Catholic theologians await specifics of bishops' decision

Some will refuse to apply for church certification

November 19, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Roman Catholic theologians, facing the reality that they will soon have to ask their bishops for certification to ply their trade on college faculties, reacted yesterday with everything from enthusiastic acceptance to worry about the future to outright defiance.

But all agreed that they will have to wait for the nation's bishops to spell out the specifics of guidelines they adopted Wednesday to determine whether the theologians' academic freedom will be affected.

"It's unclear exactly what's going to be involved," said James Buckley, chairman of the theology department at Loyola College in Maryland. "A lot of [theologians'] concerns are very practical. For a lot of folks, it's not a matter of disagreeing in principle with having a relationship with the local church. It's a question of how that's going to work out."

The new guidelines, which implement the 1990 papal document "Ex Corde Ecclesiae," are meant to strengthen the religious identity of the nation's Catholic colleges and universities. They include a requirement that theologians at Catholic institutions must seek a "mandatum" from their local bishop, a kind of certification that their teaching is in line with Catholic tradition. The requirement will not apply to Catholic theologians teaching at secular universities, or to non-Catholic theologians at Catholic institutions. A few theologians contacted yesterday said they would refuse to apply for the mandatum.

The bishops, who approved the guidelines by an overwhelming margin, said that once the document is approved by the Vatican, they will work out the specifics of how the mandatum is granted, and presumably how it could be withdrawn or refused to theologians whose work is considered unorthodox.

"It's a source of embarrassment," said the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. "There's already a considerable body of opinion in the wider academic body in the United States that theology is not really a legitimate academic discipline because it's faith-based. This will simply put in the hands of critics a hammer, or a more dramatic reason to be dismissive of Catholic institutions of higher learning "

McBrien said he does not intend to apply for a mandatum.

"Absolutely not. Oh, no. It's a matter of principle," he said.

His colleague, Lawrence Cunningham, chairman of Notre Dame's theology department, agreed.

"I've been here for 12 years at Notre Dame. I'm a fully tenured full professor in the department of theology. I don't know why I should be required to ask for a mandatum," he said.

Buckley said he sees no problem with the mandatum requirement.

"I don't see this as interfering with academic freedom," he said. "I don't think this necessarily has a chilling effect on theology any more than if whoever accredits the school of engineering or the school of education started putting demands on the school of engineering or the school of education."

"The great irony of this is the last place you need to worry about the lack of Catholic identity is in the theology department," said Cunningham of Notre Dame. "You ought to be looking at departments or schools outside of theology, where the presence of Catholicism is minuscule."

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