Teaching With The Church? Gonzaga Won't Say


SPOKANE, Wash. — When Gonzaga University alumna Cathy Rhodes of Portland, Ore., received an appeal for the school's annual fund in the mail, she thought it was within her rights to inquire whether all religion and theology professors at the school had received the mandatum from Bishop William Skylstad, who also serves as the vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholics Bishops.

She wasn't satisfied with the response.

First, Rhodes received a letter from Dori Sonntag, assistant director for annual giving, stating that “the granting of the mandatum is a private granting and approval between the local bishop and the individual Roman Catholic theologian. This information is not intended or required for the public forum in any way, or to be published by the local diocese or to be communicated to the president of the Catholic university.”

“There is no required statement by the local bishop or the Catholic university to indicate that the faculty of the theology department has or does not have the mandatum,” the letter went on to say.

Nearly a year later, Rhodes received a separate letter from the university's president, Father Robert Spitzer.

“The mandatum requirements have generated a great deal of uncertainty and confusion throughout the nation,” Father Spitzer wrote. “Please be advised that the mandatum is a personal and confidential matter between Bishop William Skylstad and Gonzaga faculty members who teach Catholic theology. However, I can assure you that there is definitely no problem concerning the mandatum here at the university.”

Rhodes didn't think either letter was very forthcoming. As a result, she and her husband, Rich Wallace, withheld their financial donation to the university this year. Rhodes said she also doubts she wants to send her children to her alma mater.

“My son is interested in looking at the school,” Rhodes said, “but for us to make such a commitment we would have to know the religious studies faculty have received their mandatums.”

A Jesuit institution, Gonzaga University is ranked fourth among master's universities in the West by U.S. News & World Report's America's Best Colleges 2004.

The Register is investigating Catholic colleges and universities featured in U.S. News & World Report's college guide, asking: Are parents and students allowed to know whether those who teach theology intend to teach in communion with the Church? Or is secrecy about the canon-law mandatum being used to protect dissenters?

Parents' Rights

During his meeting with U.S. cardinals in 2002, Pope John Paul II said parents “must know that bishops and priests are totally committed to the fullness of Catholic truth on matters of sexual morality, a truth as essential to the renewal of the priesthood and the episcopate as it is to the renewal of marriage and family life.”

Since 1983, canon law has required that a theologian teaching in a Catholic university receive a mandatum from the local bishop. The mandatum is the bishop's recognition of the theologian's intention to teach in full communion with the magisterium of the Church. The requirement was highlighted in a footnote in Pope John Paul II's 1990 apostolic constitution on higher education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church).

“According to Canon 212, all of the faithful have a right to have the truth taught to them,” said Philip Gray, a canon law consulter from Hopedale, Ohio. “Because there is an obligation for us to be obedient to the truth, there is a corresponding right that the truth will be taught to us or we're not free to make that decision to follow the truth.” Gray added that Canon 217 is even more explicit regarding that right.

Gray opined that keeping the mandatum secret is not only against the rights of parents and students but also is against the thrust of Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

“Keeping the mandatum secret does derogate from the purpose of Ex Corde Ecclesiae,“ he said. ”How are the faithful going to be aware that someone who is teaching the sacred sciences is going to be faithful to the teachings of the Church if they aren't going to publish who has the mandatum?”

“Furthermore, what is the use of the mandatum if people aren't going to be aware who has received one?” asked Gray, who holds a mandatum from Steubenville, Ohio, Bishop Daniel Conlon. “I am very proud of mine.”

Not all bishops, however, are keeping the mandatum secret.

Chicago Cardinal Francis George; Omaha, Neb., Archbishop Elden Curtiss; Steubenville Bishop Conlon; Kansas City, Kan., Archbishop James Patrick Keleher; and Allentown, Pa., Bishop Edward Cullen have publicly stated that the mandatum is not a private matter.

“The mandatum is a public reality,” Cardinal George told the Register last year. “It's a personal act, but personal acts are sometimes public — like receiving the sacraments.”

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, stated in his 1990 instruction on the ecclesial vocation of the theologian that “the theologian who is not disposed to think with the Church (sentire cum Ecclesia) contradicts the commitment he freely and knowingly accepted to teach in the name of the Church.”

Nor did Father Michael Miller, while president of the University of St. Thomas in Houston, keep the mandatum secret. Instead, the school publicized it and made it a requirement for hiring new theology faculty. Father Miller, now an archbishop, serves as secretary for the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education.

