To the average American, a “mandate” is that elusive yet often-claimed prize sought by most elected officials, especially presidents.

Franklin Roosevelt held his re-election to be a mandate for the New Deal. Richard Nixon claimed a mandate from the “silent majority” that supported his policies. And President Clinton once argued that the voters had given him a mandate to reform health care.

American Catholics can then be forgiven for wondering just what the “mandate” has to do with the struggle to maintain the Catholic identity of the more than 230 U.S. Catholic colleges and universities.

In his 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II directed that Catholic professors of theology teaching in Church-related institutions are to be “aware that they fulfill a mandate received from the Church” (“General Norms,” Article 4, No. 3).

The document cites a specific point of canon law, Canon 812, which holds that “those who teach theological disciplines subjects in any institute of higher studies must have a mandate from the competent ecclesiastical authority,” understood to be the local bishop.

Earlier attempts by the American bishops to implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae have been rejected by the Vatican primarily because the proposed norms for applying the document in the American context have failed to lay out exactly how canon 812 will be applied in this country.

Indeed, many believe it should not be applied at all, while others hold that it is essential to maintaining the Catholic identity that these institutions claim as their own. The ensuing argument is the reason it has taken so long to implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae in the United States.

A current draft of norms provides for the full implementation of the mandate and establishes a bare-bones procedure for its granting. The bishops will discuss the draft and examine possible revisions at their November meeting in Washington.

Church History

While some argue that the whole notion of a Church mandate to teach is a novelty, coming into existence with the 1983 Code of Canon Law, the Church has been involved in the approval of teachers from the very beginning of its university system.

In fact, the very name Ex Corde Ecclesiae — “From the Heart of the Church” — is an apt one because the modern university is the direct result of the Church's intervention and support of educational initiatives beginning more than a thousand years ago.

The Cathedral School of Paris, an institution under the direct sponsorship of the bishop, served as the foundation for the University of Paris, which became the model for virtually all universities ever since. As universities grew up in Europe, they routinely sought papal charters similar to those first accorded to the University of Paris.

At the great medieval universities, such as Paris and Bologna, only those who had received the licentia, or license, from the chancellor could teach. The license was granted after a public demonstration of knowledge, which began with recitation of the Creed. The office of chancellor was not a high academic or honorary post within the university as it is frequently today. He was almost always a cleric, and served as the bishop's designated representative and functioned as a liaison between the bishop and the university.

By the 14th century, the requirement of the chancellor's license — an ecclesiastical permission to teach — was universal in Christendom, and the chancellors became representatives of the papacy. It was recognized by the universal Church, and not merely by a local secular or private body.

The license built confidence in teaching and created a pool of teachers who could be depended upon by the Catholic faithful. Some 800 years later, these same licenses are still awarded by pontifical universities and faculties.

The mandate as stipulated by Canon 812, a modern form of the license, would continue this time-honored and proven means of Church certification for theology teachers.

Outside Approval?

In rejecting the concept of “outside” approval from the Church, critics of Ex Corde Ecclesiae hold that professors have a right to teach and that the mandate violates that right.

The Code of Canon Law recognizes the right to teach as belonging exclusively to parents and to the Church itself (Canons 794–795). The bishops of the Church are entrusted with the duty of teaching and the equally important duty of ensuring that the faithful receive a Catholic education.

No one else can claim a “right” to teach, though all of the baptized can claim the right to a “Christian education” (Canon 217). One of the ways that bishops fulfill their duty to provide a Catholic education for those entrusted to their care is to commission or approve religion or theology teachers at the various levels of instruction.

Thus, the code provides for episcopal involvement in the approval of catechists, primary and secondary religious education teachers, and college theology professors. The involvement of the bishop is tailored to the specific nature of the level of instruction. A mandate to teach university-level theology is distinct from the approval of an elementary school religion teacher.

Bishop as Teacher

The bishop, and not the educational institution itself, is rightfully the one to grant the mandate.

The bishop alone has been ordained to exercise the role of Christ the Teacher (in addition to the roles of Christ the King and Christ the Priest). Anyone who wishes to teach the faith in a particular diocese must do so in union with the local bishop, who is teacher of the flock.

The mandate ensures unity in teaching; it establishes a relationship between the bishop and the professor, making him part of the local Church's educational mission.

Under the mandate, the professor teaches not in the bishop's name, or even in the name of the Church, but in his own name. The Christian faithful can be assured that the professor has been examined and found capable of teaching Catholic theology.

The mandate cannot ensure that the professor will always teach the faith of the Church. But it does establish a well-founded expectation that the teacher can and will strive to do so. The professor who does depart from the Church's faith destroys this expectation and could loose his mandate to teach.

But such an event would be unlikely if there exists a proper examination prior to the mandate and if the institution is supportive of the relationship it creates.

And while the mandate cannot in itself salvage the Catholic identity of a college or university, it is a first and a good step in that direction.

As in history, so today, the mandate helps to create a pool of Catholic teachers in higher education from whom one can expect to receive an education in the faith of the Church.

Father Kevin M. Quirk earned his doctorate of canon law at the Gregorian University, Rome, where his dissertation was on the mandate to teach.

He serves as judicial vicar for the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia.