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Revolt of the Theologians

Why is it that only the official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church seem to stir up protests on Catholic campuses about interference with academic freedom?

BY Ralph Mclnerny

August 24-30, 1997 Issue | Posted 8/24/97 at 1:00 PM

 

UNIVERSITIES IN this country have in recent years shackled themselves with all kinds of restrictive measures having little or nothing to do with the pursuit of truth. Affirmative action programs are firmly in place, monitored of course by government agencies, but their most avid advocates and policemen are within the walls. Political correctness is rife. I am told that it is university policy where I teach that inclusive language must be used in all communications. I do not know what punitive sanctions are attached to ignoring this rule, but I will keep you informed. There are theology professors, I hear, who insist that their students refer to God as if he were a woman and take off points from papers and examinations in which this ideological rule is not adhered to. Meanwhile, in faculty senates those who have time for the inconsequential activities of such badies bray about academic freedom.

The Swiss Guard Undercover?

The trahison des clercs is an old story and academics are no more consistent than other sinners, but it does stand out that the only interference with academic freedom, freely defined, that is spoken of on Catholic campuses is from the Roman Catholic Church. One could get the impression that Swiss Guards, in mufti, are fanning out across the nation to infiltrate Catholic universities and spy on the antics of theologians. Imaginary threats cause brave men to tremble, whereas quite real ones go unnoticed or are willingly embraced.

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the sassy dismissal of the Magisterium by institutions claiming to be Catholic, is that Catholic belief is taken to be external to the university and apparently extrinsic not only to Catholics on the faculty but also to the pullulating platoons of academic bureaucrats. The Catholic belief campus journalists and politicians find most threatening appears to be the Ten Commandments. In an effort to understand concerns expressed in faculty and student assemblies I have to imagine that a group of Muslims is attempting a hostile takeover and that I will be asked to teach as true what I don't regard as true.

Catholic universities were founded by Catholics. It is sometimes well to state the obvious—and the faith they professed was precisely the faith defended, explained, and passed on by the Catholic Church. Catholicism was an inner motivation, the form of one's deepest life, not an alien threat from outside the walls. The creed was not something bishops believed, it was the credo—I believe. Or, as it has become, we believe. How has it happened that Catholics see the faith as a threat to what is more important in their personal and professional lives?

Bureaucrats from Rome

One way to understand this, in part, is to begin with the annoyance one feels with the burgeoning bureaucracy on campus today. One's life, from parking a car, to scheduling a place for a lecture, from arranging to bring in visitors from abroad, to supplementing the income of graduate students, involves dozens of officials in offices that did not exist a few years ago. “The insolence of office,” may be too strong to capture the glacial delays and self-importance of the clerks—often they are assistants or associates of this vice president or that—who seem to salivate at the prospect of complicating one's life.

It is said that Catholic university presidents once felt that they were being treated similarly by Vatican bureaucrats, that they were being micromanaged by officials who had no experience or notion of a Catholic college or university in North America. Insofar as the analogy works, one's sympathy is elicited. It may very well be that signatories of the Land O'Lakes agreement only wanted relief from such bureaucratic folderol. A benign interpretation, perhaps, but certainly possible. Now 30 years later the effects of what they did are clear. The enemy is no longer a Vatican bureaucracy but the faith itself and the bishops whose ordained task it is to teach the faith and to assure the faithful that others who profess to be doing so truly are.

It seems undeniable to me that academic theologians, when they have not been leading the flight from a Catholic spirit and mindset, have given the patina of orthodoxy to this betrayal. It is thought to be more Catholic to oppose the Church than to understand and explain her teachings. Theologians, not particularly notable for their research, campaign for an academic freedom which is under threat only from the corroding culture around us. Meanwhile, the very basics of Catholic belief are largely unknown to students. A laicised priest, a former religious, a fallen away Catholic, or a Protestant may be at the front of the classroom. Recently a student told me that in his theology course, the assigned content was tossed out in favor of prolonged bull sessions on women's ordination. The student, having noted that several recent magisterial documents dealt with this matter, suggested that these be read and studied. The suggestion was laughed away. The instructor was Lutheran. This is far from being an isolated instance.

Theologians, Not Evangelizers

Academic theologians are often incensed at the suggestion that their teaching has anything to do with the evangelizing work of the Church. They regard themselves as free-lancers who will not tolerate anyone monitoring what they teach. The Report of the Catholic Theological Society of America Committee on the Profession of Faith and the Oath of Fidelity, issued on April 15, 1990, provides a good sample of the prickly response of theologians to the Magisterium. What alarmed this learned body was the requirement that a Profession of Faith and Oath of Fidelity be taken by those who teach. It is as hostile and cleverly legalistic a Report as you are likely to find. As with the Canon Law requirement that they have a mandate to teach (mandatum docendi), there is a hostility that would surprise anyone who has not watched the declension of Catholic theology over the past quarter of a century and more.

