Smart-alecks used to joke that “Catholic university” was an oxymoron—a
contradiction in terms, like jumbo shrimp and postal service. How
can an educational institution that offers “the universe” of knowledge—the
full panoply of academic disciplines and approaches—also be “Catholic”—beholden
to Roman Catholicism, the pope and magisterium?
This month at their meeting in Washington, D.C., the U.S. bishops
will again grapple with this question. It’s bound to be a telling
debate. Nine years ago Pope John Paul II issued an apostolic constitution
on Catholic universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart
of the Church). That document was the result of 20 years of consultation
worldwide with university presidents, professors and associations,
and an attempt to apply the 1983 Code of Canon Law to Catholic higher
Ex Corde Ecclesiae was initially praised for its vigorous
defense of academic freedom and the pursuit of truth. It said Catholic
schools are to provide a Catholic presence in the world, to engage
the local culture and to foster the dialogue between science and religion.
But Ex Corde Ecclesiae also intended to clarify the relationship
between the Church and institutions of higher education. It requires
bishops’ conferences to establish norms for implementing this document
in their countries.
The attempt in 1995 by the U.S. bishops “to place Ex Corde Ecclesiae
within the context of our nation” was rejected by the Holy See in
1997 as too vague. The committee, headed by Bishop John J. Leibrecht
of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Missouri, had deliberately chosen a
non-juridical application intended to preserve the values inherent
in Ex Corde Ecclesiae without making new law.
The primary sticking point is the application of Canon #812, which
states that “it is necessary that those who teach theological disciplines
in any institute of higher studies have a mandate from the competent
A subcommittee of canonists, led by Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of
Philadelphia, addressed the Holy See’s concerns. Now the full bishops’
conference has a new text to debate.
Currently, 238 American colleges and universities call themselves
Catholic. With 698,855 students, this is the largest such system in
the world, and was achieved in the face of Church/state separation.
Most colleges were started by religious orders of men and women but
may now have autonomous boards.
The institutions range from small liberal-arts colleges set in idyllic
rural settings to large urban commuter schools. Each has its own identity
The pressures on Catholic colleges today are intense and varied—financial,
legal and cultural. To give an example, the 129-year-old Loyola University
Chicago, under severe financial pressure since detaching its medical
center, is struggling to cut $20 million from its budget and had to
raise tuition to $18,310 a year this fall, reported The Chicago
Tribune (September 19, 1999).
Any norms that would put Catholic colleges at risk for losing government
funds or inviting lawsuits on grounds of religious discrimination
would only add to the stresses these schools already face.
Catholic schools are not wishy-washy in their religious identity.
They do not want to have to detach theology departments into separate
divinity schools as Protestant-founded institutions like Harvard and
Vanderbilt did, for the sake of academic credibility and denominational
Remains a Problem
The new text to be voted on by the bishops now specifies that the
purpose of a Catholic university is not “religious indoctrination
or proselytization,” which could have jeopardized public aid; recommends
the majority of the trustees and faculty should be Catholics “committed
to the Church,” rather than using the ambiguous term “faithful Catholics,”
and adds a qualifier, “as much as possible”; clarifies that administrators
are left free to hire and fire faculty and that bishops do not enter
into the college’s hiring decisions, even for theology faculty.
These changes improve the document, but the problem of the mandate
(approval by a bishop) required for Catholic theology teachers remains.
According to Dr. Terrence Tilley, chairman of the religious studies
department at the University of Dayton, refined guidelines about the
mandate are still problematic enough to send the wrong message, namely,
that one’s academic freedom is restricted. That could discourage top-caliber
Catholic students from studying at Roman Catholic institutions.
Marianist Brother Raymond L. Fitz, president of the same university
and a consultant for the bishops’ committee on Ex Corde Ecclesiae,
concurs. While “bishops have the right to be vigilant over Catholic
universities and comment on that,” he says, “I just don’t think the
mandate is the right way to do that.”
In fact, no regional or national norms from anywhere in the world
have yet been approved by the Holy See. The United States need not
be the first.
Because these guidelines could irredeemably alter the character and
mission of U.S. Catholic higher education, why not take a little longer
to achieve real consensus?—B.B.