A nationally respected theologian endorsed by the faculty of Catholic University's School of Religious Studies to become its dean has been forced to withdraw from consideration because Archbishop James A. Hickey was "uncomfortable" with some of his views.
The archbishop's veto of the Rev. John P. Boyle, who heads the University of Iowa School of Religion but took an unorthodox position on the issue of sterilization in a book published eight years ago, comes at a time of growing pressure from the Vatican to restrict dissent within the U.S. church.
In addition, the rejection of a qualified scholar for reasons that have nothing to do with academic competence has again raised questions of academic freedom that have dogged the Catholic school for decades.
The faculty of the School of Religious Studies had endorsed Boyle, who also had the support of the university's president, the Rev. William J. Byron, by an almost unanimous vote last month, and were waiting confidently for the formal announcement of his appointment.
Instead they received a letter from the administration last week saying that Boyle, widely characterized as a theological moderate, had withdrawn his application because Hickey, who is chancellor of the university as well as archbishop of Washington, had declined to give the necessary permission.
Boyle, who is spending a sabbatical year at CU on theological research, declined to comment.
Byron said that Boyle withdrew "because the archbishop had a difference of opinion with him over the merits of some things he had written." Byron said that Hickey had indicated "he would be very uncomfortable with him Boyle as a theologian, so we should look for another theologian."
The Rev. William Lori, secretary to Hickey, added that the archbishop "found Father Boyle to be cooperative and talented," but that the theologian had taken "a position" in a book published eight years ago that Hickey "didn't think was quite what the bishops taught."
In Boyle's 1977 book "The Sterilization Controversy: A New Crisis for Catholic Hospitals," Boyle argued that dissent from the church's ban on sterilization could be justified under certain circumstances.
Faculty members at the School of Religious Studies, long an ecclesiastical mine field, expressed shock and anger over the rejection of Boyle. But they were unwilling to comment publicly about it.
"It's terrible, just terrible, because the guy is really a moderate. That's the vicious thing," said one faculty member, who asked not to be identified. "It's such an insult to the whole theological faculty."
Under a 1979 Vatican edict, teachers of theology, canon law and related subjects at any pontifical university -- of which CU is one -- must have a mondatum docendi, or special license, from the bishop in whose diocese the school is located.
The controversy over the CU dean is of special concern to Catholic academics because the church's new code of canon law extends the licensing requirement to all who teach "theological subjects" in any Catholic institution of higher education.
The Boyle affair is similar to an incident in 1969, when the Rev. Roland Murphy, a noted Biblical scholar, was the faculty's choice for dean but was vetoed by the board of trustees, which includes a sizable number of bishops, because Murphy had dissented from the papal encyclical on birth control.
After that incident, the School of Religious Studies was criticized by the accrediting agency for theological schools for "excessive ecclesiastical control." Some CU faculty members said they are apprehensive about the results of a visit from representatives of that agency next month. The visit was scheduled before the present contretemps arose.
Byron said that the university will resume its search for a candidate to succeed the Rev. Carl Peter, who wants to go back to full-time teaching when his term as dean expires in August. The next time, Byron said, he will seek clearance from Hickey before consulting the faculty.
"We made a mistake on the sequence" of actions, Byron said.