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Advent 2000, Volume XV, No. 4

Bishops and Theologians: Round Ten a Draw?

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

The mandatum, or "mandate", that bishops are to give to theologians who teach in Catholic colleges and universities in their dioceses and that the theologians are supposed to seek was one of the most important issues discussed at the November 2000 bishops' meeting. It was the latest episode in a 20-year-long "dialogue" on the relationship between bishops and theologians conducted by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops [NCCB].

The mandatum is intended to certify that anyone who teaches theology in a Catholic institution promises to teach in accordance with Catholic doctrine. It is required by Pope John Paul II's 1990 decree on higher education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae ("From the heart of the Church"), which established norms to assure orthodoxy in Catholic colleges and universities.

When it first appeared, Ex Corde was greeted by many Catholics in this country as a "Magna Carta" for Catholic higher education. Although it did provide a blueprint for the restoration of orthodoxy in Catholic teaching, after decades of damage from dissent in particular from theologians this papal decree instantly met with open rebellion by those whom it intended to correct, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, great reluctance on the part of bishops to confront or correct the problem.

Ten years ago, soon after Ex Corde was issued, an ad hoc committee of the bishops and university presidents headed by Bishop John Leibrecht of Springfield-Cape Girardeau (Missouri) was charged with producing an "Application" of Ex Corde for the United States. (Bishop Leibrecht was then chairman of the National Catholic Education Association. There is no Catholic college in his diocese.)

Six years later, the first results came. The 1996 American "Application" reduced the 49-page Ex Corde Ecclesiae to barely 100 lines, a reduction thta extracted not only its teeth but also, ironically, its heart.

This Application was a studied avoidance of Ex Corde. Its few paragraphs stressed "mutual trust between university and Church authorities, close and consistent cooperation and continuing dialogue" (original emphasis), and urged the "special contributions of campus ministry" and sensitivity to "other religious traditions, ecumenical and interreligious relationships". It was approved by the bishops in November 1996 by a vote of 224-6.

The Holy See found this version unacceptable, and sent the committee back to the drawing board.

A revised version of the Application, produced by the same committee and consulters, was approved by the bishops in November 1999 by a vote of 223-31. It received the approval of the Congregation for Bishops on May 3, 2000, whereupon NCCB president, Bishop Joseph Fiorenza, decreed that the application would have the force of particular law for the United States one year later.

But the section on the mandatum of the Application still needed work. It had said that the procedures for granting or requesting the mandatum "will be developed". So a new sub-committee was formed to develop them.

The Ad Hoc Committee on the Mandatum, headed by Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, outgoing chairman of Bishops' Committee on Doctrine, presented the guidelines "intended to explain and serve as a resource for the conferral of the mandatum" for what was called an "information discussion". (Father John Strynkowski, who staffed the Mandatum committee was named Executive Director of the Secretariat of the Bishops Committee on Doctrine shortly after the November meeting. Bishop Donald Trautman is the new Doctrine Committee chairman.)

No vote was taken on the proposed procedures at the November meeting. However, the discussion did bring to the fore some of the "neuralgic" points that have apparently rendered the bishops helpless to resolve the problems of dissent being taught to Catholic students in Catholic institutions.

A summary history of the project may be helpful in understanding why the bishops, who readily approved documents on the US Criminal Justice System and on welcoming immigrants into the Church in the US at the November 2000 meeting have made such negligible progress in resolving such a grave internal Church problem as the authentic transmission of the Catholic faith at Catholic institutions of higher learning. Matters closest to the heart of the Church seem, paradoxically to cause far greater conflict and indecision among the bishops than issues that are relatively removed.

The bishops' discussion of Ex Corde also shows that the power of dialogue is limited. Dialogue is useful in clarifying issues and clearing up misunderstandings. But when the dialogue has effectively revealed that the parties hold diametrically opposed views in this case, about the authority of the Church to be what she says she is and to make demands of her members further dialogue cannot achieve results.

