The scandals that dominated headlines last year painted an unwelcome picture of the Church: Lay Catholics' requests for action and information were being stonewalled. In 2003, parents of college-age children say they're seeing the same thing happening again.

Call it the mandatum cover-up.

Confronted with the 2002 sex-abuse scandal, Pope John Paul II connected the dots between the abuse crisis and the crisis on college campuses. In a special meeting with U.S. cardinals, he said Catholics have a right to know if authentic Catholic doctrine is being upheld.

“People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young,” the Pope said. “They must know that bishops and priests are totally committed to the fullness of Catholic truth on matters of sexual morality, a truth as essential to the renewal of the priesthood and the episcopate as it is to the renewal of marriage and family life.”

A recent Higher Education Research Institute study conducted by the University of California-Los Angeles showed that Catholic students' moral views were weaker, rather than stronger, after four years on a Catholic college campus. At 38 of the Catholic colleges surveyed, 37.9% of Catholic freshmen said in 1997 that abortion should be legal. Four years later, as seniors, 51.7% supported legalized abortion.

During the next several months the Register will publish its ongoing investigation of Catholic colleges and universities featured in U.S. News and World Report's college guide and ask the question: Are parents allowed to know whether those who teach theology even intend to teach in communion with the Church?

Or has the opposite happened — is the mandatum being used to protect dissenters?

The Mandatum

Catholic parents Joe and Kathleen Braun of Morris, Minn., live only a mile away from a public, liberal arts university, but they aren't choosing to send their children there.

“You won't find any faith or morals there,” Kathleen said. “Our faith and our sanctity are far more important than simply receiving training. Schooling is about learning our vocation.”

Neither are they sending their two college-age children to the nearest Catholic university. They say they are very concerned about whether their children's professors are teaching in union with the Church.

At the majority of the country's 235 Catholic institutions of higher education the mandatum, an assurance that Catholic theologians are teaching in accordance with the Church, is being treated as a private matter between each individual theology professor and his or her local bishop, making it virtually impossible for students or their parents to know which professors have received the mandatum.

This potentially serves to only hide dissenters in a seemingly Church-sanctioned way, not renew Catholic education.

When inquiries are made, whether to the college president, the theology department chair or the bishop, there has been unwillingness to share information. Since the Register began its investigation seven months ago, phone calls to at least six bishops, five theology department chairs and four university presidents seeking comment on the mandatum issue have not been returned.

The mandatum, which is required of all teachers of theology at Catholic colleges and universities, states: “I hereby declare my role and responsibility as a teacher of a theological discipline within the full communion of the Church. As a teacher of a theological discipline, therefore, I am committed to teach authentic Catholic doctrine and to refrain from putting forth as Catholic teaching anything contrary to the Church's magisterium.”

The case at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., demonstrates how the mandatum has been handled by many of the country's Catholic colleges and universities.

Confronted with the question of how a parent or student might discern whether a theology professor has received the mandatum, Terry McNichols, chair of the theology department, suggested that the individual contact either the theology department chair or the local bishop.

“Yet, I don't know whether the bishop would share that information,” McNichols said. “Even I do not know who has applied for the mandatum. I know that there are some who have not, only because they have told me.”

A spokeswoman for St. Paul-Minneapolis Archbishop Harry Flynn said the archbishop wasn't available to speak on the issue because of his national work regarding the sexual-abuse crisis.

In the end, McNichols concluded, “They would have to contact the individual theology department members, and I don't know how many of them would share that information.”

If a dissenter were on staff, rejecting the mandatum, the public would have no way of finding out.

While the situation at the University of St. Thomas appears typical of larger Catholic institutions, that is not always the case.

Omaha, Neb., Archbishop Elden Curtiss told the Register that all 35 theology faculty at both Creighton University and the College of St. Mary in Omaha received the mandatum.

“I told the faculty that if they did not sign it, I would make that public,” he said. “Thanks to the role of former theology chair Father Richard Hauser I didn't have a fight with the faculty.”

Archbishop Curtiss noted that even the non-Catholic theologians, who are not required to apply for the mandatum, expressed their respect for the teachings of the Church.

“The Holy Father's intention was that the bishop would dialogue with the faculty and that they would show that they were in union with the Church and the teaching magisterium,” Archbishop Curtiss said. In other words, it was meant to work against dissent, not shield dissenters from view, he said.

He said he is concerned that the silence from many of the bishops indicates “there is a lot of avoidance going on.”

Many smaller Catholic institutions also seem ready and willing to share the information.

For instance, the Brauns from Minnesota sent their oldest daughter, Carissa, to Our Lady of Corpus Christi College in Texas. “They knew what Ex Corde Ecclesiae [John Paul's 1990 apostolic constitution, From the Heart of the Church] meant and they implemented it. It's displayed on a wall when you walk into the college,” Kathleen Braun said. “That's one of the reasons we selected that school.” They have been extremely pleased with the formation their daughter has received at the college, she said.

Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, also treats the mandatum seriously. “All members of the theology department have applied and received affirmation,” said Dr. Alan Shreck, chair of the department of theology there. “The mandatum is an important thing for us. It's our pledge of fidelity to the Church.”

Shreck described Franciscan University's approach to the mandatum as merely a natural progression of something the school has been doing since the 1980s, when its theology faculty and campus ministers first began taking an oath of fidelity and making a pledge.

“This is what we believe. We want to make a public statement that we are in union with the Church,” Shreck said.

Theology professors such as University of St. Thomas' McNichols say the double role theology plays makes the issue more complex.

“Theology isn't catechesis,” he said. “Otherwise, we couldn't defend ourselves as an academic discipline. We have to balance between fidelity and fostering independent thinking.”

Many students at Catholic institutions don't accept that answer, however.

“I don't know why a Catholic professor would not want to say that he or she was in full communion with the Church,” said Kevin Cary, a sophomore at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash. “If they don't agree with the Church's teachings, why are they teaching Catholic theology?”

Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.