There has been encouraging news lately for those of us who are concerned with strengthening the Catholic identity of Catholic colleges and universities.
As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops reported Jan. 20, bishops and Catholic college and university presidents will undertake a 10-year review of the 2001 norms guiding the American application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II’s 1990 letter on Catholic education. The bishops plan to discuss the specifics of how best to promote Catholic mission and identity on college campuses.
Anyone who kept tabs on developments throughout the 1990s will recall the sometimes fierce battles involving implementation of Ex Corde in the United States, with some theologians resisting any suggestion that bishops would try to control how they taught.
It took nine years to come up with “The Application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae for the United States” and another two years to see it become “particular law” governing Catholic colleges in the U.S.
Much of the tussle was over the requirement that Catholic theologians teaching Catholic theology in Catholic institutions of higher learning have a mandatum from the bishop, showing that they are teaching in communion with the Church. Some happily applied for it, while others publicly declared that they would never do so. Some Catholic colleges reported that all their teachers have a mandatum, while other university leaders insisted that information on who has one and who does not is confidential information — that it was between the theologian and the bishop.
But it has become clear over the years that the Church in no way wants theologians to become simply catechists. She respects the free inquiry in which they are engaged.
Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., in a recent address to the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, said the mandatum is one of the aspects of Ex Corde that still needs to be more fully implemented. He said the inconsistency with which it is sought “could reflect some distrust or concern about undue interference or not seeing the importance of doing it.”
Bishop Kicanas stressed that involving the bishop with faculty members who teach Catholic theology is “critical to true communion in the Church.” He said there is room in academic communities for “disagreement, debate and clash of ideas, even in theology,” but, ultimately, the bishop “is the authentic teacher of the faith” and is responsible for how that faith is interpreted.
In the end, the issue boils down to the salvation of souls.
What are Catholic colleges and universities doing to help students on their way to salvation? What are they doing to help their future graduates bring the saving message of the Gospel to the world in which they will work?
It is this that should be kept in the background as the review proceeds.