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Summer 1997 : Volume XII, No. 2

From the Heart
Vatican Ask for Redo of Bishops'
Document on Catholic University

By Susan Benofy
Born from the heart of the Church, a Catholic university is located in that course of tradition which may be traced back to the very origin of the university as an institution. It has always been recognized as an incomparable center of creativity and dissemination of knowledge of the good of humanity.

Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities, #1

Thus begins the Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities, known as Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church), published in 1990.

Ex Corde offers general norms for the governing of Catholic universities which "are based on and are a further development of, the Code of Canon Law" (Article 1 §1). But these must be "applied concretely at the local and regional level by episcopal conferences" (Article 1 §2). These "local" norms must be reviewed and approved by the Holy See before taking effect.

Background of Ex Corde
In 1991 the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) appointed an Ex Corde Ecclesiae Implementation Committee to devise the concrete application to Catholic colleges and universities in the US. The committee was chaired by Bishop John J. Leibrecht of Springfield-Cape Girardeau. Several consultants, most of whom were college presidents, were also appointed. The process involved many dialogues with university administrators, and several drafts. It was debated in November 1995 and both the June and November 1996 bishops' meetings. A draft was finally approved by the bishops in November 1996 and submitted to Rome for approval.

But the expected Vatican approval of the brief "application" document was not forthcoming. Like the proposed new Lectionary for Mass, the US "application" of Ex Corde Ecclesiae was weighed and found wanting.

On April 23, 1997, Cardinal Pio Laghi, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, sent a letter asking that the conference produce a new draft of this document.

An especially controversial provision of Ex Corde was the requirement to implement Canon 812 of the Code of Canon Law 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."

Such a requirement was viewed by the consultants and many academics as an infringement of "academic freedom" and interference with the autonomy of the university.

A 1993 attempt by the bishops to implement Canon 812 required that universities inform a candidate for a theology teaching position that a mandate from the bishop is required, and the bishop would invite the theologian to apply for it. This procedure was unacceptable to the university consultors to the Liebrecht committee.

Another Draft, More Problems
A re-draft of the document outlining the US norms was introduced at the June 1996 NCCB meeting. Bishop Leibrecht summarized the controversy over Canon 812, and said that the bishops were trying to implement it in a new way. Instead of requiring prior certification to teach theology from the bishop, this draft exhorted universities to hire faculty who are faithful to the Magisterium. It provided that in cases of problems after a professor has been hired (or even tenured) the bishop could intervene by means of a "dialogue" with the professor. It was specified that this dialogue would be guided by a 1989 NCCB document, Doctrinal Responsibilities: Approaches to Promoting Cooperation and Resolving Misunderstandings Between Bishops and Theologians.

The 1989 document was originally approved only for bishops who desired to use it; but its incorporation into the implementation of Ex Corde would make it a required procedure for all bishops who deal with dissenting theologians.

Developed in dialogue with the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) and Canon Law Society of America, Doctrinal Responsibilities was described by Monika Hellwig in 1988, at the end of her term as president of the CTSA:

The document is not concerned to define the respective teaching authorities of bishops and scholars. Nor is it concerned with issues currently under discussion about the theology of the church's magisterium. Rather, it proposes patterns of collaboration that can be implemented effectively no matter what doctrinal position one takes on these more theoretical matters. (Emphasis added. )

(Hellwig is currently head of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities).

Though the Liebrecht committee considered this an acceptable pastoral approach, not all bishops agreed. In particular, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia argued at the June 1996 NCCB meeting that this approach was "an evasion" of Canon 812. He pointed out that the purpose of these norms was to protect the orthodoxy of the teaching in Catholic colleges and universities:

But I think one of the things we have to remember is that with Canon 812 the major concern seems to be the worry for theologians, academic freedom and so on. One of the things that has always been left out is another dimension, and that's the rights of the faithful, meaning the students in the universities. The students have a right an essential right to have teaching that is in conformity with Catholic teaching: with Catholic faith and morals. And so I hope that that dimension is retained; that we consider that part, that common good. The students are of the universities, and that they ought to be protected.

Bishops Submit Revised Draft to Vatican
In November 1996 the Leibrecht committee presented a new draft to the NCCB, which contained an additional provision. A footnote proposed by Cardinal Bevilacqua was added which stated simply: "The mandate of Canon 812 will be the subject of further study by the NCCB".

The revised document passed by a vote of 224-6. However, the discussion made it clear that many bishops who supported the document did so without great enthusiasm. Some bishops who had originally objected to the absence of Canon 812, including Cardinal Bevilacqua himself, supported the new version only because of the added footnote. Some were uneasy because the arrangements for conducting the dialogue were not specified, and no time line was given for the "further study".

Cardinal Bernard Law called the document the best the bishops could produce at present, and a significant step forward. He and others, Cardinal John O'Connor and Archbishop Francis George, said they expect action on this matter.

The text of Cardinal Laghi's letter was not released, but the points seem to correspond to those which worried some bishops. The letter reportedly asked for greater attention to Canon 812, that the document Doctrinal Responsibilities be studied further, and that a Catholic university's mission statement be specified.

New Subcommittee Appointed
In response to Cardinal Laghi's letter Bishop Anthony M. Pilla, president of the NCCB, appointed a subcommittee to work with the original committee to study the canonical issues raised by the Vatican.

The subcommittee is headed by Cardinal Bevilacqua. Other members are Cardinal Adam J. Maida, Detroit; Bishop Thomas G. Doran, Rockford, IL; Bishop Raymond L. Burke, La Crosse, WI; and Monsignor John Alesandro, of Rockville Centre.

Many Catholics hope the subcommittee will focus on the right of Catholic university students to the truth of their faith, and on the mutual responsibility of bishops and theology professors to see that this truth is presented to students in its fullness.

To contact the subcommittee, address His Eminence, Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua, Archbishop of Philadelphia, 222 North 17th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103-1299. (Phone: 215 587-3800; fax: 215 587-3806.)

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