Last Wednesday, America's Roman Catholic bishops voted to establish a set of controls over certain faculty and policies at Catholic colleges and universities. Many academics had opposed the measure as a threat to their independence. Outlook asked for the views of three Catholics who teach or study at Washington universities.
By Being More Catholic, We Broaden the Debate
PETER DALY, pastor of St. John Vianney Catholic Church in Prince Frederick, Md., is an adjunct professor of law at Catholic University of America and a columnist for Catholic News Service.
A few years ago, Catholic University Law School awarded an honorary degree to former Harvard law professor Harold Berman. During a question-and-answer period after the ceremony, Berman remarked that he and his colleagues often were disappointed when they held academic exchanges with Catholic universities. Instead of hearing the Catholic viewpoint on morally challenging issues of the day, from assisted suicide to modern warfare, they often heard the same opinions they got back in the Harvard faculty lounge. What American academia needs, he said, are worthy debating partners--not second-rate copies of Harvard.
Berman's comment reflects a significant truth: Catholic colleges and universities reduce their value to American culture by being anything but authentically and actively Catholic. In the intellectual chorus, somebody has to sing the church's part; not everybody can hum along with the Ivy League wannabes.
That's why I don't think that what the Catholic bishops did last week is such a bad thing, despite the sky-is-falling reception that has greeted it in most Catholic academic circles.
The bishops overwhelmingly adopted a document listing norms to implement a 1990 Vatican decree called "Ex Corde Ecclesiae," meaning "From the Heart of the Church." It is a long document that has taken years to complete and will take years more to put into practice. But, in essence, the bishops ordered each of the 235 colleges and universities in the United States that call themselves Catholic to do five things:
* Have a governing board made up mostly of committed Catholics.
* Have a Catholic president, and administrators who support the school's Catholic mission.
* Strive to hire Catholic faculty and make sure professors of any faith exhibit "respect for Catholic doctrine."
* Ensure that students will be exposed to authentic Catholic teaching and practice.
* Make any Catholic who teaches theology get a mandatum, a kind of license, from the local bishop.
The bishops are responding to a valid concern: that Catholic universities were becoming increasingly secular. This is partly a result of the need to chase federal and state funding, which often comes with conditions requiring religious neutrality.
It's also partly due to the secularization of American society over the past 30 years. Today the cultural elites are often either ignorant of or hostile to religion. Catholic schools often have sought the approval of those elites more than the approbation of their church.
At other religious-affiliated institutions, primarily Protestant ones, this kind of secularization has been going on for much longer--and often it is complete and irreversible. In no meaningful sense can it be said that Northwestern University, for example, is a Methodist school or that the University of Richmond is in any way a Baptist university, despite their roots.
This is happening--at a slower pace--at Catholic schools; the Vatican is not just making this up. " 'Ex Corde Ecclesiae,' after all, did not come out of nowhere," writes John Piderit, the Jesuit president of Loyola University. "It was designed to meet a situation that, in virtually everybody's opinion, needed remedying: the rapid and distressing decline of a strong religious presence at Catholic universities, and the simultaneous desire to foster a renewal of the Catholic intellectual presence in secular culture."
For many academics, the sticking point in the bishops' proposal is the mandatum, or mandate, that is required for Catholic theology faculty. This gives power to a local bishop to decide whether the person has the necessary training in Catholic doctrine, and to make sure he or she will not teach anything as doctrine that is contrary to church teachings.
Academics decry this as outside interference. But since when are universities free from outside interference?
Every university is regulated by federal and state laws, and all are bound by government contracts. Conditions are imposed by foundations and deep-pocket donors. Various accrediting agencies, professional associations and certification boards have their say in who can teach and what they can teach. University administrations come under pressure from tradition-minded alumni, tuition-paying parents and state legislators.
What makes the bishops more of an outside influence than all these groups? The bishops are not trying to run the schools or do the faculty hiring. Rather they are acting as a sort of certification agency for Catholics who want to teach Catholic theology at Catholic schools. Seems reasonable. Bishops, as Cardinal Francis George of Chicago pointed out in a speech at Georgetown, are not totally ignorant of what a university does. Virtually all have graduate degrees themselves.
There will be difficult cases, where bishops rule against professors and faithful Catholics disagree. There will have to be some sort of appeals process to resolve these disputes.
As the process of implementation continues, some schools may decide to sever their ties to the church and give up their Catholic identity. That would be regrettable, but perhaps the only way to get truth in labeling is to drop the adjective "Catholic."
Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre says that a tradition is "an institutionally embodied argument over time." The Catholic intellectual tradition is institutionally embodied in the church. If a school wants to be "Catholic," it will have to accept the institutional presence of the church--not as outside interference but as its reason for being.
Doctrine Isn't What Makes a School Great
MATTHEW NORTH is a senior at Georgetown University majoring in Spanish and government.
I am a practicing Roman Catholic, but I didn't pick Georgetown University because of religion. Nor did most students I know. Some say they didn't even know Georgetown had a religious affiliation until they got here. By and large, students choose Georgetown because of its stellar academic reputation, or its winning basketball teams, or because the president went here, not because it's the oldest Catholic university in the United States.
