National Catholic Register


For Theologian, Taking Oath Was a Moment of Grace and Freedom

BY Stephen Miletic

July 5-11, 1998 Issue | Posted 7/5/98 at 2:00 PM


In 1983, the Church promulgated a completely revised edition of The Code of Canon Law. It specified several requirements for Catholic universities. In particular, canon 812 has been the subject of much concern. It reads: “It is necessary that those who teach theological disciplines in any institute of higher studies have a mandate from the competent ecclesiastical authority.”

In March of 1989, the Church presented new formulae for a profession of faith and oath of fidelity in keeping with this canon. The profession and oath offer Catholics who assume teaching offices within the Church a universal, public, rich, and venerable language with which to personally express their faith in the teachings of Christ handed down through the Apostles and their successors.

The publication of the apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church) in August 1990 intensified the Church's focus on the now famous canon 812.

Much is at stake here. Judging by professional and popular writings of theologians, there is a pressing need to clarify just how this canon should be implemented.

Some of the questions raised are: How should a local bishop exercise his apostolic role as teacher of the faith in relation to those who teach theology at institutions within the diocese? Should his role be different if the institution is sponsored by a religious community or governed by lay people, rather than by his diocese? Exactly what would prompt a bishop to intervene in how theology was taught? Why hasn't there been more exercise of such authority? Would academic freedom in theology become grist for the magisterial mill?

No one knows exactly how these questions will be answered. However, my personal experience with canon 812 as a believer and a theologian has been positive. My faith and my ecclesial and professional mandates have been deeply affected by what has been done in response to this canon at my university.

Let me first offer an apologia for personal reflections on this topic. Theologians are like any other baptized Christians. We all seek a true, living, and dynamic relationship with God. However, theologians realize they will be held accountable specifically for teaching God's Word. That is, we theologians speak and teach about God from a personal experience of God. We carry out our work as people who have been personally affected by the light and power of God's living Word.

Our role as theologians is of course rooted in our common baptism. It is also based on the work of acquiring the technical knowledge necessary for the profession. However, it is critical for us to realize that our role is also indispensably related to the bishop's charism of office.

Thus, to be a theologian is to experience the Word of God actualized in me personally, to articulate that Word with the help of technical knowledge, and to hold my professional position with the affirmation of my bishop.

In short, I look at the oath of fidelity quite personally. It affects how I think and act. It represents a moment of grace for me.

I think of it this way: as a theologian I both “take” the oath and “offer” it to the universal Church in the person of the bishop. I “take” the oath in the sense of actualizing it in my life; I “offer” it to the local ordinary as my free gesture of faith in Christ and the Church.

Furthermore, I could not do all this were it not for the grace of the Holy Spirit. How else could I answer the Lord's call to teach and bear witness to Christ?

The oath itself is wonderfully simple to understand. Whether in full or modified form, it identifies the office to be assumed and it expresses a commitment to preserve and transmit the deposit of faith in all its beauty and integrity. The theologian professing the oath proclaims his apostolic devotion to his bishop and professes his faith in God's Word. With religious submission of mind and will, he expresses his assent to the truths of the faith as taught by the Pope and bishops in union with him.

I've offered the oath on several occasions. Some of them occurred when I was teaching at a different Catholic institution of higher learning. However, when I participated in offering the oath at Franciscan University of Steubenville a surprise awaited me.

We took the oath here during a liturgy, just after the reading of the Gospel. The entire campus community was invited: students, faculty, administration, in the presence of our Bishop Gilbert Sheldon. All of us jammed into the chapel.

“It's a good thing God is spirit,” I said to myself, otherwise the three members of the Trinity wouldn't be able to squeeze in here with all the rest of us.

All of use — new theology professors and all priests assigned to pastoral duties on campus — were invited to step forward in front of the bishop. Together we offered the oath to the bishop and through him to the rest of the Church and to Christ himself.

After we completed the profession and offered a gesture of obedience to the bishop, much to my surprise, thunderous applause erupted, breaking the solemn silence. Somewhat startled by the applause, I found myself looking up at the large tapestry of the Blessed Mother on the opposite wall of the Chapel. The sight of her in that moment, in that liturgical context, struck something deep within me — consolation, joy, the desire to yield my mind and heart to Christ without hesitation.

Is this what Mary experienced after the angel heralded the Good News? I thought of Mary and her faith response to the prospect that she would bear Christ to the whole world, that she would be an essential participant in the ultimate expression of God's love for the world. What a paradox — unmarried yet spouse of the Holy Spirit, virgin yet prototype mother. Could I be this fertile as a teacher, academic advisor, colleague, department chair, father, husband, brother, and son?

The words came to mind: “Pray for me, Mary, as you do for all sinners; bring me the merits of Christ's work at the Cross; help me help my students. Come Holy Spirit, draw me ever farther away from my own sin and ever more deeply into the mystery of Christ, the divine Son of God.

” It was a moment of deep grace, a Marian moment I shall never forget, which sustains me even to this day. I believe I was touched by a mystery that helps me into deeper freedom, into a deeper experience and grasp of truth.

Her words, “Let it be to me according to your word,” became my words to Christ. The oath and profession of faith became for me a “yes” to Christ's revelation of his person and to his plan for me, my family, and my department of theology.

This is the essence of religious obedience — a self-abandoning trust in God's love giving me the power to act, without hesitation or reservation, without fear, in complete confidence. God will help me teach my students and serve my colleagues with hope and courage. Such is not possible without grace, without the help of the Holy Spirit.

This experience of grace in no way solves the technical problems. Otherwise, piety would suffice and necessarily replace committed, professionally competent, and rigorous research and writing. But there must be a foundation for this work, namely, being deeply rooted in God's very Life, which leads to understanding.

And the oath, far from being what we theologians sometimes fear — a removal of our freedom — has been for me an occasion of greater liberty, allowing me to more fully comprehend the truths of the faith and more fruitfully communicate them to others. Dr. Stephen Miletic is an associate professor of scripture and catechetics and chair of the theology department at the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio