Bishops to consider rule on control of Catholic colleges

Critics worry about effect on academic freedom

November 17, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The nation's Roman Catholic bishops, meeting here this week, will consider today a proposal to implement stricter supervision over U.S. Catholic colleges and universities -- a plan that critics say threatens the American tradition of academic freedom.

The proposal, which could come up for a vote this morning, would require university presidents to take an oath of fidelity to uphold Catholic tradition. It states that the majority of the faculty and the board of directors in Catholic colleges and universities should be members of the church "to the extent possible."

And in what has been the focus for the most criticism, Catholic theologians would have to obtain a "mandate" from their local bishop allowing them to teach. This would give the local bishop the power to determine who could teach theology in a Catholic university.

"I think theologians see [mandates] as a serious infringement of their academic freedom," said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, S.J., a longtime observer of the U.S. bishops and the editor of America magazine, a Jesuit weekly. "This is just contrary to the academic tradition in the university today."

The proposal's supporters say such concerns are overstated.

"What's anticipated is minimally intrusive," said Cardinal William H. Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore, who supports the proposal. "It's much less intrusive than what the NCAA demands of colleges who are members. It gives us a way of saying [theologians] are delivering the message that Jesus entrusted to the church."

But the proposal's critics, who include many university presidents and theologians, say it is an unwelcome intrusion.

"These norms don't respect the progress that Catholic institutions of higher learning have made in the past two decades in advancing academic quality, financial stability and Catholic identity," said the Rev. Paul Locatelli, S.J., president of Santa Clara University and chairman of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities.

"It really raises the question of the credibility of Catholic universities and could marginalize them."

The presidents of Maryland's Catholic colleges have met with Keeler and are optimistic.

"We've had very good conversations and discussions with Cardinal Keeler," said Mary Pat Seurkamp, president of Baltimore's College of Notre Dame. "I know the three presidents of the Catholic colleges here in Maryland feel very confident we can work out issues that remain."

The proposal involves the implementation of a 1990 Vatican document, "Ex Corde Ecclesiae," which Catholic higher education officials have described as positive and inspirational. In it, Pope John Paul II called on Catholic colleges and universities to strengthen their religious identity and resist growing secularization.

But the specifics on implementing the papal document were left to the national bishops' conferences. The U.S. bishops' first attempt to respond, drafted with the assistance of the university presidents, came in 1996 and called for trust and cooperation between the bishops and leaders of Catholic higher education. It was rejected by Vatican officials, who wanted more specifics.

This latest proposal was unveiled at last year's bishops meeting and has gone through some revision. For example, the document said at one point that a majority of a university's board of trustees and faculty should be Catholic. The latest draft backs off a bit from this requirement, adding the clause "to the extent possible."

"We hope that will make these norms more flexible," Bishop John Leibrecht of Springfield, Mo., chairman of the committee that drafted the document, told the bishops as the proposal was introduced Monday.

Locatelli said that if the norms are adopted, simply ignoring certain parts of them is an option.

"When all is said and done, the trustees [of a university] are going to have to decide which part of these norms, if any, they are going to accept," he said. "On the other side, the local bishop could declare you're no longer a Catholic institution. I don't know what the consequences of that would be."

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