Past Deadline

The Vatican-approved application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae in the United States set the deadline for bishops to require the mandatum by June 1, 2002. At this stage, one year and nine months later, some bishops have yet to require the mandatum or even to grant it where theology professors have voluntarily requested it.

The application of Ex Corde Ecclesiae to the United States won't come up for review by the conference until May 2006, five years after the norms implementing Ex Corde Ecclesiae went into effect. In the meantime, there has been no mechanism for accountability, nor is there a review board to monitor bishops' compliance.

At Gonzaga, few seem willing to say who has the mandatum.

“The implementation has come from the bishop to the individual faculty member,” said Dr. Ron Large, chair of the religious studies department.

Asked how students or parents could determine who has the man-datum, Large said, “They could ask individual faculty. Whether they would tell them, I don't know.”

Bishop Skylstad did not return repeated calls inquiring about the mandatum. Deacon Eric Meisfjord, who serves as the diocesan director of communications, forwarded an e-mail inquiry to the bishop that also went unanswered.

According to Gonzaga University director of public relations Dale Goodwin, university president Father Spitzer has not issued any public comments regarding the mandatum.

The mandatum takes on special significance at Gonzaga since the school also trains deacons for the dioceses of Spokane; Boise, Idaho; and Portland, Ore., and seminarians from Spokane; Yakima, Wash.; and San Francisco.

“I like the concept of the mandatum,” said Father Darrin Connall, rector of Bishop White Seminary at Gonzaga, “but I don't see how it has any teeth to it. It seems a whole lot of energy is being put into a process that I'm not sure what the fruit of it is.”

“My sense is that professors, because this has been so politicized and so much animosity has been raised about it — whether they have it or not, they're going to keep quiet about it,” he said.

Father Connall's approach has been to build relationships with individual professors.

“I have found professors in philosophy and theology who have been sensitive to the needs of the seminary,” Father Connall said.

Whereas Father Connall has the ability, because of seminarian feedback, to identify such professors and orient future students, the ordinary student is unable to find such information out until it's too late.

Campus Debate

That lack of clarity regarding the mandatum led to a heated debate between university students and religious studies faculty on campus last fall that played itself out in the university's newspaper, The Gonzaga Bulletin.

One of the students, junior religious studies major Mike Liliedahl of Juneau, Alaska, wrote in the Bulletin that he had been sadly disappointed in his studies at Gonzaga.

“I was frustrated with professors not teaching authentic magisterial teachings in class,” Liliedahl told the Register.

Citing one example, Liliedahl explained how a religious studies professor taught that “the Church's view on homosexuality and reserving marriage for a man and a woman was outdated, needed to be changed and was a product of fourth-century Augustinian thought that has been disproved.”

Liliedahl said it's been impossible to know which professors have received the mandatum.

“None have let us know,” he said, “and those whom we have asked have said they don't have to disclose that to students.”

Liliedahl isn't alone in his concerns. Fellow junior J. Kevin Cary also wrote in the Bulletin of a required text in his New Testament course — a book titled Reading the Bible Again for the First Time by Marcus Borg.

“Borg denies the possibility of the miracles Jesus performed on the basis that none of them has yet to be reproduced by someone else in the course of human history,” Cary wrote. “The Resurrection was even denied as being true. I was appalled that the miracles, especially the greatest miracle of all, the Resurrection, would be degraded, mocked and disregarded as impossible at a Christian, let alone a Catholic, university.”

Religious studies 2003 graduate Nathan Macklin said he graduated without a solid core of Catholic theology.

“I felt I wasn't guaranteed walking away with a certain level of knowledge of Catholic doctrine and history of that doctrine,” said Macklin, who is now pursuing a master's degree in public policy at the University of Chicago. “That seems like common sense to me.”

Too Late?

Jesuit superior general Father Peter Hans Kolvenbach was once quoted by Father Richard John Neuhaus as saying, “For some [Jesuit] universities, it is probably too late to restore their Catholic character.”

Some students and graduates hope it's not too late for Gonzaga.

“Teaching theology is a public matter that is vitally important to the Church and to students,” said 2003 philosophy graduate Tom Harmon. “Several of my friends were told the mandatum wasn't their business.”

In response, Harmon said students who wanted faithful teaching chose their professors very carefully.

“We took our religious studies classes from Protestants,” Harmon said, “who hold a view of Scripture as divinely inspired and alive, rather than from Catholics.”

Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.

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