Still, the church is a significant presence: At last count, 57 percent of Georgetown's students were Catholic. The university president is a Jesuit, as are a fair number of prominent professors. Crucifixes hang on many classroom walls. The university's mission--to educate the whole person and to create men and women who serve others--is a Jesuit one.
So while Georgetown is definitely Catholic, it is also well-rounded. By not adhering dogmatically to the church's official line, it can offer students a wide range of views on every topic, a key part of a university's job.
This is basically why the document the American Catholic bishops approved last week worries me. I'm in my last year at Georgetown, so I won't be here when the document takes effect, but I care about this place enough to be concerned about how the bishops' proposal might change it.
Not everything the bishops have to say is worth getting upset about. In particular, the requirement that professors get a "mandate" from the local bishop before they can teach theology has been blown out of proportion. My reading is that the bishops don't want professors to tell students the church is saying something it's not. This is fine by me.
That said, I do worry about possible abuses when the mandate is wielded by the wrong bishop. It's easy to picture the rejection of professors who disagree with or criticize the church, therefore silencing constructive theological debate. On a related note, it's vaguely unnerving to learn that Georgetown, though it has always been technically responsible to the church, will now be accountable to the local bishop--who may or may not be qualified to make important decisions about an elite institution of higher learning.
What bothers me even more is the bishops' suggestion that the majority of a Catholic university's faculty members be Catholic. It is essential to have professors of every creed, even at a Catholic university, in order to be able to offer a truly diverse education. To suddenly say, "No, we're going to offer a primarily Catholic education," is in direct conflict with that goal.
Even worse, it suggests religious discrimination. Right now, Georgetown doesn't even know what percentage of its faculty members are Catholic, which is how things should be. To start establishing quotas and hiring professors on the basis of religion is obviously wrong. Faculty members should be hired on the basis of their academic qualifications.
The language of the bishops' proposal is relatively ambiguous--it suggests changes "to the extent possible," it talks about "opportunities to practice the faith" and "due regard for the principles of religious liberty." That very ambiguity also means that the bishops could decide, at some point, to severely tighten pastoral control. I like Georgetown as it is right now--Catholic and proud of it, but still open-minded. I sincerely hope the bishops' document is never used to make a Georgetown education a narrower one.
The Bishops Have Answered A Long-Standing Call
JOHN LANGAN, a Jesuit priest, is the Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Professor of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University.
Since World War II, the character of Catholic universities in the United States has changed. With funds from the GI Bill and the increased affluence of the Catholic community, they expanded--and many went on to achieve new levels of academic excellence and social influence. In the aftermath of Vatican II in 1965, they became more intellectually diverse. At the same time, the number of priests and sisters in the administration and on the faculty declined dramatically; philosophy and theology requirements diminished; and processions to Marian shrines yielded to demonstrations for human rights in Latin America.
Over the past 10 years, Catholic religious leaders and intellectuals, from Pope John Paul II on down, have been urging Catholic universities to take up the basic questions of identity and purpose that these changes raise. When the U.S. Catholic bishops approved a revised and tightened set of norms this past week, they were in effect offering an answer.
It remains unclear what impact these changes will have; some of the loose ends may be tied up within the next six months when they are taken to the Vatican bureaucracy for final approval. But the enforcement of the new norms falls to local bishops, some of whom might ask only for occasional discussions with university administrators; others could have a far more hands-on approach, possibly rejecting candidates for presidency, attempting to dismiss theologians or deny promotions. What might this mean for the protection of academic freedom in Catholic institutions and for recruiting faculty members in theology and other departments? It all leaves many administrators and faculty members understandably anxious.
The more immediate problem is whether such a high-risk policy is either necessary or effective. All the major parties in the current controversy want Catholic universities to renew and deepen their Catholic identity, to heighten their ability to achieve excellence in teaching and research, and to serve as centers of Catholic intellectual life. The crucial question is whether these goals are more likely to be attained by tightening ecclesiastical control over the universities, as the bishops have proposed, or through a strategy that relies on persuasive leadership to create a sense of shared goals.
In the culture of the contemporary American academy, which regards academic freedom as an absolute and which prizes diversity, there can be little doubt about which strategy is likely to be most effective. A central task for university leaders is to articulate goals for Catholic higher education that bring together traditional constituencies of support with a faculty that includes Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics and skeptics. One key element is the development of innovative programs that stimulate research and teaching on aspects of the Catholic tradition ranging from art history to social thought, from the study of the family to mysticism, from canon law to the Catholic literary imagination, from sacramental theology to bioethics. Such programs show the continuing life of the Catholic tradition and its ability to speak to people in widely different societies.
The point here is not that Catholicism has to conform to the contemporary American academy or that we should preach a gospel of deconstructivist multiculturalism, but that the academy provides the context within which the leaders and scholars of the Catholic academic tradition must do their work and find their opportunities for intellectual exchange and growth.