WASHINGTON—As U.S. bishops work to set guidelines governing theology and doctrine at Church-related schools, a group of Catholic educators is trying to launch a foundation that will fund academic research “but not be jurisdictionally related” to the American hierarchy.

The new institution is seeking to establish a $50 million endowment that offers grants for research and scholarships that fit its understanding of the Catholic intellectual tradition.

The formation of the Catholic Institute for Advanced Studies was reported March 5 by ZENIT, a Rome-based news agency. The group has since changed its name to the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies.

According to its own fact sheet, the new institute “will enjoy the support and encouragement of the American hierarchy, but not be jurisdictionally related to them.… Neither will the [institute] be affiliated with or controlled by any single Catholic college or university, precisely to be of service to all of them.”

The institute's leader, Marianist Father James L. Heft, said that he had not planned to go public with news of the institute until fund-raising efforts were more advanced. An anonymous foundation has promised substantial matching funds in this effort, according to an institute fact sheet.

Heft is chancellor of the University of Dayton and chairman of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. He has gathered a newly formed Commission on Catholic Scholarship made up of 26 priests, religious and lay people who are getting the institute off the ground.

The group includes Jesuit Father William Byron, former president of The Catholic University of America; Sister Doris Gottemoeller, president of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas and a past president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious; Father J. Bryan Hehir, of the Divinity School of Harvard University; Monika Hellwig, executive director of Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities; and Margaret Steinfels, editor of Commonweal magazine.

The institute is being formed as the Church enters a crucial point in a debate over bishops' authority regarding the doctrinal content of theology courses in their dioceses. At a Nov. 22 meeting, the bishops plan to hammer out the ways Pope John Paul's apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae will be implemented in America.

The 1990 document describes the life of the university as coming, in the words of its title, “from the heart of the Church,” and outlines the need for a distinct Catholic culture on campus and a close relationship between schools and Church authorities. This relationship must not, however, compromise the legitimate autonomy and educational mission of the university but rather should enhance it, the document states.

Bishops concerned about the lack of Catholic identity of many American universities have tended to stress the need for a closer relationship. University heads worried about the loss of institutional authority and academic freedom have tended to focus on the document's statements that support these qualities.

Institute Criticized

Dominican Father Matthew Lamb, professor of theology at Boston College, told the ZENIT news agency, “Given the views of some of the scholars on the Commission [on Catholic Scholarship], I'm afraid the projected institute might just give some dissenters another platform to oppose the Church's papal and episcopal magisterium.”

Father Heft called such criticism “very unfair.” He said the institute's goals and makeup were being judged prematurely, adding that Father Lamb's remarks were designed to “draw us into a public debate before we ever wanted to go there.”

Father Heft further asserted that the new institute will help universities implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

Yet, in February, at the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities' annual meeting, the board that Father Heft heads voted to reject any further attempts by the bishops to oversee universities and their faculties. This action was in response to a proposal issued last year by the bishops seeking to implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae's call for teachers of Catholic theology to apply for a mandate from the local bishop and for the heads of some universities to take an oath of fidelity.

Rather than offer amendments to this proposal, the college association's board suggested that the bishops continue to work with an implementation document that had been already been rejected by the Vatican as lacking teeth.

The association's membership, representing 211 institutions of higher education, overrode the vote of the board after hearing an address of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago.

While praising the assembled university presidents and theologians for their service to the Church, Cardinal George told them that the bishops will seek in November to codify through canon law the relationship between universities and the hierarchy. Instead of resisting oversight, he said, university presidents would do better to help the bishops to develop a workable plan.

“At [University of] Chicago, I'm a curiosity,” the cardinal quipped, in reference to the speech. “At a Catholic university, I'm a threat.”

The morning after the speech, members of college association formed a committee to develop recommendations and submit them before May to Bishop Joseph Leibrecht, chairman of the bishops' implementation committee.

Rome Has Spoken But …

Before the announcement of the institute, Catholic education expert Kenneth D. Whitehead said that Father Heft and certain members of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities were engaged in a stealth mission to win the confidence of the bishops while conceding nothing of substance.

“I think he's trying to give the appearance of complying with Ex Corde Ecclesiae in a number of areas where he originally has not been willing to comply,” he told the Register. “He is doing this in order to reassert that the theologian has overview over magisterial teaching, and this is not in keeping with Ex Corde Ecclesiae. They want to say, ‘Rome has spoken but we still have freedom to look at what is spoken and judge it on our own terms.’”

Whitehead was especially critical of Father Heft's speech on the Dayton campus in January, which expressed openness in some respects to a stronger Catholic identity on campuses. Father Heft spoke of the right of a university to define itself as Catholic taking precedence over the academic freedom of a professor, and described the model for a Catholic university as “an open circle” which gives primacy to Catholic tradition but allows a balance of other views.

He left open the role of theologians, however, stating that they must be free to question and reformulate even magisterial teachings for the good of the Church.

Father Heft told the Register that the different levels of Church teaching come in language that is more or less adequate.

“It is perfectly legitimate to question even an infallible teaching, not in regards to its truth, but in regards to the manner in which it is expressed,” he said. “You have to find how to articulate it for your time and culture.”

Brian Caulfield writes from New York.