementary norms" for five canon laws. Two of these proposals of the Committee on Canonical Affairs were sent back for more work: one on "lay preaching" [C 766], and one that would have required a local bishop's approval of all "clerics and members of religious institutes" who present Catholic doctrine or morals on radio or television [C 722.2].

Liturgy: Where to place the tabernacle?
On the liturgical front, bishops revised guidelines for concelebration, added Blessed Damien of Molokai to the liturgical calendar, approved a Spanish-language version of some blessings, and revised the Introduction to The Book of Gospels.

The last day of the conference saw a dramatic and highly significant discussion of a draft of a proposed new document on church architecture, called Domus Dei [House of God]. Nearly all bishops who addressed the issue expressed strong views that the tabernacle should be placed prominently and centrally within churches. No vote will take place until later this year.

This was the first time ever that the whole body of bishops has considered the matter of church architecture. Because the issue of tabernacle placement involves fundamental Catholic teaching on the nature and meaning of the Eucharist, as well as the purpose of church buildings, this discussion was one of the most important at the November meeting. It seemed to signal a turning-point in the conflicted matter of church renovation - revealing a new resolve on the part of many bishops to exercise more directly their responsibility for the Church's worship within their dioceses.

(A complete transcript of the bishops' interventions on liturgy was made by Susan Benofy and Helen Hitchcock, and published in Adoremus Bulletin, Dec 1999-Jan 2000, and is available on the Adoremus web site:

Ex Corde Ecclesiae - a second try
Catholic education on the college and university level was a major focus at the November meeting. There has been a concern among Catholics for many years about the theology taught in Catholic universities, especially since the widespread public dissent from Humanae Vitae, often led by theology professors.

On August 15, 1990 the Holy See addressed the problem of the Catholic identity and mission of Catholic universities in the apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae [ECE]. The document set out a series of General Norms (rules broad enough to apply to all Catholic universities in the world), leaving to individual bishops' conferences the task of devising particular norms (more specific and concrete regulations) applicable to the particular institutions in their own country. ECE says its general norms "are based on, and are a further development of, the code of Canon Law..." , in particular of canons 807-814, Catholic Education,- Ch. II, Catholic Universities and Other Institutes of Higher Studies.

Many Catholic academics expressed strong opposition to ECE on various grounds: that it violated academic freedom, that it would endanger federal funding, etc. The NCCB appointed an ECE Implementation Committee chaired by Bishop John J. Leibrecht of Springfield-Cape Girardeau in 1991. Advisors to the committee included several college presidents, and many dialogues were held with administrators and other academics. The most contentious question was the enforcement of Canon 812, which states:

It is necessary that those who teach theological disciplines in any institute of higher studies have a mandate from the competent ecclesiastical authority. [812]

Throughout the several years of debate on the US bishops' implementation of ECE, proposals for requiring a mandate were rejected by the academic advisors to the committee. In June 1996 the bishops saw a draft which eliminated the key requirement that a theologian obtain a mandate (a bishops' approval) to teach at a Catholic university. Instead, it merely exhorted universities to hire theologians who are faithful to the Magisterium, and said that any problems arising after a theologian had been hired should be dealt with by a process of dialogue.

Proposed ECE "implementation" required re-do
Although this outcome appeased the academic advisors, many bishops saw problems with this approach. Philadelphia Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, in particular, argued that the ECE implementation proposed for vote in November 1996 evaded the requirements of Canon 812. He proposed a footnote saying that Canon 812 would be the subject of further study. With this addition, a majority of bishops approved the ECE implementation and submitted it to the Holy See for approval.

In April 1997 this version was rejected by the Vatican Congregation for Education, and the bishops were asked to prepare a new document which would implement Canon 812. Cardinal Bevilacqua was appointed head of a subcommittee charged with this task, and a new document was proposed for a vote at the November 1999 meeting.

The new implementation document specifies that:

Questions remain
There are provisions that this implementation document will take effect one year after it is approved by the Holy See, and that it will be reviewed after ten years.

Questions concerning the details of the required mandatum remain. The "mandate" to teach theology is to be granted by the bishop of the diocese in which the college is located, but if a professor moves to another college in a different diocese the mandatum will be "portable". The professor need not seek a new mandatum from the local bishop, but the bishop can withdraw the mandatum.

Further details of the procedure for requesting, granting or withdrawing a mandatum are not given in the document. An amendment added just before the vote requires that such procedures be developed and approved by the conference. Whether these procedures will need approval from Rome is not clear.

Some objected to the revised document. Archbishop Rembert Weakland advised delaying approval because he believed approving the document now would "cause a pastoral disaster for the Church in the USA." Some academics repeated their fears about "outside interference".

