Catholic educators debate closer ties with church

Colleges and bishops study implementation of Vatican document

April 21, 1999|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Two Latin words -- ex corde -- are getting a lot of attention on the campuses of Catholic colleges and universities these days.

They are the first two words of a nearly decade-old church document issued by the Vatican dealing with the relationship between these institutions and the church.

A proposal to turn the abstract ideas of that document into concrete policy has many college leaders concerned.

"I think it would turn what has been a moral relationship into a legal relationship," said the Rev. Harold E. Ridley, president of Loyola College. "In a moral relationship, the two parties are concerned with what can be done to enhance one another. In a legal relationship, they are usually concerned only with what has to be done."

The issue dates to a 1990 document issued by Pope John Paul II -- "Ex Corde Ecclesiae," "from the heart of the church." Reacting to what many in the Roman Catholic Church see as a growing secularization of Catholic schools, the document called for closer ties between the church and the educational institutions that bear its User.Event 7 was not expected here! name. It left implementation up to local bishops.

A 1995 proposal by the American bishops was rejected by the Vatican, which asked for a more "juridical" document. A new proposal by a committee of canon lawyers was presented in November. College officials are to give their reaction by May 1. A response from the bishops is not expected until November, at the earliest.

`A good document'

"By and large, it is a good document," said the Rev. James J. Conn, who teaches canon law and is dean of the faculty at St. Mary's Seminary. "It is a response to the concerns of the Holy See in a way that is respectful of the situation in American higher education. It says a good deal about the dimensions that a Catholic college must include."

Ridley disagrees. "There are elements of that document that we would just not implement at Loyola," he said.

Of particular concern are provisions that would require the majority of faculty, the board of trustees and the president of the college to be "faithful Catholics," and calling for church approval for theology faculty.

"This would taint every hiring and tenure decision that we make," Ridley said of the requirement for a Catholic faculty majority.

"I'm very concerned about it," said Stephen Vicchio, who teaches philosophy at the College of Notre Dame. "Lots of the top scholarship on Catholic issues is done these days by faculty members who are not Catholic.

"Yet the church wants you to have some kind of membership card, like it's a union shop," said Vicchio, who is Catholic. "It's a strange idea."

James Buckley, chairman of the theology department at Loyola, said that of its 10 full-time members, six are Catholic and four are not. He said that teaching theology outside of Catholic beliefs is an important part of the department's mission.

"But I do not think there is anything wrong with us expecting people to be familiar with the traditions, history, thought and practices of the Catholic church," Buckley said. "If I taught at a Jewish school, I think I would be expected to be familiar with the Jewish tradition, just as I would expect that institution to respect my Catholic beliefs."

Notre Dame President Mary Pat Seurkamp was not as alarmed as some. "I think it calls for us all to engage in a discussion of what it means to be a Catholic college," she said. It is an issue that all institutions with religious affiliations are grappling with, she noted.

"I understand some of the concerns expressed, but I trust that in dealing with the bishops we will be able to come up with a document that will work for them and work for the colleges," Seurkamp said.

Charles L. Currie, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, was also optimistic.

"It's unfortunate that the emphasis on this issue has been on a conflict between the bishops and the college presidents," Currie said. "Actually, that relationship in this country has in general been good and we expect that to continue as they engage in a dialogue about this."

But he said the current document is seriously flawed.

`A great tradition'

"Generally, the idea of imposing juridical statutes is an anathema to institutions that don't feel that will work in the American higher education scene, which has a great tradition of institutional autonomy and academic freedom," Currie said.

He described the requirement that a college president and a majority of the faculty and board be faithful Catholics as "an awkward * Air exceeds 15% of leg depth. Distributing 85.5 points of excess space through leg.

I can't vertically justify this block way of trying to maintain the Catholic identify of institutions."

Currie also raised the possibility that the requirements could endanger government aid to Catholic colleges if the schools were judged to be "pervasively sectarian," the legal standard that prohibits such aid.

Loyola's Buckley said that the ultimate impact of whatever document finally emerges will be in its implementation.

"I don't want to under-emphasize the importance of the legalities of the document, but it will be up to individual bishops as to what they do with this," he said. "Maybe if I was teaching at a small school in an isolated area, I would be more worried. In a place like this, it might not be as much of a problem."

Ridley said he has met with Cardinal William H. Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore, on the matter. "I expressed my concerns and he was responsive," Ridley said, adding that he has also written a letter spelling out his position.

"I just hope that this document is not imposed in its current form because it will cause many of us to make decisions that we hope we will never have to make," Ridley said.

Pub Date: 4/21/99

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