At least part of the problem in the Ex Corde imbroglio is that the discussion has been dominated by those who dissent or who at least seem to believe more fervently that dissent is a "right" to be protected than that Catholic students are entitled to an authentic presentation of Catholic doctrine.

The Ex Corde implementation committee includes seven prelates and eight consultants, university presidents such as Fathers Edward Malloy, CSC, of Notre Dame; J. Donald Monan, S.J., formerly of Boston College; and William Byron, SJ, formerly of Catholic University of America.

"Resource persons" include Monsignor Frederick McManus, longtime head of Catholic University's canon law department and a major influence in the liturgical "reform"; Sister Alice Gallin, OSU, who as executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities [ACCU] was an outspoken critic of Ex Corde Ecclesiae; and the current head of the ACCU, Monika Hellwig of Georgetown, a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, who has for years been associated with circles of dissenting theologians.

Although many Catholic faculty, and even several colleges, welcomed Ex Corde, it was treated by most heads of Catholic universities, and many influential theologians, with the kind of rebellious outrage common on campuses in the l960s. The pope was guilty of "outside interference", critics of the document claimed, for insisting that every Catholic university must be characterized by fidelity to the Christian message, including "a recognition of and adherence to the teaching authority of the Church in matters of faith and morals".

"Catholic members of the university", Ex Corde said, "are called to a personal fidelity to the Church with all that implies. Non-Catholic members are required to respect the Catholic character...." It further stated that "Freedom in research and teaching is recognized and respected according to the principles and methods of each individual discipline, so long as the rights of the individual and of the community are preserved within the confines of the truth and the common good".

Explanation for the negative reaction to the document can be traced in the history of the twenty-year-long "dialogue" among theologians and canon lawyers, eventually involving bishops, concerning the "doctrinal complementarily" of bishops and theologians, and the rights of theologians who dissent from Church teachings.

In 1980 a Committee on Cooperation Between Theologians and the Ecclesiastical Magisterium was established, under the leadership of Father Leo O'Donovan, SJ, president of Georgetown.

In 1983 this committee presented "Doctrinal Responsibilities" to the bishops' Doctrine Committee, then chaired by Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco. (Archbishop Quinn, who retired in 1995, delivered a highly publicized lecture in 1996 questioning the exercise of papal primacy, which eventually became a book. He was president of the NCCB 1977-80.)

The 1983 document, in turn, led to another on the relationship between bishops and theologians, presented to the bishops in 1987. Eventually, the effort, "Doctrinal Responsibilities: Approaches to promoting Cooperation and Resolving Misunderstandings Between Bishops and Theologians", was approved and published by the bishops' conference in June 1989, the year before Pope John Paul II issued Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

The discussion this year again revealed that there is serious polarization within the conference over the fundamental issues involved. [A verbatim transcript can be read here.] What emerged in November 2000, as it did in 1980, is that there is no consensus among the bishops themselves concerning the conflicting demands of their responsibility for assuring that Catholic institutions of higher learning are, in fact, transmitting authentic Catholic teachings and their strong desire to avoid interfering with unfettered "academic freedom" that has been enjoyed by theologians, and upon which they insist.

Those who are not and have never been part of the discussion are the consumers of Catholic higher education: Catholic students and the Catholic parents who pay the tuition. Both are being short-changed. Would there be any change if the in-baskets on bishops' and administrators' desks were filled with insistent letters demanding "truth in advertising" from Catholic colleges and universities? What if Catholic parents and Catholic alumni refused financial support to institutions that do not teach with the Church?

Also excluded from the conversation are orthodox Catholic faculty members, who have too often received negligible support from bishops, and whose orthodoxy seems a positive embarrassment to university administrators. No representatives of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, an organization expressly committed to uphold Catholic teachings in all academic disciplines, were invited to participate in any of the bishops deliberations. Why not?

The "dialogue" between bishops and theologians is now entering its third decade and any effective resolution seems just as elusive as it did twenty years ago.

Helen Hull Hitchcock is director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of Voices and Adoremus Bulletin.

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