Cardinal George Warns Colleges About U.S. 'Culture of Autonomy'

WASHINGTON—Francis Cardinal George, archbishop of Chicago, said the “culture of autonomy” in the United States is a major challenge to the American bishops’ implementation of a papal document on Catholic colleges and universities.

In remarks Feb. 2 to a meeting of Catholic college educators, Cardinal George said was confident the U.S. bishops would take the implementation of the document, Ex Corde Ecclesiae,“to the next level” at their meeting this coming November.

His comments came during what many observers believed to be an important moment in the ongoing effort by bishops and Catholic higher education officials to implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John II's 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic universities.

Of the 350 people attending the meeting of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C., more than 140 were presidents of Catholic colleges and universities.

Much attention turned to the draft document approved by the bishops approved last November. In an effort to implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae, it included juridical norms governing Catholic higher education. The bishops are receiving comments and suggestions on the proposal, and are scheduled to vote on a reworked draft at their annual plenary meeting in November.

Cardinal George stated that he was sure the bishops would approve some version of the current draft, and then send it to the Holy See for final approval.

In 1996, the bishops approved a second draft on the same topic, but it was not accepted by the Congregation for Catholic Education in Rome. The congregation acknowledged the document as a laudable “first step,” but wanted it to include concrete juridical measures, which Ex Corde Ecclesiae envisioned.

The new draft, produced by a subcommittee headed by Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, contains the juridical elements desired by the Holy See, for example, that a majority of a university's faculty and trustees be faithful Catholics and that professors of theology obtain a mandate to teach from the local bishop.

The bishops are scheduled to vote on the draft, which can still be revised, at their annual plenary meeting in November 1999.

These juridical elements have triggered some educators to register public opposition to the bishops’ proposal. Most recently, the president of Notre Dame, Father Edward Malloy CSC, and the chancellor of Boston College, Father Donald Monan SJ, authored a highly critical article in the Jan. 30 issue of America, the Jesuit weekly magazine.

Fathers Malloy and Monan claim that if the bishops’ proposal were approved, it would “create an impasse” in the relationship and dialogue between bishops and Catholic colleges and universities. They believe the juridical measures within the draft essentially draw bishops into the internal governance of colleges and universities.

Cardinal George devoted a great portion of his talk to refuting this opinion. He began by recalling his experience accompanying the Holy Father on his recent pastoral visits to Mexico City and St. Louis.

He said that in Mexico City, people lined the streets from the airport to the residence of the apostolic nuncio where the Pope stayed. During the entire visit the Pope had contact with the people; Cardinal George said he couldn't even remember seeing a single police officer, though he knew that security was provided.

By contrast, the Pope's visit to St. Louis was marked by high levels of security. Contact between the people and the pontiff was very controlled and kept to a minimum. Scores of police officers were present at every location.

While acknowledging the importance of providing for the Pope's security, Cardinal George said the experience led him to characterize the difference in pastoral visits as the difference between the “culture of relationship” and the “culture of autonomy.” He contended that the U.S. “culture of autonomy” lies at the heart of the difficulty between bishops and Catholic colleges and universities in implementing Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

The cardinal went on to try to alleviate some of the tension by refocusing the notion of “juridical” from the connotation of “control” to an understanding of “relationship.”

By contrasting the papal visits to Mexico City and St. Louis, he said that in the U.S.’ sophisticated and high-powered culture, people tend to become preoccupied with suspicion and distrust. The major thrust of the bishops’ proposal, however, is a reaffirmation of the communion that exists between Catholic colleges and universities and the Church in general, he added.

“There are no bishops out there thirsting to control a university,” Cardinal George asserted.

A bishop is the head of a local faith community, the cardinal added, and as such has a special responsibility to support and promote a Catholic university that may be within his diocese. Bishops, he added, desire the very same thing Catholic educators desire, namely a strong Catholic identity that not only features the faith, but also features an outstanding educational tradition and commitment.

Mo Fung is former executive director of the Cardinal Newman Society.

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