CHICAGO-The tide may be turning in the debate about the Catholic identity of universities.

In May, the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities sent its proposal to the U.S. bishops for what they think Catholic identity should mean on university campuses.

Now, a number of college and Church officials doubt that the association's proposal will be taken seriously by U.S. bishops or the Vatican because it fails to seriously address a key canon of Church law.

Meanwhile, Jesuit Father John J. Piderit, president of Loyola University in Chicago, and eight other presidents of Catholic colleges and universities in the Chicago area have suggested a simple amendment to the association's proposal, signed it, and sent it May 12 to the U.S. bishops' offices in Washington, D.C.

It addresses the “mandate” that canon law requires university theologians receive. It would change the directive about how theologians should teach from “should do so in fidelity to the magisterium,” to “should do so in accordance with Canon 812.”

It's a change the college association won't accept, said the group's executive director, Monika Hellwig.

She said a majority of the college presidents fear that Canon 812 threatens academic freedom and autonomy. And anything that limits the freedom of a faculty theologian will erode a school's standing as an “academically accepted institution of authentic higher education and research,” the former Georgetown University theology professor said.

Father Piderit said he understands that view of Canon 812: He once shared it. Now, he says he has changed his mind.

“The mandate sets up a relationship between the bishop and a theologian, period,” Father Piderit said. “It intentionally does not set up a formal relationship between the bishop and the university administration, so as not to entangle a bishop in the everyday affairs of a college. I don't see how any of this undermines the appropriate autonomy of an academic institution at all.”

He added, “Some college presidents who are wary of this see it as the camel getting its nose under the tent. I'd say, if we incorporated this mandate, the camel's nose would still be at least one foot away from the tent, and it is entirely appropriate the camel be close to the tent. These are Catholic institutions, after all.”

Countdown to November

This and other aspects of campus Catholic identity are at issue as bishops and university faculty discuss how Pope John Paul II's apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“From the Heart of the Church”) should be applied to American schools.

The document articulates the Church's vision of the ways higher education, faith, Christian culture and the Church should be linked together.

National bishops' conferences are expected to implement the constitution and corresponding sections of canon law, including Canon 812.

That canon states that “it is necessary that those who teach theological disciplines in any institute of higher studies have a mandate from the competent ecclesiastical authority,” usually understood to be the local bishop.

The U.S. National Conference of Catholic Bishops submitted a plan to Rome in 1996 that was returned two years later because it did not contain explicit juridical norms for the canon's implementation.

“They basically said ‘way to go guys, it's a nice first draft but you still have work to do.’ And there is no doubt about it, Canon 812 is supposed to be part of the next proposal,” said Jesuit Father Terrence Toland. He is project director for the Ex Corde Ecclesiae Implementation Committee which will begin formal discussions of a new implementation plan on June 28 in Washington.

The full bishops'conference is scheduled to vote on a final implementation plan in November.

Drafting that plan is the work of a subcommittee headed by Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, archbishop of Philadelphia, to draft a new proposal that includes the mandate.

The subcommittee invited outside input from individuals and interested organizations, including the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, which includes 236 institutions in the United States.

The association, however, has persisted in its resistance to Ex Corde Ecclesiae and Canon 812 — an attitude that was reflected in alternate implementation plan submitted to the subcommittee May 1.

Rather than provide for a juridical mandate, the association's proposal states: “The administration has the immediate responsibility to see that the principles and values of a Catholic institution are respected by all. In particular, those who teach Catholic theology should do so in fidelity to the magisterium.”

“Their wording is only slightly different from what was in the 1996 proposal submitted to the Holy See and rejected,” said Father Kevin Quirk, a canon lawyer and judicial vicar for the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, W.Va. “It's a nice attempt to compromise, but it's not juridical and it does not incorporate Canon 812.” (See Father Quirk's article on Page 14.)

Father Piderit agreed that the association's proposal falls short, and fails to address the desires of the Pope and the Holy See. “It attempts to address the issues raised in Ex Corde, but it avoids all juridical language.” (See related item in the Education Notebook, Page 14.)

The Debate

Hellwig, at the Association of Catholic Colleges, said the mandate is unacceptable at a credible modern university.

“If we move in that direction our institutions will be seen on a par with fundamentalist Bible schools, which clearly aren't accepted for their standards of authentic higher education, because they seal students off from anything that does-n't fit their theology,” Hellwig said.

“It's a major preoccupation of the Holy Father that Catholics have standing in society to engage the culture from a perspective of faith,” she added. “He does not want us enclosed, only talking to ourselves because then we have no standing in the greater community.”

Critics of the association argued that it ought not consider being faithful and being relevant mutually exclusive.

“It's very sad they feel that way, because it shows just how behind the times the association really is,” said Father Matthew Lamb, professor of theology at Boston College. “I don't think they're aware of the fact that bright young Catholic students are longing for higher standards in religious education today, because clearly the quality of Catholic education has only declined as it has become more secular.

“We have thousands of Catholics getting master's degrees today from Catholic colleges and universities, and hundreds getting doctorates, who can't read a single sentence of Latin, Greek or Hebrew. They graduate with very sketchy foundations in Catholic tradition and theology. Today's young students see this, and they want to do better. To fear Ex Corde Ecclesiae isn't avant-garde, it's rear-guard.”

Loyola's Father Piderit said the mandate would do nothing other than certify theologians as fully qualified to teach about the Catholic faith.

Students, young theologians and prospective theologians will welcome it, he believes. It will, he said, serve as a “stamp of approval,” and bring about “truth in advertising” for Catholic theology courses.

“Catholic courses are becoming more popular even at secular universities, and theologians are being hired at [those] universities because they are trained in Catholic theology,” Father Piderit said. “Given this ‘market pressure,’ I anticipate that many theologians will apply for the mandate, and will accept it with pride.”

Hellwig disagreed that the Holy See will not accept any version of an implementation plan that doesn't spell out enforcement of Canon 812. She took the association's proposal to Rome in April and said it was well received by Cardinal Pio Laghi, prefect of the Sacred Congregation of Catholic Education. Only one staff person, she said, was insistent on a “literal interpretation” of Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

“We were told repeatedly that Americans take law too literally,” said Hellwig, a lawyer. “We were told the reply to the 1996 proposal was considered an ideal that should be incorporated insofar as it's possible and compatible with the local culture.”

That argument, said Father Toland, does nothing to convince him the Vatican will accept any future proposal that does-n't contain strict, juridical implementation of Canon 812. He said Hellwig might be optimistically misinterpreting polite diplomacy that's typically extended to Vatican visitors.

Wayne Laugesen writes from Boulder, Colorado.