Bishops approve college policy

Catholic theologians fear loss of freedom under new guidelines

Vatican prompted action

November 18, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The nation's Roman Catholic bishops overwhelmingly approved yesterday guidelines that strengthen their supervision of Catholic colleges and universities in their dioceses, despite concerns of college presidents and theologians about infringement on academic freedom.

The document, which seeks to strengthen the religious identity of the nation's approximately 240 Catholic colleges and universities, was passed by a vote of 223 to 31, with one abstention, after an hour-long debate. To win passage, it required the approval of two-thirds of the 283 bishops eligible to vote.

The bishops' action was taken in response to concerns that the schools are losing sight of their religious mission, as theology professors have become more liberal and as faculties and student bodies are increasingly non-Catholic. The issue was prominently raised two years ago at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., when students complained that few classrooms had crucifixes, and Cardinal James Hickey, archbishop of Washington, took up the cause.

The document passed yesterday, which will go into effect a year after its approval by the Vatican, is based on Pope John Paul's 1990 apostolic letter on higher education, "Ex Corde Ecclesiae." In that letter, John Paul called for a stronger Catholic identity in the church's colleges and universities but left the specifics to the national bishops' conferences.

The U.S. bishops first responded in 1996, when they called for trust and cooperation between the bishops and leaders of Catholic higher education. Vatican officials rejected the effort as vague.

Among the most troubling aspects of the new guidelines to Catholic college administrators was language urging that the majority of a college's board of trustees and faculty be members of the Catholic church, "to the extent possible."

Also, the guidelines will implement a provision from the 1983 Code of Canon Law, the law of the church, which requires theologians to seek permission from local bishops, called a "mandatum," to teach in Catholic colleges.

"I have tremendous unrest in my heart," said Bishop Rembert Weakland, archbishop of Milwaukee, one of two bishops who rose to express reservations about the guidelines. "I am very uneasy about it. I believe passing this document will create a pastoral disaster for the church in the United States. I feel it is not the right moment."

Weakland said he was particularly fearful of witch hunts against theologians, who are "not just afraid of being at the whims of individual bishops, but also the object of vigilante groups."

Most bishops expressed no such fears.

"I think those who fear [that] this document will be implemented with a heavy hand will be very pleased at how it's nuanced," said Auxiliary Bishop Edward K. Braxton of St. Louis. Those who might want to use the document as a weapon against theologians "will be disappointed," he said.

Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, urged passage of the document, saying that the bishops should be seen as collaborators with those who work in Catholic higher education.

"I would say to the presidents of Catholic colleges and universities: You have nothing to fear from the bishops, your pastors and friends," Mahony said. "You have nothing to fear from the church. You have nothing to fear from the implementation of `Ex Corde Ecclesiae.' "

In a news conference after the vote, Bishop John Leibrecht of Springfield, Mo., who chaired the committee that wrote the guidelines, said that though bishops have the power to grant or withhold mandatums, "the bishops do not make decisions on employing teachers or dismissing teachers. It's up to the university to decide what, if any, action should be taken."

Cardinal William H. Keeler of the Baltimore archdiocese and the presidents of Maryland's three Catholic colleges -- the Rev. Harold Ridley, S. J., of Loyola College in Maryland, Mary Pat Seurkamp of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland and George Houston of Mount St. Mary's College -- released a statement yesterday pledging to continue dialogue on the new guidelines.

"Conversations have been ongoing among Cardinal Keeler and the three college presidents during the past year, and we are confident that they will continue as we work collaboratively to implement the guidelines of the document," they said.

Officials from the Cardinal Newman Society, which represents conservative Catholic educators, praised the bishops' action.

"The real winners are the parents and students who can now expect Catholic colleges and universities to be what they claim," said Patrick J. Reilly, executive director of the Falls Church, Va.-based society. "Finally, they can look to our bishops, our spiritual leaders, to guide them toward colleges and universities that embrace the unity of faith and reason."

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