Bishop Robert Carlson of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, said:
"A multitude of secular institutions and agecies already regulate our Catholic colleges and universities in every aspect of their functioning. It should be no great burden for them [universities] to be regenerated by the religious genius which inspired their establishment in the first place".

Most bishops apparently agreed. The latest document for implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae in the United States passed by a vote of 223 to 31 (with one abstention.). It requires the approval of the Holy See.

Catechism Committee's continuing efforts
Since the discussions of Ex Corde Ecclesiae and Domus Dei involved two of the most conflicted issues in the Church today- Catholic education and the liturgy - they drew the most media attention, leaving other important matters on the agenda for this meeting under-reported. One of these subjects of intense interest to nearly all Catholic families was catechetics.

The bishops are also continuing work on improving catechetical instruction at elementary and secondary levels, and this work was outlined in the report of Archbishop Daniel Buechlein of Indianapolis, chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee to Oversee Use of the Catechism.

Archbishop Buechlein announced, in his oral report to the bishops, that the NCCB plans to publish a second edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church by Spring 2000. This new edition will incorporate the modifications in the English text needed to conform to the Latin editio typica. (The English version published in 1994 was translated from the original 1992 French version; the Latin editio typica was issued in 1997.) The new edition of the Catechism would also include a translation of the index of the Latin edition and a glossary of terms.

Catechetical texts for schools reviewed
Archbishop Buechlein then reviewed some questions that had been dealt with recently in the course of the committee's ongoing review of catechetical texts for elementary schools.

In November 1998 the committee notified publishers that certain usages in conformity with the Catechism will have to be observed in order to obtain approval of materials, viz.:

Problems with "approved" texts?
Archbishop Buechlein noted that the committee sometimes receives inquiries or complaints about materials which have already been declared to be in conformity with the Catechism. It is the committee's practice to investigate any specific and legitimate concerns about texts they have approved.

He pointed out that some complaints arise because people mistakenly think that a series has been approved. He emphasized that not all versions or editions of a given series may have been approved, and stressed that it is necessary to check the copyright dates and the edition, not just the titles. Some publishers also have different editions (e.g., a "school" edition and a "parish" edition) of texts with the same name, he said.

National catechism for adults eyed
The committee is also studying the possibility of a national catechism for adults. A task force has considered the question and decided that such a catechism is feasible, but it has yet to be decided whether it is advisable. The committee will survey the bishops and report in the fall of 2000 on the results. Documents on catechesis for adolescents and for those in elementary school are being prepared and should be ready by spring 2000.

Revision of "sex-ed" guidelines proposed
The Catechism committee has had several requests to review materials for education in human sexuality, and has reviewed some which concentrated on chastity education. However, some of these contain a substantial amount of physiology, sociology, and psychology, which go beyond the committee's specific mandate to review doctrinal content.

The committee has emphasized that it is limited, in its review and approval of books, to the way the Catechism is quoted or used, and that their approval does not extend to the methodology or the way in which a text presents the material.

Such questions as the appropriate age for introduction of certain topics are also beyond the Catechism committee's present mandate. But these questions and problems must be addressed, the committee believes. Thus the committee made two recommendations.

First, they recommend a revision of the NCCB's 1990 document "Human Sexuality: A Catholic Perspective for Education and Lifelong Learning". WFF published a critique of that document at the time (see Voices, Fall 1990 - "Sex Education: The Parents' Perspective" by Margaret Whitehead). During the debate and vote on the document, several bishops also expressed serious reservations about it. But it was approved by a majority vote. Thousands of Catholic parents have been deeply concerned about serious defects in "sex-education" materials used in Catholic schools - a legitimate concern which has even led some to adopt an extreme (and unsupportable) position that the Church has no business in morality education in schools. Revision of the 1990 document is long overdue, and Catholic parents may hope that the result will provide clear teaching as well as firm corrective measures.

New Committee for Catechetics
Second, the committee proposed that a permanent standing committee of bishops be set up on to deal with these broader catechetical concerns.

If a new standing committee is created, this would represent a very significant change in procedure. Until now these matters have been exclusively controlled by the catechetics subcommittee of the USCC Department of Education, influenced for many years by the "progressive" views of educational experts on that committee.

These suggestions of the Catechism committee seem to reflect growing concern on the part of American bishops about the nature and influence of documents issued by the NCCB in the name of all bishops. It also seems likely that the planned restructuring of the Conference, which will eliminate the USCC, will affect this as well as other conference committees.
Other members of the Committee to Oversee Use of the Catechism are Cardinal Francis George (Chicago), Archbishop William Levada (San Francisco), Bishops Robert Banks (Green Bay), Alfred C. Hughes (Baton Rouge), and Donald Wuerl (Pittsburgh).

Archbishop Daniel Buechlein's address is 1400 North Meridian Street, Indianapolis, Indiana 46206.

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