National Catholic Register


Dissent’s Decline

Theologians, Seminarians Reflect On Pope’s Message On Fidelity



May 4-10, 2008 Issue | Posted 4/29/08 at 3:54 PM


YONKERS, N.Y. — One sign the dissent movement is flagging is that young seminarians and theology students are enthusiastic about the Holy Father.

Like “a father who is concerned about his children.” That is how seminarian Christopher Argano described the way Pope Benedict XVI handled the issue of dissent among theologians and other teachers of the Church during his recent U.S. visit.

Argano, 26, is a third-year theology student at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y. He said Pope Benedict’s address to young people and seminarians there was more pastoral than heavy-handed.

“It was like having our shepherd, our father figure here,” he said.

Although Pope Benedict did not give a talk specifically on dissent during his visit, he touched on the topic in addresses to Catholic educators and bishops, and returned to it in his homily at Yankee Stadium.

At the April 20 Mass, he told the 60,000-strong stadium audience that Catholic unity is doctrinal unity.

“It is a visible unity, grounded in the apostles whom Christ chose and appointed as witnesses to his resurrection, and it is born of what the Scriptures call ‘the obedience of faith,’” he said, then added: “‘Authority,’ ‘obedience’ — to be frank, these are not easy words to speak nowadays. Words like these represent a ‘stumbling stone’ for many of our contemporaries, especially in a society that rightly places a high value on personal freedom.”

But he insisted that assent was what was required.

He told the bishops at his vespers address at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., on April 16: “It cannot be assumed that all Catholic citizens think in harmony with the Church’s teaching on today’s key ethical questions. Once again, it falls to you to ensure that the moral formation provided at every level of ecclesial life reflects the authentic teaching of the Gospel of life.”

Speaking to Catholic university and school officials April 17, he stressed the importance of fidelity to the magisterium and its relationship to academic freedom:

“Any appeal to the principle of academic freedom in order to justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church would obstruct or even betray the university’s identity and mission,” he said.

Theologian Michael Novak said he thought the Pope used strong language in light of the fact that he mainly was giving encouragement to Catholic university officials and the Church in the United States in general.

Novak said he sees two types of dissent on Catholic campuses today: professors whose “magisterium” is “the progressive zeitgeist or the opinion of their peers or the views of any dissenters from Church traditions or papal teachings they can locate,” and those who are openly anti-Catholic and hostile to much of what the Church teaches.

“One thing the Pope says that cuts through all this fog and complexity,” Novak added, “is that everyone connected with a Catholic university ought to encounter there the presence of the living God.”

Daniel Maguire, 76, a professor of religious ethics at Marquette University in Milwaukee, said he saw nothing new in what the Pope had to say on the question of dissent, although he added, “I was surprised that he was not more insistent on his notion of hierarchical control of Catholic studies.”

Maguire claims most Catholic theologians differ with the Pope on that and on the meaning of academic freedom.

“Simply going along with the Catholic hierarchy does not always serve God or the truth,” he said.

In 2007, the U.S Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine issued a statement publicly correcting two pamphlets published by Maguire on contraception and abortion, and same-sex “marriage.” The committee said the views expressed in the pamphlets “cross the legitimate lines of theological reflection and simply enter into the area of false teaching.”

Maguire had sent the pamphlets to all the U.S. bishops in 2006.

In fact, the Church has been teaching one version of what academic freedom means for a long time.

In 1967, America’s top Catholic university leaders signed the “Land o’ Lakes Statement” claiming: “The Catholic university must have a true autonomy and academic freedom in the face of authority of whatever kind, lay or clerical, external to the academic community itself.”

But the Church responded definitively in 1983, when canon law began requiring that a theologian teaching in a Catholic university receive a mandatum from the local bishop. The mandatum is the bishop’s recognition of the theologian’s intention to teach in full communion with the Church’s magisterium (teaching office).

Decades before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, taught in a 1990 “Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian” that “the theologian who is not disposed to think with the Church (sentire cum Ecclesia) contradicts the commitment he freely and knowingly accepted to teach in the name of the Church.”

This view of academic freedom and adherence to the magisterium was again highlighted in Pope John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic constitution on higher education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, which insisted that canon law be followed in this regard.

During his meeting with U.S. cardinals in 2002, Pope John Paul II linked a dissent cover-up with the sex-abuse cover-up saying parents “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.”

That same year, Chicago Cardinal Francis George stressed that the public should be told whether or not theology professors have a mandatum to teach with the Church.

“The mandatum is a public reality,” he said. “It’s a personal act, but personal acts are sometimes public — like receiving the sacraments.”

Pope John Paul II, speaking to American bishops in 2004, said that, “by their very nature, Catholic colleges and universities are called to offer an institutional witness of fidelity to Christ and to his word as it comes to us from the Church, a public witness expressed in the canonical requirement of the mandatum.”

Only a small minority of Catholic colleges, however, publicly require the mandatum of their theologians. Jesuit Father Thomas Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, speaking to the Los Angeles Times before the Pope’s visit, commented that the legislation about the mandatum is “pretty much ignored in the United States today.”

‘He Set a High Standard’

In Pope Benedict’s address to the bishops during his visit here, the Pope explained that the Catholic approach of “thinking with the Church” involves being transformed and renewed in mind, instead of being conformed to the spirit of the age.

This, he said, contrasts an “individualistic and eclectic approach” in which “each person believes he or she has a right to pick and choose, maintaining external social bonds but without an integral, interior conversion to the law of Christ. ... We have seen this emerge in an acute way in the scandal given by Catholics who promote an alleged right to abortion.”

Acknowledging that the Pope spoke of the need for fidelity to the truth and not using academic freedom as an excuse for rejecting elements of the faith, Richard Gaillardetz, Murray/Bacik professor of Catholic studies at the University of Toledo in Ohio, said, “As compared to the hopes and expectations of the [Cardinal] Newman Society and others, this was not a dominant note in any of his addresses.

“There was no sweeping denunciation of dissent in American Catholicism and neither was there any call for purging Catholic universities of so-called ‘dissenters.’ He affirmed, as one would expect, the need for fidelity to the magisterium and noted that obedience is perhaps a countercultural virtue in the United States, but his larger concern was encouraging a deeper, more communal appropriation of the Christian faith.”

Patrick Reilly, founder and president of the Cardinal Newman Society, which works to strengthen the Catholic identity of Catholic colleges and universities, said that contrary to some press reports suggesting his group thought the Pope would be publicly scolding Catholic college presidents, the society was not expecting him to do anything other than present a strong vision for Catholic colleges.

“We were quite clear to the media that that’s not how the Pope speaks,” he said. “We pointed them to the example of his address to the Jesuits in which he addressed very clear concerns about their fidelity and obedience to the Pope, but [did so] in a very forward-looking way. So we knew this was the type of address he would be giving.”

Reilly said the Pope’s visit put the reform of Catholic education at the top of his agenda. “He was looking to move forward the reform that’s already been under way,” he said. “The time for scolding was probably 10 or 20 years ago and at least the bishops and the Vatican have moved beyond that.”

Thomas Whittingham, a pre-theology student at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa., said he thought Pope Benedict struck the right tone with such statements.

Whittingham said, “Pope Benedict’s intention is not to scare people into line. On the contrary, he wants to bring the sheep back to the fold by lovingly carrying them back just as the Good Shepherd does in the Scriptures.”

Added Father Matthew Lamb, professor and chairman of theology at Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla.: “He didn’t scold us, but he did set a very high standard, one that every Catholic university staff member should examine his or her conscience on.”

Judy Roberts is based

in Graytown, Ohio.