US professor defends papal teaching on universities

US professor defends papal teaching on universities

Charles E. Rice

Australian Catholics continue to await a response from Australian Catholic University to John Paul II's 1990 Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities - 'Ex Corde Ecclesiae'. More recently, the 'Statement of Conclusions' has reinforced this document's call for theological orthodoxy.

Professor Charles Rice, who is a member of the Law School faculty of the University of Notre Dame, writes in defence of the papal document and the US bishops' implementation of it, against the concerns of many of his colleagues regarding their "academic freedom." His sentiments have particular relevance to the Australian situation.

Following the US bishops' approval of an Application document to implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Notre Dame and other US Catholic universities have expressed reservations about threats to their "institutional autonomy." The universities claimed that autonomy in their 1967 Land O' Lakes statement: "To perform its teaching and research functions effectively the Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself."

The autonomy issue is raised by the requirement of Canon Law, that "Catholics who teach the theological disciplines in a Catholic university are required to have a mandatum granted by ecclesiastical authority. The mandatum is an acknowledgment that a Catholic professor of a theological discipline teaches within the full communion of the Catholic Church. It is not an appointment or approbation of one's teaching by Church authorities. The mandatum recognises the professor's commitment to teach authentic Catholic doctrine and to refrain from putting forth as Catholic teaching anything contrary to the Church's magisterium." It is the responsibility of the professor, not the university, to seek the mandatum.

In America, in January 1999, Notre Dame's president, Father Edward A. Malloy CSC, and Father J. Donald Monan SJ, former President of Boston College, objected that the mandatum would be granted by an authority "external to the university" and said "Catholic universities will take no steps to implement it because of its obvious threat to academic freedom."

In the Spring 1999 Journal of University and College Law, however, Father James T. Burtchaell CSC wrote, "The presidents of the Catholic universities have evidently not realised the absurdity of their repeated claim that no outside authority could hold their institutions answerable."

Fr Burtchaell listed 55 "external authorities or agencies" to which a typical Catholic university "is answerable for her various standards," including Federal departments, agencies and various accrediting bodies. Nor is it accurate, as Father Richard Warner CSC said in the current Notre Dame Magazine, that "none of these agencies demand or require that individuals hired by institutions be subject to their prior approval." Try hiring an illegal alien for the faculty; and you could also have an uncomfortable accreditation review if you hired a disbarred attorney for the law faculty.

Political correctness

The universities accept mandates from secular authorities but they reject a limited oversight by the Church. Of course, to accept the right of the Church to define what it means to be Catholic would conflict with the political correctness which, perhaps second only to the cult of the money god, is the dominant religion of the American Academy.

What would they think of us at Princeton and Harvard if we let the Pope tell us what it means to be a "Catholic" university? The movers and shakers in the "Catholic" universities resist the definition of that term by the Pope, who has the ultimate legal and moral authority to define it. Instead, they define it according to their own private judgment, as Protestants would.

The universities emphasise Ex Corde's impact on faculty and administration. But students also have a stake in a prompt implementation of Ex Corde. "Catholic students," said the US Bishops' Application document, "have a right to receive from a university instruction in authentic Catholic doctrine and practice. Courses in Catholic doctrine and practice should be made available to all students."

A similar point was made by the Notre Dame Student Union Board in its report to the Trustees in October 1999. The Board noted that pre-college "theological education has degenerated to making collages rather than concentrating upon the basic elements of the faith. There is little understanding of the faith in successive classes' students. We recommend as a first course a modified form of catechesis, a serious study of Catholic dogma and doctrine, so that students can gain the perspective that they have so far not had available.

"Students at Notre Dame want and need an introductory course that shows them what we believe and why, because no one has taken the time so far to give most of the students this foundation so essential to pursuing fruitful Catholic theology in the future."

This important interest of the students, recognised by both the Application and the Student Union, is obscured by our leaders' focus on protecting their own turf by rejecting even the modest and co-operative effort of the Application to recall the universities to a "Catholic" identity. Our leaders mean well. But they seem more concerned about the sensitivities of complaining faculty - who want to teach their own brand of Catholicism as if it were the real thing - than they are about the rights of tuition-paying students who are entitled to truth in labelling.

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