The Vatican has barred the theology faculty of the University of Fribourg in Switzerland from granting an honorary degree this week to the Roman Catholic archbishop of Milwaukee, Rembert G. Weakland, asserting that his statements on abortion had caused "a great deal of confusion among the faithful."
The Vatican's action provoked a bitter protest by members of the university's Catholic theological faculty, who voted on Oct. 24 not to grant any of the five honorary doctorates that were to be conferred Thursday.
It also raised questions about the influence of anti-abortion groups at the Vatican and about Rome's interpretation of a recent papal document on Catholic universities that affirmed academic freedom.
Two faculty officials at the Swiss university called Rome's action "highly unfortunate and unacceptable" and "a manner of treating people" that "offends all human dignity."
Although the University of Fribourg is a state institution, its Catholic theology faculty has a special affiliation with the Vatican and is subject to Vatican oversight.
The relationship is much like that governing the theology department at Catholic University in Washington or the Catholic theology departments in many public German universities.
Last spring, Archbishop Weakland held hearings with women in the Milwaukee archdiocese to gather their views on abortion.
In a report on the sessions, he upheld the Catholic teaching that abortion is immoral but warned that the anti-abortion movement was driving away potential supporters, including Catholics, who viewed it as narrow and aggressive and some of its rhetoric as "ugly and demeaning."
The 63-year-old archbishop, who led the worldwide order of Benedictine monks before being named to his Milwaukee post in 1977, added that his hearings had revealed "how far the gap is between the official teaching" of the church prohibiting use of birth control and the views of "some very conscientious women."
He also stated that moral principles could not be a matter of law unless they enjoyed "a consensus of the population," and that politicians trying to face the abortion issue with a respect for life should be given "as much latitude as reason permits."
Archbishop Weakland's views were sharply condemned by many in the anti-abortion movement as a betrayal of their cause.