Can US bishops enforce Papal teaching on Catholic universities?

Can US bishops enforce Papal teaching on Catholic universities?

Zenit News Service

The US Catholic bishops last June adopted guidelines for safeguarding the authenticity of doctrine taught at Catholic universities and colleges. But those guidelines may prove to be of little worth in determining an institution's orthodoxy, say bishops and theologians.

The guidelines centre on the mandatum, a licence to teach theology, which the bishops call "an acknowledgment by Church authority that a Catholic professor of a theological discipline is teaching within the full communion of the Catholic Church."

Cincinnati's Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk recently told the National Catholic Register, however, that the mandatum "is not, per se, a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval."

Professors have until 3 May 2002 to obtain a mandatum. Bishops who are considering denying or revoking it are expected to discuss the matter with the theologian in question, who, in turn, is free to offer "all appropriate responses," the guidelines said.

Theologians are generally agreed that the mandatum will not end dissent in the classrooms of America's Catholic universities and colleges unless bishops enforce its terms. And given that the US bishops' original plan for implementing Canon Law was rejected by Rome for being too soft, most believe strict enforcement unlikely.

"I don't think the mandatum is entirely helpful," said Monika Hellwig, a former Georgetown University theology professor, who now serves as the executive director of the Society of Catholic Colleges and Universities in Washington, DC. "The bishops have declared very clearly that it doesn't mean they will supervise what is being taught," Hellwig said. "It only means that the people concerned have said they will teach in communion with the Church."

Whatever the limitation of the mandatum, it seems to have appeal for universities and colleges that are known for their loyalty to the magisterium.

Glen Coughlin, the dean of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California, for instance, said he fully supports the requirement for Catholic theologians to pledge, in writing, that they will teach "authentic Catholic doctrine." Call this truth in advertising, Coughlin told the Los Angeles Times. Those described as Catholic theologians should accurately present Catholic teachings.

John Connolly is of another view. The lay professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles says the mandatum is an affront to academic freedom and would restrict his ability to serve Christ and his Church. "It is unnecessary, unjust, un-Christian and a bad law," he told the Times.

The split between Coughlin and Connolly underscores the divisions embroiling the Church and campuses over the loyalty issue.

The Vatican installed the mandatum as part of Canon Law in 1983, but the US bishops essentially ignored it until 1999, when Rome pushed the issue. In finalising procedural guidelines at their national conference in June 2001, the bishops did not adopt any penalties for failing to obtain a mandatum.

Some Catholic groups said they intend to push for consequences - including pressing bishops to publicise the names of those who lack mandatums and remove them from Catholic theology courses. A Los Angeles Archdiocese spokesman told the Times that Cardinal Roger Mahony was not planning to publicise a theologian's mandatum status, but was still developing plans on precisely how to proceed.

Other consequences could include barring non-compliant theologians from speaking at Catholic events, from training catechists or from representing the Church at ecumenical gatherings, Chris Erickson of Catholics United for the Faith told the Times that his group planned to alert bishops to any "problem" theologians. "These kinds of steps will start to pinch the theologians and separate the wheat from the chaff," said Erickson, whose Ohio-based group claims 95,000 members.

John Connolly, the Loyola Marymount professor, does not see it that way. His job is not to persuade students to accept Church doctrine, he said, but to expose them to a variety of views and help them think critically about them.

Then there is Jon Nilson, President-elect of the Catholic Theological Society of America. He recently wrote that the mandatum would spell the end of independent Catholic colleges by forcing them to reject Rome and become secular, or become wholly sectarian and possibly lose government funding.

Government funding

Legal analysts dismiss the fears about government funding, however. In August 2000, the 4th US District Court ruled that the State of Maryland could not exclude state funding from a Seventh-day Adventist institution, Columbia Union College, even though the state considered the school "pervasively sectarian." Notre Dame law professor Gerald Bradley noted at the time that the ruling confirmed that Catholic universities can assert their faith without risking loss of government funding.

Another fear among some theologians is that universities and colleges will eventually change their by-laws to incorporate the mandatum in hiring, firing, promotion and tenure decisions.

That would be fine with Thomas Dillon, President of Thomas Aquinas College, who said he would enact such steps if Rome requested them. "We don't fear Rome; we look to the Church as a guide," he told the LA Times.

Aquinas College, with 300 students, 90 per cent of them Catholic, was founded in 1971 specifically to shore up what founders saw as a diminishing Catholic identity on campuses.

Members of the Catholic Theological Society of America, in contrast, have clashed repeatedly with Rome. In 1997, the group issued a paper expressing "serious doubts" about Church teachings against women's ordination, and passed a resolution calling for continued debate on the topic. Elsewhere, others calling themselves Catholic theologians have argued in favor of abortion and same-sex marriage.

Such positions appal Catholics such as Erickson, who praised the Pope for addressing a "crisis of faith" and remarked that scholars who disagree are free to leave Catholic campuses and teach elsewhere.

Zenit News Service -

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