An Academic Question

Can the mission of the Church and the mission of the Academy co-exist harmoniously in the life of the same person, the Catholic theologian; and in the life of the same institution, the Catholic college or university?

After all, both the Academy and the Church are terribly sure of themselves in their own spheres. The Academy knows how to pursue its mission decisively. When a student does not fulfill the requirements, no degree is granted. When an institution doesn't meet the standards, accreditation is withheld. When academic freedom is lacking, in many specific ways peers withhold esteem.

As for the Church, the Pope and the bishops are sure that Christ sent them to preach the gospel. Recently the Pope described the bishops’ divine commission as a call to “communicating the truth and grace of Christ to the men and women of today's world.” (Ad limina message to the American bishops of the ecclesiastical region of New York, Feb. 27, 1998).

Why mention the mission of bishops and the mission of universities in the same breath? For this reason: the mission of the Catholic university closely and directly participates in a key part of the mission of the whole Church, as entrusted to the bishops — the mission of Catholic teaching.

To put it another way, an institution of higher education without the teaching of theology would be something other than Catholic. And an institution with a Catholic theology department is involved in communicating the truths revealed by God. The relationship with the work of bishops is close, direct, and institutional.

So far so good. The bishops agree that Catholic theologians and Catholic universities participate in their divine commission, carrying out an apostolate of truth by research and teaching. But meanwhile Catholic theologians and universities also see themselves as part of the Academy, with its mission of research and education to increase mankind's understanding in all spheres of knowledge. Theology fits in that mission, as does every other branch of human knowledge.

But since both communities have a direct interest in how this branch of human knowledge is handled, what will it take for the two missions to coexist? In the Jan. 30 issue of America magazine Fathers Edward Malloy CSC and Donald Monan SJ advocate an approach in which the Church presents its side of the equation in a statement of ideals. (For a full account, see Register stories last week, page 12, and this week, page 14.) The two priests have only the highest praise for the ideals of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the Pope's 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic institutions of higher education.

But when one moves beyond ideals to specific rules and regulations meant to put the Church's vision into practice, the two priests balk. They declare the stipulations of Church law on Catholic universities “lifeless,” and “inapplicable to most U.S. Catholic institutions of higher education.”

The objections of Fathers Malloy and Monan to the Church doing anything more than laying out ideals were stated in the context of discussions among the U.S. bishops that are meant to lead to the publication of a final document, scheduled for November this year. The document would spell out how the Church's universal approach to higher education will be applied in the U.S.

If the bishops include specific rules for Catholic theologians and universities in that document, based on the provisions of canon law, Fathers Malloy and Monan flatly assert that an impasse will be created: “Most Catholic professors simply will not request such a mandate, and Catholic universities will take no steps to implement it because of its obvious threat to academic freedom.”

Does this mean that these two educators predict Catholic theologians and universities will give up their Catholic identity and become 'secular’ teachers and institutions?

Certainly not. The truth is that arguments that pit the bishops’ directives against theologians’ freedom present a false dichotomy.

The bishops have no intention of quashing academic freedom by safeguarding the faith — no more than the accreditors in any other field wish to do so by safeguarding professional standards of inquiry.

A medical school knows that without a bare level of accreditation, it can never be taken seriously by the medical academy. Does this mean that its medical researchers are hampered by the constant threat of a loss of acreditation? Of course not. When accreditation is a question at all, they are helped by it. It can be argued that our country has produced such tremendous advances in medicine in the 20th century, in large part, because it holds fast to standards.

When we turn to theology, the situation is very much the same. The bishops know that, without theologians, the faith never advances. From St. Paul's discussions with St. Peter, to St. Thomas's expansive treatment of doctrine which he submitted to the Pope, to von Balthasar's body of work in our own day, which John Paul has quoted, theologians keep the faith alive and active, applying it to new situations. That takes academic freedom.

The theologians also praise Ex Corde Ecclesiae,because they know they need a solid ground on which to work, a standard by which to keep their inquiry safe from the defamation frivolous thinkers would bring to it, and most importantly, because they know that they need a clear authority when speaking about God, an authority that only the Church can confer.

The bishops and theologians both know that academic freedom and faith must live together in a fruitful tension. It is only to be expected that the dialogue that will shape the implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae should also be marked by tension, which we believe will also ultimately prove to be fruitful.

We can expect this to be a landmark year in the life of Catholic universities.