Proposed Norms for Catholic Universities Draw Mixed Reaction from Bishops

WASHINGTON—James Cardinal Hickey of Washington, D.C., called the proposed norms for Catholic universities an “immense progress” in the effort to help strengthen Catholic higher education. The cardinal's praise for the norms was part of a discussion on a draft document titled Ex Corde Ecclesiae: An Application to the United States at the mid-November meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) in the nation's capital.

Ex Corde Ecclesiae was promulgated in 1990 by Pope John Paul II to assist Catholic colleges and universities in reflecting upon their own missions in the context of modern society and to establish norms for the preservation and renewal of the Catholic identity of institutions of Catholic higher education.

In November 1996, the NCCB approved an application document drafted by a committee headed by Bishop John Leibrecht. However, in April 1997, the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education requested that the bishops draft a new application document that would have a “true juridical character” as intended by Ex Corde Ecclesiae. A subcommittee headed by Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua was formed to produce the new draft, which is now being considered by the entire bishops' conference.

Several incidents have highlighted the fact that many Catholic colleges and universities seem to be following the example of their secular counterparts. Some of the incidents include Notre Dame's recent decision to host a lecture series by the pro-abortion “rights” former Senator, Bill Bradley, and Georgetown's recent decision to establish “Safe Zones,” places where students may discuss homosexuality with sympathetic faculty or administrators. “Safe Zones” do not include the Church's teaching on human sexuality and marriage.

The newly proposed norms address secular trends in Catholic higher education. Among the many notable aspects of the norms is a section on “The Ecclesiological Concept of Communion.” This section explains the basis for norms for Catholic colleges and universities within the “communion of all the faithful.” That is, Catholic colleges and universities, as Catholic, belong to the communion of the faithful and thus ultimately derive their mission from the mission of the Church.

Therefore, because Catholic schools do belong to this larger community and mission, it is reasonable and necessary for them to have an official connection to the Church and to live up to its general standards.

Catholic colleges and universities, as Catholic, belong to the communion of the faithful and thus ultimately derive their mission from the mission of the Church.

The new draft document also requires that professors of theology obtain a mandate from the local bishop as a sign that the professor “carries out his or her task in communion with the Church.” Other provisions for the strengthening and renewal of Catholic identity include:

1) Requiring a publicly documented “commitment to Catholic ideals, principles, and attitudes;”

2) Calling for a majority of Catholic trustees and faculty;

3) Strongly encouraging lectures on Catholic teaching and tradition for administrators and faculty;

4) Affirming the rights of students to receive Catholic teaching “appropriate to the subject matter in the various disciplines.”

Cardinal Bevilacqua explained during the discussion that these provisions are not meant to be seen as a rigid set of juridical requirements, but rather concrete means for the development of an authentic Catholic ethos on campuses.

However, after the draft was circulated among bishops, college presidents, and learned societies for comment and suggestions, some criticized it. America magazine, a monthly published by the Jesuit order, called the document “unworkable and dangerous.” Other officials within Catholic higher education claim the requirements would violate academic freedom and institutional autonomy and hence would marginalize Catholic universities within American higher education.

The irony in this claim lies in the fact that all institutions of higher education, including Catholic colleges and universities, readily comply with guidelines and standards determined by entities external to the institutions. Not only must colleges and universities conform to general standards determined by regional accrediting associations, but their various departments must conform to standards determined by associations and societies for the respective disciplines.

No institution functions with absolute institutional autonomy. But even if there were obstacles, financial or otherwise, standing in the way of Catholic identity, one could ask the question, at what price would we want to sell our religious freedom?

During the discussion at the NCCB, two retired archbishops expressed their misgivings with the proposed norms. Archbishop John Roach, former archbishop of St. Paul-Minneapolis, said that the norms would “be a depressant” to the beneficial dialogue that has been developing among bishops and Catholic universities. Retired Archbishop of San Francisco, John Quinn, said that “if some of the provisions are pushed too far, universities may be forced into the position of calling themselves universities in the Catholic tradition instead of Catholic universities.”

However, there was strong sentiment among several key bishops in favor of the proposed norms. Auxiliary bishop of Detroit, Allen Vigneron, called the proposed norms a “solid mechanism” for preserving and augmenting the Catholic identity of our institutions of higher education. Bishop Alfred Hughes of Baton Rouge praised Cardinal Bevilacqua and his fellow committee members for focusing the document on the communion of structures within the Church.

Cardinal Hickey also commented on the reasonableness of requiring mandates for theologians. He recalled a parallel example from his own experience as a teacher for a seminary and explained that before he could begin his teaching post he had to obtain a certificate from the state of Michigan. He asked, then, why can't professors of theology obtain a mandate from the Church?

It is expected that the bishops' committee for implementing Ex Corde Ecclesiae will have a final draft ready to be approved by the bishops' conference at next November's meeting of the NCCB. In the meantime the committee will consider comments and suggestions from other bishops as well as from Catholic higher education officials.

For more information on the implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae contact the Cardinal Newman Society, 207 Park Ave. B-2, Falls Church, VA 22046; 703-536-9585 (phone); 703-532-3094 (fax): [email protected] (e-mail):

Mo Fung is Executive Director of the Cardinal Newman Society for the Preservation of Catholic Higher Education. He writes from Falls Church, Virginia.