Ex Corde Ecclesiae: Where Are We Now?

In November 1999, the bishops of the United States settled on a way to implement in Pope John Paul II's 1990 apostolic constitution on education.

The Holy Father, in Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the heart of the Church), calls for a renewal of academia, and for canon law requirements to be enforced in theology departments.

Jesuit Father James Conn has been a proponent of a plan that would “pass the Holy See's review.” His America magazine article (Jan. 30-Feb. 6, 1999) was titled, “The Universities, the Bishops and the Vatican: Breaching the Impasse.”

Register senior editor Gerry Rauch recently interviewed Father Conn from Rome, where he teaches at the Pontifical Gregorian University.

Can you bring us up to date on your current duties in Rome?

I teach canon law at the Gregorian. My principal responsibility is Book I of the Code of Canon Law. It deals with general norms: such matters as interpretation of law, the various kinds of juridical documents, principles of governance in the Church, and ecclesiastical office. I previously taught seminary-level canon law at St. Mary's Seminary and University in Baltimore and at Mt. St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md. I have also been teaching the canon law of the sacraments in the summer J.C.L. [licentiate in canon law] program at the Catholic University of America.

Do the bishops' final documents for the application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae in the United States have the juridical content that the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education sought? Will the U.S. procedures be effective, or will they in some way thwart what the Congregation wanted?

The U.S. bishops have issued two documents. The first one was the application for the U.S. of Ex Corde Ecclesiae. That is binding legislation for the Church in the United States. It was called for in the pontifical legislation, and its scope was determined by directives later issued by the Congregation for Catholic Education. Since it received the required recognitio (review) of the Holy See over a year ago, it is safe to say that it fulfills the Congregation's requirements.

The [U.S. bishop]'s June 2001 guidelines for the granting, withholding and withdrawal of the man-datum is not a legally binding document and therefore required no Vatican action. I am hopeful that both documents, if implemented by individual bishops, universities and theologians, will be effective and certainly not thwart the Holy See's expectations.

Many Catholic theologians and university administrators voiced strong objections to juridical norms, particularly to the mandatum. I have the impression that this resistance has lessened since the bishops finished their work. What do you think?

I agree that there has been little comment on this issue since the bishops' action at their June meeting in Atlanta. Future news on this topic is likely to be more local than national.

In a June 18 Catholic News Service article, Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk was quoted saying: “This [the mandatum] is not a public matter in the same way that the appointment of a pastor is.” He also warned against misuse of the mandatum as a tool to rate the orthodoxy or catholicity of theologians or Catholic schools.

It will be quite natural for various reasons, however, for many people to want to know who is teaching with a mandatum. Should there be some way for them to easily find out?

I agree with Archbishop Pilarczyk that a theology teacher's role is not a public one in the same way that a pastor's is. A theologian, unlike a pastor, does not speak and act in the name of the Church. I further believe that the absence of a mandatum is less a sign of heterodoxy, than it is a violation of ecclesiastical discipline. I can imagine a number of explanations why someone is teaching theology without a mandatum, some more troubling than others.

At the same time, I think that the purpose of the legislation requiring the mandatum is, at least in part, to assure the faithful that a theologian is in fact teaching in communion with the Church. Even if there is no positively stated legal right for the faithful to know who has a mandatum, it seems to me reasonable for them to want to know and for either the bishop, the university or the theologian, at least after inquiry, to inform them.

This is all the more important if the university tolerates the teaching of theology by someone lacking a mandatum.

Will there be any consequences if a mandatum is not requested or not accepted, or if it is refused or withdrawn?

Consequences of the lack of a mandatum with respect to such a theologian's continued status as a teacher, or to his or her assignment to teach theological disciplines, will depend on the university's statutes.

In the same June 18 article, Bishop Joseph Fiorenza said that “any member of the Church can raise questions as to whether a particular theological position is orthodox or not; sometimes they may have an obligation to do this.” He warned, however, against making such accusations casually or, in violation of charity. If people are convinced a certain theologian is teaching open heresy, what steps should they take?

It would depend a great deal on who the concerned member of the Church was, especially with regard to theological expertise and status in the academic community—dean, chair, colleague, graduate, student, parent, etc. As a Jesuit, I try to be guided by the “presupposition” of St. Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises, which encourages us to put the most positive interpretation on what someone else says or writes. It is also salutary to address one's concerns calmly to the other.

If these efforts are not fruitful, I think that the principle of subsidiarity should be honored. A troubled student, for example, might discuss the matter with another professor, a department chair or the dean. If that were impossible or unsatisfactory, it would not be inappropriate to bring the matter to the attention of the vicar general or the diocesan bishop.

I would caution such a concerned student or parent, however, not to be presumptuous about his or her own theological competence. There is a moral obligation to safeguard the good reputation of others.

It's necessary for the Church to allow due process for a theologian who is criticized for his or her theological positions—and due process, to properly protect the theologian, can take years. Meanwhile, Catholic students normally have only four years in college. Is there any way to provide them equal protection from a misguided theological formation?

Catholic universities in the United States are, for the most part, free markets. Students have a wide choice of courses, professors, and schools. In the last analysis, choosing institutions, professors and courses that are clearly and unabashedly Catholic may be the most effective way to ensure the best theological formation for college-age Catholics.