The Committee took as its task to subject the requirement of a Profession of Faith and Oath of Fidelity to a critical analysis on the assumption that there was something bizarre and illegal about it. Canon 212 (No. 3) is piously invoked as the Report's motto. “In accord with the knowledge, competence and preeminence which they possess, the Christian faithful have the right and even at times a duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church, and they have a right to make their opinion known to the other Christian faithful, with due regard for the integrity of faith and morals and reverence toward their pastors, and with consideration for the common good and the dignity of persons.”

The reaction of professional theologians that they make a public profession of faith—it involves reciting the creed—and swear their fidelity to the Church, is scarcely suppressed outrage. The authors of the Report themselves note that the requirement “evoked from many theologians, pastors, and others, responses that range from discouragement and surprise to outspoken anger and resentment.” They feel that such a negative reaction calls for attention and reflection. Indeed it does, though it is not to be found in their Report.

It Started with Humanae Vitae

What is at stake here is the self-description theologians have devised since 1968. By and large out of step with the moral teaching of the Church, they have been trying ever since the appearance of Humanae Vitae to justify their rejection of that encyclical, which affirmed longstanding doctrine, and of the many magisterial moral pronouncements made since which have drawn out the implications of the error about sexual morality condemned in Humanae Vitae. Consider their reaction to Veritatis Splendor. Hence all the waffling on masturbation, pre-marital sex, extra-marital sex, homosexuality, and so on. As Paul VI had noted, to reject the essential link between the unitive and procreative meanings of the marital act is already to have no means of rejecting those other evils. Theologians rightly saw the Profession of Faith and Oath of Fidelity as a threat to their claim to be a rival magisterium.

Theologians continue to ask the faithful to choose between them and the teaching Church. That is an easy choice for anyone who understands the challenge. Many, of course, have been misled by being issued a pass in moral matters that is not sanctioned by the “official” Church.

A Wily Report

Of course the Committee Report does not propose a simple rejection of what the Holy See requires. As with contraception, one can give a deferential nod to the “official” position and then go on to suggest that there is another, opposed position which is equally Catholic. The writers of the Report are even more subtle. They summarize what they have to say under eight points:

3 The revised Profession of Faith and the new Oath of Fidelity are now law.

3 All those are bound by it who are mentioned in canon 855. But fear not. “University teachers of disciplines which deal with faith and morals are bound to take them if their positions are under Church control, such as in ecclesiastical faculties and Catholic universities which have been established, are governed, and can be closed by competent ecclesiastical authority.” This seems to mean that the requirement does not apply to theologians in our Catholic colleges and universities on the Land O'Lakes plan.

3 The history of oaths is ambiguous in the Church. The great myth of McCarthyism is invoked as a specter looming over theologians. Woody Allen, where are you?

3 There are serious ambiguities in the text of the Profession of Faith. So too with the Oath, which suffers from unnuanced generalizations.

3 There must accordingly be careful theological and canonical scrutiny of these texts. [By appeal to their own authority— work of committee members is cited in notes—or that of other members of the aggrieved Theological Society.]

3 Further study is needed—serious problems of a doctrinal, pastoral, and ecumenical nature are said to be raised by the inclusion of this paragraph: “I also firmly accept and hold each and every thing that is proposed by the same Church definitively with regard to teaching concerning faith and morals.” What is the problem? The committee explains: “There are some, for example, who would subsume the teaching on artificial birth control under what is ‘definitively proposed'” (p. 79). Aha.

3 Application. There are no sanctions for not doing what is asked. “It appears appropriate that at this time no action should be taken against those who judge themselves in conscience unable to make this Profession of Faith or take the Oath of Fidelity in the light of the problems surrounding them” (p.116).

3 All these problems impinge on the question of translating the Latin of the Profession and the Oath. The committee notes that “the use of ‘dynamic equivalency'in translation provides the possibility of supplying the necessary nuance to insure a correct interpretation…” (p. 117).

Reading Between the Lines

My dynamically equivalent translation is: The requirement of the Holy See for a Profession of Faith and Oath of Fidelity is of dubious theological and legal status, is ambiguous and confused, might be taken to include clear magisterial teaching, but in any case does not apply to us; creative translations should be made available for those who do comply. We will not be snookered into giving our assent to the moral teaching of the Catholic Church.

It is no accident, as the Marxists used to say, that the underlying concern of the Report is the continuing justification, at least in their own eyes, of the rejection of Humanae Vitae. It is the original rejection of this encyclical by theologians that is at the heart of the attitude exhibited in this Report. It is dissent in theology that has led to the absence of Catholic orthodoxy from the instruction of students in Catholic colleges and universities. It is the revolt of the theologians that explains, more than any other single factor, the parlous condition of our institutions of higher learning. Until theological dissent from clear Church teaching is a thing of the past, the Catholic Church will continue on its current course and the secularization of our colleges and universities will accelerate.

Ralph Mclnerny is director of the Jacques Maritain Center at the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Ind., and editor of Catholic Dossier.

This essay first appeared in Catholic Dossier. Reprinted with kind permission.