American Catholic educators are deeply worried that their efforts to achieve academic excellence in Catholic colleges and universities in the United States will be undone by the Vatican's new code of canon law, which will give local bishops unprecedented control over professors of theology and related fields.

Under the new code, expected to be promulgated late this year, such professor must pass muster from their bishops on the orthodoxy of their religious beliefs before adminsitrators of college and universities may consider their qualifications as schoalrs and teachers. Such a requirement is considered a clear violation of the cherished principles of academic freedom, which has come to be almost the litmus test of academic legitimacy for American colleges and universities.

"American Catholic higher education has struggled for a great many years to achieve academic respectability," said one college president who attended the recent annual meeting here of the Assoiation of Catholic Colleges and Universities, where the new code was a focus of concern. "The preception (buy the wider scholarly community that we are no longer independent as an academic enterprise will set us back decades," he said.

The code of canon law is the set of 2,414 regulations governing the Roman Catholic church worldwide in areas as different as the proper garb for a preist celebrating mass to rules governing divorce for the faithful. Although updated periodically throughout the church's history, the present version has been in effect since 1918.Revisions of the present code have been under way for nearly a decade.

"Under the new code, the Vatican would have to approve the promotion from assistant professor to full professor [of thoeolofy]," the Rev. Richard McBrien, head of the theology department at the University of Notre Dame, told his fellow Catholic educators.

The Vatican or a local bishop could also require the firing of a teacher -- even a tenured professor -- with whose interpretation of theology they disagreed. Such an action "should only be done, if it is ever done, within the bylaw of the institution where he is employed and ultimately on the recommendationof the board of trustees," said the Rev. Frederick McMan us, vice provost of Catholic University and chairman of the Catholic colleges' association.

Canon 64, probably the most bitterly resented section of the new code as it applies to academic institutions, requires that anyone who "teaches theology or courses related to theology" in a Catholic college must have a "canonical mission" -- a formal certification of his or her orthodoxy from the local bishop.

The requirement has an immense potential for bringing academic and eccleiastical chaos. Far from the popular preconceptions of them as arcane debates, theologians today are wrestling with very rearl and human issues, including such questions as birth control, marriage and divorce, homosexuality, and difficult ethical issues concerning the beginning and ending of human life. Often their conclusions do not coincide with official church doctrine.

One of the sharpest controversies in recent church history was touched off 15 years ago when substantial numbers of the leading Catholic theologians in this country disagreed publicly with Pope Paul VI's condemnation of artificial birth control. Even the Catholic Theological Society of America has formally differed with the Vatican -- most recently on the question of ordaining women to the priesthood.

Bishops themselves differ on theology -- what is heresy to one bishop would be freedom of inquiry to the prelate in the next diocese. Even today, some conservative bishops in this country maintain a theologians' blacklist that bars some of the more progressive theologians -- the Rev. Charles Curran of Catholic University is probably the most notable -- from speaking from Catholic platforms within their dioceses.

The concept of such certification, said the Rev. James Coriden, interim president of the Washington Theological Union and a canon lawyer, is "a borrowing from the German Concordat [church/state agreement] that permitted them to get Hans Kung." By revoking certification of the controversial theologian last year, German bishops forced Kung off the Catholic faculty of the University of Tuebingen.

Catholic educators say that such an action against a tenured professor in this country would probably result in court suits, and that the denial of promotions or appointments on the grounds of orthodoxy of belief could lead to legal disputes over religious discrimination.

Last summer, two of the most respected figures in America Catholic higher education, the Rev. Timothy Healy of Georgetown and the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh of Notre Dame, made a strong appeal at the International Federation of Catholic Universities meeting in Belgium for modification of the new canons. But the draft of the revised code currently being circulated reflects no changes.

Now a joint committee of six college presidents and six American bishops is planning to go to the Vatican for a last-ditch appeal for modifications of the troublesome provisions.

The portions of the code that apply to education will be administered for the church worldwide by Cardinal William W. Baum, who left the Washington archdiocese last year to head the Vatican's Congregation for Education. Baum is widely perceived to be moving toward the conservative part of the theological spectrum.

Notre Dame's McBrien urged Catholic educators to "keep up the dialogue [with Rome] and don't too easily yield." The Notre Dame professor, who ranks as one of the top half dozen Catholic theologians in this country, added, "It isn't the mark of Catholic loyalty just to day: 'That's the law. We must obey it.'"

McBrien contended that the canon making bishops the keepers of orthodoxy in academe was out of step with the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. "Even if the code is promulgated with [the canonical mission requirement] still in it, the returns will still not all be in," he said, because it remains to be seen how it wil be received by committed faithful Catholics. If people who are committed, faithful and dedicated Catholics, perceive that it just won't work, then it cannot be effective."